Be true to your school. It’s a mantra that informs the efforts of colleges and universities to fill their freshman class with (what they hope will be) lifelong ambassadors for their alma mater. With so much at stake, colleges are more than just academic havens. They are also finely tuned marketing machines that invest a lot of time and money to make their schools a sought-after destination. Campus marketing efforts begin long before a student is enrolled, and continue throughout their adult lives as they become alumni and potential university donors.
Promotional products are an ideal way to generate awareness, foster unity, promote initiatives, ignite school spirit and (of course) entice potential students to apply. In a report by education consultancy Ruffalo Noel Levitz, direct marketing aimed at eliciting specific, measurable actions by prospective students (such as a campus visit or submission of an application) were rated by 79% of colleges as being effective – higher than content marketing (64%), online ads (50%) and billboard advertising (47%).
The appeal of branded merchandise for colleges is simple: once they’re at school, students become walking billboards for the rest of their lives (as do their parents, siblings and countless others). The U.S. college store market, where students and their families load up on hats, T-shirts and a huge variety of college-branded merchandise, is valued at nearly $10 billion, according to the National Association of College Stores. There’s a simple reason sales are so high: “Collegiate clients are passionate about their brand, their games, their teams and their alma mater,” says Craig Wolfe, president of supplier CelebriDucks. “There’s an enthusiasm you don’t find in other market sectors.”
Considering there are over 20,000 colleges and universities (who expect an additional 1.3 million students to enroll in the next five years), there are plenty of opportunities to sell. Even better, there is an incredible variety of options beyond the campus book store or admissions office, from sporting events to Greek life to the endless cornucopia of organizations, groups and employees (academic departments, dining services, counseling centers, student-led groups and much, much more).
“We got started with one school, and from there the college market spiraled for us,” says Alex Acree, owner of The Branding Society (TBS, asi/339539), where collegiate represents the distributor’s largest source of income.
The best part about the college market is that it reaps continual rewards. Student enrollment at undergraduate institutions has grown 33% since 2000. This constant supply of new students is a great opportunity for brands to develop loyalty and allow distributors to identify potential clients at their earliest buying stages. “Students are your future buyers, business owners, creators of startups and decision-makers. Even seasoned Fortune 500 companies are looking to this group to tap into what is important to them,” says Mark Seymour, chief sales officer of Next Level Apparel (asi/73867), which does extensive work in the college market.
By doing a little homework, distributors can get their foot in the door of these promotional powerhouses – and stay there.
Relationships are key to breaking into the college market and the schools themselves, says Michael Wolaver, owner of Magellan Promotions. “Take advantage of any relationships you have, build on them and work to add value,” he says. “Don’t just be a calendar or pen supplier – schools want solutions.”
If you don’t have an existing relationship to leverage, finding the right person can be a challenge, as job titles vary among departments and schools. “Start with the marketing department first if they have one – they’ll refer you,” suggests Acree. However, purchasing decisions vary from school to school. It might be the marketing department at one school and the purchasing department at the next. At another school, each department may do its own buying.
With most buyers on campus, distributors need to come prepared with items branded with the school logo or, at the very least, in the school colors, says Nikki Villarreal, senior account executive with ePromos Promotional Products (asi/188515). With new and existing school clients, Villarreal obtains university logos and makes PDF flyers with images of a cap, a piece of apparel, a cellphone tech item and a journal. “Everything that goes on the PDF will have the correct colors and their logo,” she says.
Creative ideas may win a prospect over, but there’s often another obstacle to cracking the college code: prices. Colleges and the education market in total are notoriously price driven; in an ASI exclusive survey of end-buyers in the 12 most popular markets, school and universities were the most likely to shop on price.
The strict adherence to budget is usually codified through a Request for Proposal (RFP). Many schools issue RFPs for specific contracts and will only work with specific vendors during the length of that contract. This information is posted on different bid sites. On the plus side, distributors have myriad opportunities if they monitor when contracts are set to expire and RFPs are issued. “When you win an RFP, it’s huge,” Acree says. “You’re viewed as a partner with the school, and as a preferred vendor, the school can only order from you.” (Acree recommends trying to bid on as many contracts as possible: “It’s good practice and you learn a lot!”)
Like a crack in a windshield, the first order with a college makes it easier for distributors to radiate outward and reach other departments and organizations on campus.
“It’s all about retained business and referrals for me. I want them to come back to me for the next event and brag about the great experience they had with me,” says Villarreal. “I always ask for more referrals within the college, as there are so many different departments that need promotional products.”
A hot product will also pique the interest of other groups on campus. When one student group wanted to order a reusable promotional item for an earth-friendly campus event, TBS recommended a 1 GB bamboo keyring flash drive from Norwood (asi/74400) bearing the message, “Green is the New Black.” “We sold a couple thousand of these drives,” Acree says. “They were so popular, we got direct reorders from other organizations within the university.”
Just don’t take anything for granted. Steven R. Flaughers, owner of Proforma 3rd Degree Marketing (asi/300094), recommends getting a semester calendar of events and have ideas waiting in clients’ inbox. Also keep a firm hand on relationships. “People frequently change jobs,” he says. “It’s important to maintain close relationships so your contact will take you with them if they leave and go to a new university.” Also, don’t hesitate to identify the new decision-maker in a department when someone leaves.
Universities and colleges have such a far reach that distributors can use them to jump into other industries. The Branding Society parlayed its collegiate marketing experience into its second largest business sector – hospitals. “Healthcare is second for us, because many universities have hospitals on their campus,” says Acree, adding that hospitals have similar purchasing systems to universities, so breaking into this sector was a natural next step.
So many cultural trends start on campus, and the most popular promotional products with students are geared toward that “now” mindset. “If you can sell to the college market, it means you’re relevant,” says Next Level Apparel’s Seymour. “College students are about being authentic. They relate to diversity and individuality, and they expect the same from the products they use.”
Not surprisingly, products trending in retail translate well with this target audience, says David Walker, vice president of field sales for Hit Promotional Products (asi/61125): “College-age students are often early adopters.”
While college kids love cool and unique items, they also need to be relevant and functional. Sunglasses, flat-bill caps and drawstring backpacks always do well in this market, says Jennifer Grigorian, Hit’s vice president of marketing. Compact coin wallets, ID holders and journals are also high on her list.
Tech items remain top sellers. In the last couple of years, tech items in the $5 range have been popular, says Julia Buraczewski, director of marketing and accounts at Magellan Promotions. Microfiber screen cleaners continue to sell well, as do phone holders and more unique tech items like cellphone fans (which attach to smartphones using the charging port and can run for up to 10 hours).
On the apparel side, students prefer soft, quality fabrics like tri-blend and performance wear. Opelika, AL-based Victory Designs (which works with Auburn and Greek organizations at other universities) has sold lots of short-sleeve pocket tees from Comfort Colors, which is owned by Gildan Activewear (asi/56842). Students like the soft feel, colors and washed look, notes Victory Sales Executive Angie Williams. Next Level recently launched its own garment-dyed collection (named Inspired Dye), offering crewneck and pocket crew tees as well as tank tops in a dozen colors; the items are available in unisex sizing (which the supplier calls “coed”), making it versatile for campus and festival events. Two other college best sellers for Next Level are its mid-weight French terry pullover hoodies, in school color combos, as well as its fleece joggers.
Exactly who is giving these items to college students will vary – from the colleges themselves and their various departments to on-campus groups that are led by students.
Nikki Villarreal with ePromos notes that campus registration departments often give USBs to incoming students, loaded with admission and enrollment information. Auburn’s Student Government Association hosts “Hey Day” each fall to welcome both new and returning students, and Victory Designs provides a large number of T-shirts for the event. Some colleges are also pushing mental health awareness on their campuses, and Victory recently provided T-shirts for one university’s “Mental Health Week” events.
Among student groups, Greek organizations are naturally big buyers of branded goods. They host a lot of events and use the merchandise expressly for recruitment and philanthropy. (They also have their own licensing requirements through Affinity Consultants, the Greek system’s licensing partner.) Williams says fraternities and sororities may host as many as six or seven events each semester, and many groups have a “T-shirt chairperson” responsible for ordering apparel for each of these events.
“Our main goal is to get in the book,” meaning the event handbook that gets passed on to each incoming social chair, says Williams. The officers change yearly, and Victory Designs strives to be the go-to vendor each incoming officer will continue to use. In addition, says Vicki Simpson, owner of Bigfish Screenprinting, the Panhellenic council on campus can provide a list of Greek organizations, including the most current roster of officers in each.
The barriers for reaching college students directly are far less onerous than selling to the schools. Not only are student groups more flexible on budget, but they are proactive on social media and the internet in searching for ideas and vendors. Simpson says it’s important to have a good website when working with college students. “They like to do things online versus the phone,” says Simpson, whose company is based in Springfield, MO, (where Missouri State is located). “Still, they like to come in and touch and feel, and if we say we have samples, they come right in.”
Of course, there is another group of college students that schools eagerly target: alumni. In March, the Duke Alumni Association (DAA) orchestrated a #CrashMyHoopsWatch campaign, surprising Duke fans at a Duke-UNC men’s basketball viewing party in Seattle with fun party upgrades. Nearly 100 Duke alumni attended, and the DAA surprised the group with a photo booth, prize giveaways, commemorative pint glasses and Bullock’s barbeque, flown in all the way from Durham, NC. The event was featured on DAA’s Facebook page.
“Alumni are huge for us,” says Acree. “Schools are always looking for more donors, as well as satisfying existing ones.” Plus, there are alumni clubs in every city – presenting additional opportunities to break into the college sector.
College students are just part of the promotional ecosystem on campus. From staff uniforms to project giveaways, university employees also need to be included. The West Virginia University Institute of Technology (WVU TECH) was relocating its entire school to a new campus in Beckley, WV, and the school wanted items for the staff to promote the move and warm everyone up to the idea of relocation. “They knew they had to travel to a new location, which for some students and faculty was a little further,” explains Proforma 3rd Degree Marketing’s Flaughers, who worked with the school on the promotion. Flaughers chose the 20-oz. Viking tumbler from Crown Products’ (asi/47700) and added the school’s logo. “It led to reorders of the same product, only larger, and the client was thrilled to see so many people on campus using them over and over,” he says. “It was a home run!”
License to Sell
College logos and trademarks are used in a bevy of places – from on-campus promotions to the school bookstore to merchandise sold all over the U.S. as well as abroad. In the large majority of those cases, the items were produced by a company that is officially licensed. “The most important thing to know when working with colleges is licensing. It almost always comes into play,” says Steve Flaughers, owner of Proforma 3rd Degree Marketing (asi/300094).
Hundreds of universities and colleges outsource their trademark and licensing responsibilities to one of the following three organzations: the College Licensing Company (CLC), an affiliate of IMG College; Fermata Partners, a division of CAA Sports; and Learfield Licensing Partners. (The Greek system of fraternities, sororities, and honorary societies has its own licensing company, Affinity Consultants.)
These licensing companies ensure the safety, quality and consistency of college-branded products. Distributors that are licensees are often pre-qualified in the mind of educational buyers. “Many schools ask upfront if you’re licensed; if you are, you have a better chance of working with them,” says Michael Wolaver, owner of Magellan Promotions.
Licensing procedures vary by college. The best place to start is by looking at the school’s licensing website, to learn about who to connect with and how they license.
While the licensing process may seem daunting, the licensing companies offering varying levels of license, so distributors and suppliers that are brand new have an opportunity to prove themselves. For example, the CLC offers three levels of license:
- Internal campus supplier, which means products can only be used by university departments and related entities, and can’t be sold at retail level or directly to consumer. This is the fastest and least costly licensing option.
- Local license allows a company to produce trademarked product within the same state as the business location for university departments and related entities, in addition to retail distribution. Local licensees must be licensed for a full year before they can be considered for the full standard license.
- Standard license is the most challenging and expensive license to pursue, as it allows a company to produce trademarked products of unlimited college institutions for university departments and related entities, as well as retail distribution through all channels.
Jean Erickson is a contributing writer for Advantages.