Aug. 12, 2008
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There you are. It is two weeks before your son's birthday and you want to get him a fitted Vanderbilt baseball hat, but you don't know where to find one in your hometown. You walk into your local sporting goods store, and much of what you see is Tennessee Titans or Nashville Predators merchandise. The Vanderbilt gear is in a small section in the corner, and there are only two styles of hats, neither of which is fitted.
Unfortunately, scenarios such as this are a reality for many Vanderbilt fans, but it maybe not for much longer.
Thanks to a collective network of individuals working behind the scenes, finding Vanderbilt merchandise in Tennessee and even throughout the rest of the country is not nearly as hard as it was even just a few years ago.
Working to make merchandise more prevalent on local and national levels is Vanderbilt's trademark and licensing department. The department was started in 2000 and was created to ensure that Vanderbilt's logo and wordmarks are used correctly and that royalties on the merchandise are being paid to the school.
"Eight years ago, you had to go to the bookstore to get Vanderbilt merchandise," said Maggie Huckaba, Vanderbilt's director of trademark and licensing. "It has just been a collective effort to get merchandise on the shelves, and demand is the No. 1 way to get product in there."
At first, the office primarily focused on keeping up with royalties and infringements, but it now has expanded its focus to find ways to increase the diversity and quantity of Vanderbilt's merchandise. Even with the new focus, the department has not wavered from its responsibility to ensure that all of the Vanderbilt merchandise produced is up to specifications. To do this, each product must go through marketing specialist Mary Ann Daniel, who safe checks each proposed product before approving it.
"We went from not having any guidelines to creating guidelines and trying to get people on campus to know that they can't change our logo," Huckaba said. "Now we are trying to be more strategic about our efforts, not only protecting our name, but to get people to buy the stuff and wear the stuff and get those royalties to help fund athletics and help the general scholarship fund."
However, before people can buy Vanderbilt's merchandise, they have to be able to find it. The challenge of being a private school in a pro sports town has made getting Vanderbilt's merchandise on the shelves of Nashville retailers one of the department's most difficult tasks.
One of the strategic ways that the department has gone about trying to spread Vanderbilt merchandise is with a grass-roots approach called the Commodore Spirit Association, which was created to get Vanderbilt products on the shelves of smaller retailers, such as gift shops in the airport and convenience stores.
"When this office was first created and I would go to any of the local retailers, even hotel gift shops, you couldn't find anything Vanderbilt in there," Huckaba said. "What we did with this program is allow any of these businesses to order directly from us at cost. We would sell merchandise with no minimums and deliver it to them."
The program has been so successful that there actually has been a minimum added for certain products purchased to make it worth the time for Huckaba or Daniel to deliver the goods at no charge.
"That program has gotten better and better every year, and we are at the point now, just this coming year, that we are stepping back from it and we are having a vendor that is going to manage the program for us because it is taking so much of our time."
Maybe the department's biggest initiative came a little less than a year ago when the university teamed with Collegiate Licensing Company, the oldest and largest trademark and licensing company in the nation. It represents approximately 180 institutions and properties, including 11 of the 12 schools in the Southeastern Conference.
Already, CLC has helped Vanderbilt increase its sales in many different ways by utilizing extensive analysis to pinpoint areas that need to be modified.
"One of the things CLC does is help us be more strategic and figure out what gaps we are missing," Huckaba said. "They will compare us to other SEC schools and tell us how we are doing in different categories of sales such as T-shirts or hats. They can also break it down into certain styles of hats or T-shirts. Then we can work on those areas to increase those products. We can then go to a company and tell them they need to do more of this or that for a company."
Since joining forces last July, Vanderbilt already is seeing the dividends of working with CLC. During the second quarter of the 2007-08 fiscal year (Oct. 1-Dec. 31, 2007), Vanderbilt ranked 72nd in royalties among CLC's top-selling universities.
"That ranking is extremely good," said Tyler Stinnett, CLC's university services representative for the SEC. "We are excited about the continued partnership, and we are hoping to see continued growth."
Vanderbilt also has seen a significant increase in the amount of money generated through its eight percent royalty rate. Last year royalties brought in $200,000 to the university for the first time and as of the end of April, royalties had already reached $242,000 this year with the fiscal year ending on June 30. Once the fiscal year ends, all the money generated through royalties is combined with the money left in the trademark and licensing budget, and is split equally between athletics and financial aid.
"Compared to where (Vanderbilt was) last (May) when they weren't a CLC client, they are up 21 percent in terms of gross royalties," Stinnett said. "We'd definitely love to see that number maintained, and hopefully we will see it grow a little more. I think we are confident that we will continue to see this number rise for sure."
When the department made the switch from Licensing Retail Group to CLC, Huckaba knew there would be an increase in royalties, she just didn't expect the numbers to be so staggering.
"I didn't think we'd have that much of an increase at this time of year with several months left in the fiscal year," Huckaba said. "That just shows you that, again, collectively all the efforts on the university side and from the agency side are pulling us up to where we need to be, and we are excited about that."
A program through CLC that really has helped Vanderbilt get its product out nationally is College Vault. College Vault is a brand that sells vintage-looking merchandise from universities throughout the nation.
"The College Vault program is getting us into locations that we were not in before, Huckaba said. "That program is going to help us with visibility. We just continue to try to be open. We are very lucky that we work for an administration who tells us to go out and be creative and do what we can to get more product out there."
Creative is exactly the approach Vanderbilt has taken in recent months. Just this past March, Vanderbilt broadened its availability of merchandise by opening an online team store on its athletic Web site, vucommodores.com. That same month, Vanderbilt reached an agreement with Replay Photos to create an online photo store on vucommodores.com.
Beyond helping Vanderbilt increase sales, CLC also has helped VU streamline the number of vendors licensed to sell Vanderbilt merchandise. The number of vendors has been cut significantly to 250, but Huckaba would like to see that number go even lower.
"We are starting to say that we don't need 250 vendors," Huckaba said. "If you look at our royalty reports and a vendor is bringing in zero dollars repeatedly, there is no reason to have them be a licensee. I hope that in the next five years, it will be cut in half."
While CLC and the trademark and licensing department continue to look for ways to expand the allotment of Vanderbilt merchandise in the stores, one factor that neither can control is whether Vanderbilt's teams win or lose.
A contributing factor in the increase in Vanderbilt merchandise being sold and demanded has been the success experienced by Vanderbilt's athletic teams.
"(Athletic success) does dictate sales," Stinnett said. "I'd be lying if I told you it didn't. Success on the playing field can definitely contribute to more fan excitement and therefore, they will buy more product and we will usually see peaks in royalties for Vanderbilt."
Huckaba also agrees that the recent success experienced by Vanderbilt's teams has made it easier to get retailers to buy Vanderbilt gear.
"The No. 1 driving force is winning ball games," Huckaba said. "If you look at Nashville, we've got all these schools in Tennessee and you've got professional teams. A retailer is very strategic about what they put in their store because they have a limited amount of space and they don't bring in what they don't sell in."
A recent example of where Vanderbilt's athletic success sparked an interest came this past basketball season with the increase in vendors wanting to produce Vanderbilt merchandise.
"Going into conference play and the SEC Tournament, it was incredible," said marketing specialist Mary Ann Daniel. "This year, especially, I think it was busier and more intense. Some days I would have 30 submissions and maybe more than that, and it was like that consistently every day from the beginning of the tournament until we got beat in the NCAA Tournament."
Just as success on the field can increase interest in Vanderbilt merchandise, losing can decrease interest. Because it is a reality that even the most storied programs will go through a rough stretch at times, (see: Nebraska football) CLC develops programs to help limit the drop-off when teams are rebuilding.
"We try to present programs and initiatives to Vanderbilt that can offset some down times because every school is going to have some athletic down time every once in a while," Stinnett said.
One area where CLC knows it can market Vanderbilt in a way that makes it unique from a lot of schools is its academic prestige. Because of its academic reputation, Stinnett believes that Vanderbilt can be marketed internationally.
"We are definitely trying to get Vanderbilt involved internationally," Stinnett said. "We do have a strategic partner at CLC, CLC International, whose main focus is international business rather than domestic.
"It has only been in place for three or four years, but we have targeted a lot of Ivy League schools and higher academic institutions like Vanderbilt. In the future I would not be surprised if we saw more Vanderbilt product being promoted overseas."
Just as Vanderbilt's academic reputation can help get merchandise into more locations, its small alumni base also can make it more difficult to get merchandise into stores.
Huckaba understands that being a private institution has its advantages and disadvantages, but she believes the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.
"I think because we are private, from my viewpoint, it has added a different challenge," Huckaba said. "However, because we are not state funded, it gives us the opportunity to do some things that maybe a state school couldn't. I've really appreciated that Vanderbilt is No. 1 about our brand and No. 2 is the royalty part of it.
"At the end of the day, if you are winning, people don't care if you are private or public."