In Alumni Market, School Ties Stay Strong

College pride doesn’t end at commencement as alumni wear (and bleed) school colors for decades.

College pride doesn’t end at commencement as alumni wear (and bleed) school colors for decades.

When you’re a Penn Stater, you’re a Penn Stater for life. Alumni of the school retain a strong affiliation with their alma mater and are happy to plunk down hard-earned cash for hoodies, T-shirts and other products bearing the Nittany Lion. “When you come as a student, you’re pretty much immersed in the culture of Penn State,” says Geoff Conrad, associate director of business relations for the Penn State Alumni Association. “Penn Staters tend to really get absorbed in the time they are here, and that kind of sticks with them as they leave.”

To help feed their obsession, the alumni association hosts a robust Web store, with licensed items ranging from baby headbands and onesies to designer purses and fashion jeans. The store, Conrad says, is a touch point for alumni, giving them a convenient way to “plug back in” to their undergraduate days.

Of course, it’s not just Penn State alumni who stay true to their schools. Many alums wax nostalgic for their campus days, making licensed apparel a lucrative opportunity both for savvy vendors and the institution itself. “Most people would consider graduation to be one of their greatest accomplishments,” says Brian Blee, marketing director of College Hill Custom Threads (asi/164578) in Seattle. In addition to targeting the Greek market, College Hill has a retail shop, called the Coug Store, to sell Washington State University swag. “[WSU grads] are really into their Cougar stuff,” Blee says. “They will never give it up, almost to an obnoxious extent. It’s just that pride and sense of belonging you don’t want to give up.”

$10 Billion

Annual estimated worth of collegiate retailing industry

Because alumni-focused shops are targeting an array of ages – from the newly graduated to those much further along in their careers – it’s important to feature both traditional and fashion-forward items. Many graduates, Conrad says, are brand-conscious shoppers, therefore, the alumni association offers items like Nike polos, styled just like the garments the school’s coaches wear on the sidelines for game day. “We do very well with performance polos,” adds Brooke Wellar, merchandising manager for Penn State’s alumni store. “Tech fabric in general is very popular.”

For Millennials, distressed logos and an overall “warm retro vibe” are a big trend, Blee says. Safari-style bucket hats are also making a comeback with twentysomethings, he adds. In addition, custom athletic socks with the Seattle skyline sewn in have proven popular for College Hill with buyers from WSU.

Before targeting a college or its alumni association, know their culture. Trends are not universally popular, according to Lynn Johnson, owner of Top It Off in Bloomington, IN, which specializes in custom apparel for local Greeks at Indiana University. “Some [Greeks] are willing to be cutting-edge and try different things,” he says. Others are more conservative and want to stick with classic looks. Those affinities will often carry over after graduation. It’s also important to pay attention to the calendar. College Hill, for example, makes a note of important dates at WSU and creates special designs around them. “We’ve gotten to the point where everyone knows to get their dad’s weekend apparel with us,” Blee says.

Don’t limit your thinking to apparel. Consider the appeal of grilling accessories and drinkware for tailgating parties, for example.

Think you’re ready to tap into the education market? Give it the old college try. – TH

Products Picks

From tried and true to bold and new, colleges and their alumni associations offer apparel for every generation of graduates.

This District camo tank (DT1500) offered by College Hill Custom Threads (asi/164578; circle 83 on Free Info Card), is made of 100% ringspun cotton and features a distressed Washington State Cougars logo. Available from SanMar (asi/84863; circle 84 on Free Info Card).

This Nike polo, modeled after the shirts worn by Penn State coaches, is made of 100% polyester and features laser-perforated holes at the back collar for added breathability. The Penn State logo was achieved with a raised silicone screen print.