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Living the (College) Life

Connecting with today’s fan on every level is key to licensed merchandise sales

By Michael J. Pallerino, Contributing Writer
August 15, 2016

363x277College-Colors-Day_Hibbett-store_Auburn-and-AlabamaJan. 11, 2016. That day may forever be known as the mother of all College Football Playoff National Championship games. Some called it a defining moment in University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s run at being remembered as one of the greatest college football coaches of all time. With a Crimson Tide team built around power and speed, Saban’s latest incarnation of Alabama football royalty needed every ounce of grit to outlast a hungry Clemson Tigers team.

While the 45-40 shootout included myriad memories (the Tide’s onside kick with 10:34 left in the fourth quarter that changed the momentum, anybody?), there was something that stood out more than most: the fans. Thousands upon thousands of them adorned en masse in a sea of Crimson red and Clemson orange. Caps. T-shirts. Sweatshirts. Jackets. Towels. Flags. You name it, and it was there. For one spectacular night, the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., served as the national championship of licensed-product displays.

This much we know about today’s licensed product game: While on-field success can help influence sales, loyal fans still are all the rage. Today — more than ever — collegiate-licensed products are a lifestyle, which means emotionally connected fans will grab hold of anything and everything to show their love and support for their favorite schools and teams.

The numbers support this belief. For example, according to the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association’s (LIMA) Annual Global Licensing Study, retail sales for products bearing the trademarked names and likenesses of major collegiate and professional teams, cartoon characters, corporate logos and brands totaled an estimated $13.4 billion in royalty revenues and $241.5 billion in retail sales in 2014. Moreover, that figure included $4.6 billion in the collegiate category. The study quantified worldwide royalty rates and accompanying retail sales.

One of the keys to these numbers is connecting the dots between the institutions, vendors and retailers. For example, the Collegiate Licensing Company’s (CLC) extensive relationships with both national and regional retailers enables it to engage in constant conversations — relationships that result in marketing initiatives that meet the needs of both the retailer and the institution.

CLC starts the planning process based on key consumer research obtained through its WME|IMG Global Insights group or proprietary sales data, which helps identify opportunities in the marketplace. “The planning process is a collaborative effort among retailers, participating licensees and our collegiate partner institutions to ensure we are maximizing assets, resources and exposure for college brands,” says Cory Moss, senior vice president and managing director of CLC — an IMG Company.

Many of CLC’s national marketing platforms are funded in part by the collegiate institutions that participate in its National Collegiate Marketing Fund. The institutions that serve on the Marketing Fund Steering Committee are highly engaged in reviewing and approving strategy and plans. While the CLC team provides retail opportunities, relationships, strategy, planning, creative resources and the bulk of the execution, its partner institutions have ultimate approval anytime their brands are used to market collegiate merchandise.

This year, CLC has worked on a number of initiatives to help spur interest at retail, including marketing programs with national outlets such as Costco, Fanatics, Kohl’s, Meijer, Paradies, Rally House, Scheels All Sports, Target and Wal-Mart, among others. Programs such as its Father’s Day program at Costco helped leverage key buying times for college merchandise. It also significantly ramped up existing national marketing platforms such as College Colors Day, Holiday Cheer Section and Rock Your Colors.

“Unlike other leagues or entertainment brands, collegiate licensed merchandise offers a year-round conversation with consumers,” Moss says. “From back-to-school and football, through holiday, to basketball season, baseball season and then graduation, each season provides an opportunity to connect with consumers and leverage their extreme passion for their favorite schools.”

At Learfield Licensing Partners, the key is to find the right licensee whose product and design supports the brands of its universities, as well as who will work hand-in-hand with a retailer to help tell those universities’ stories.

“We develop many local, regional and national initiatives that can be implemented at retail, but first we work very closely with our schools to make sure their brand is represented the way they want to be seen in the market,” says Lisa Tomlinson, Learfield’s vice president of corporate branding and strategic alliances. “Then, we work with our licensee and retail partners to determine what the right strategy to implement these programs is.”

The Omnichannel Approach
Like many marketing campaigns today, CLC and Learfield know that retail-marketing initiatives — whether on the national or local level — help brands tell their stories. In addition to driving sales and revenue back to colleges and universities, these marketing platforms provide an opportunity to engage consumers and connect them to their favorite institutions.

“[We] have been extremely proactive in working with retailers at all levels — national, regional, and campus/local — to develop promotional platforms and initiatives to raise the visibility and increase sales of collegiate-licensed merchandise,” CLC’s Moss says.

To reach its diverse consumer base, Learfield also leverages multiple platforms in its campaigns and initiatives. Because there is no single platform that will reach everyone and garner desired consumer actions, Learfield focuses on consumer-centric marketing by ensuring it has consistent messaging tailored for each platform.

“All these efforts then have to match the brand experience at the point in which the consumer purchases, whether in-store or online,” Tomlinson says. “We measure engagement and success through a number of key performance indicators, whether it be in social [media], digital, in-store, mobile and other platforms. Engagement online is largely interaction focused with clicks, social shares, time spent, referrals and sales. In-store, besides direct sales, can involve everything from coupon redemption to store traffic.”

Part of the process to connect with today’s consumer involves dedicated retail development and brand marketing teams whose sole purpose is to develop retail relationships and marketing platforms to promote the sale of collegiate-licensed merchandise.

CLC’s strategic omnichannel marketing campaign — guided by consumer research, sales trend data, and knowledge of the goals of both the retailer and its partner institutions — continues to connect consumers to college brands.

“The ultimate measure of success for any marketing initiative is increased sales, but increased brand exposure and consumer connections are also goals of our marketing programs,” Moss says. “We measure increased sales and buyer preference through our constant discussions and feedback from retailers, as well as our industry-leading sales and royalty-reporting systems.”

Through its extensive digital resources and WME|IMG expertise, CLC also employs social listening and measurement tools to quantify click-throughs, shares, uploads, posts, etc., depending on the media it employs in its marketing programs.

“We utilize consumer and market research to help our partner institutions understand who their consumers are,” Moss says. “We then work with our partner institutions to develop customized licensing strategies unique to their brand, pairing them with best-in-class licensing partners by product category and retail channel. Next, we work with our partner institutions to tell their brand stories to connect with consumers in a way to influence their path to purchase. We also employ data at every phase to ensure we are delivering results so that we can continually refine and improve our strategies.”

Telling a Story
Because it is critically important to engage consumers where they shop and spend their time to influence their paths to purchase, storytelling continues to be a strategy that works.

“As consumer buying habits have changed, so has our approach to marketing programs and how we assist our collegiate partner institutions,” Moss says. “While our research and data indicates brick-and-mortar is still the dominant source for collegiate-licensed product sales, we know that a large percentage of consumers are researching product, looking for inspiration, making brand connections and purchasing product online.”

As part of the process, digital and social are key components to every strategy CLC develops. In fact, it tests every program on a mobile platform first, knowing that if it works there, it can work everywhere else. “Shoppers increasingly want to have a complete experience with a brand,” Moss says. “So we are also building more experiential and ‘surprise-and-delight’ tactics into our marketing programs to create a ‘wow’ factor that captures their attention and their passion for the college brand.”

Learfield stays in close contact with local, regional and national retailers, educating them about the potential of its partner institutions and sharing market trends. A few of its ongoing and upcoming programs include The Custom Outdoor Program with the National Forest Foundation, country music star Cole Swindell and Georgia Southern line of products. It also is emphasizing its Stephen Curry Davidson product line, as well as the PINK line, which is supported by the Game-on Weekend program.

“The best retail initiatives are supportive of a school’s brand and reinforces in the eyes of the consumer the positive image they have of the institution,” Tomlinson says. “This can bring value to the institution through increased product sales and by strengthening the brand image of the institution.”

Michael J. Pallerino is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Michael at mpallerino@gmail.com.