Getting into the Game

Wilton Armetale offers cookware and serveware in a growing roster of college emblems or logos. armetale.com

Wilton Armetale offers cookware and serveware in a growing roster of college emblems or logos. armetale.com

By Allison Zisko

When it comes to consumer loyalty, there may be no stronger connection than to one’s alma mater, which is why some tabletop companies are finding collegiate licensing to be a worthwhile effort.

Collegiate licensing appears most successful in just a few product categories, such as drinkware and serveware, but those niches have exponential possibilities when you consider the market, one vendor said. Students (primarily those at large public schools with strong athletic programs) make up the biggest and most obvious base, and that group grows every year with each new freshman class. But there are also parents, siblings and other relatives who are proud to display a school’s colors, long after the student graduates.

“There’s such a connection [to schools],” said Richard Kaplan, president of sales and marketing and chief brand officer for Tervis, which has been engaged in collegiate licensing for more than 10 years and now works with about 280 schools across the country, showcasing a variety of emblems and logos on plastic tumblers. “The loyalty factor is amazing. College seems to last a lifetime. They want to connect to it. It’s really powerful.”

Collegiate licensing, Kaplan said, is Tervis’ largest independent segment of business, “and it’s growing.” The company regularly expands its designs with new interpretations of school or team logos, giving the consumer more reasons to buy.

Wilton Armetale launched its collegiate collection of alternative metal serveware and grillware this fall. The collection includes 10 items for each of 19 schools. “It has been one of our most well-received collections we’ve had in a while,” said Shelly Hildebrand, key accounts sales manager, earlier this fall. The company is targeting big tailgating schools, she said, and plans to add 16 more in 2013.

Arthur Court has been offering collegiate licensed products since 2006. It produces giftware and serveware, such as cast-aluminum trays, chip ’n dips, picture frames and glassware, for 23 schools.

College bookstores may be the first selling venue that comes to mind for licensed collegiate product, but potential retail channels of distribution extend beyond the campus. “Our collegiate line sells in the same stores that buy our core line for the most part, with the exception of the stores that carry only collegiate merchandise,” said Matt Hullfish, Arthur Court’s vice president of sales and merchandising. “Most of the business is not in on-campus college bookstores.”

Any retailer that offers a back-to-school or back-to-college program could be a potential customer, according to Kaplan.

Belk has a collegiate program in 250 of its stores as well as online, offering a variety of product categories. Recent online offerings included tumblers, Christmas ornaments, choir mats, food storage containers, coasters and decorative pillows, among other items.

It’s a business that grows year over year, according to Belk’s decor and trim team. “Collegiate game day is an integral part of Southern culture. The Southeast has great schools and very loyal fans,” said Chad C. Stauffer, vice president, divisional merchandise manager of home. “We see game day as a chance to entertain and spend time with family and friends, as well as an opportunity to show school pride.”

There are several unique marketing opportunities in collegiate licensing, Kaplan said. Being involved in school-sponsored events, athletic and otherwise, can be invaluable as it helps solidify a brand in a potential consumer’s mind. “You peel the layers. There are often more opportunities than meet the eye.”

Right now, schools in the Southeast Conference are among the dominant players in collegiate licensing. Vendors often work with the Collegiate Licensing Company or the Licensing Resource Group, which handle licensing for colleges and universities. Other schools work directly with vendors.

Collegiate licensing logistics are considerable, Kaplan cautioned. “It’s a challenge to do it right.” Hullfish agreed. “The product development process is slower due to steps necessary to approve designs,” he said. “Due to the regional nature of the business, it takes a large number of relatively low sales volume SKUs. It is not a business driven by a few high-volume key items.”

But the rewards can be great. “It’s a big strategic focus for us,” Kaplan said. “It engages the customer with our product.”