The Ohio State University licenses products that help alums show their loyalty to the university.
By Alan Dorich
The ways products are licensed for colleges have changed over the past 30 years, Rick Van Brimmer says. “Back into the ‘80s, the people standing at your tailgate were probably wearing a sweatshirt [with the college logo] under their regular jacket [or] a t-shirt when it was warmer,” he recalls.
Now when people go to a tailgate party, the college’s logos can be seen on nearly everything, including tents, tables, grills, food products, and even paper towels and plates. “Now that passion and loyalty [to a school] is reflected in all the products that are there,” he says.
Van Brimmer is an assistant vice president for business advancement, affinity and trademark management for The Ohio State University, which has licensed products with its name since 1974. Located in Columbus, Ohio, the college opened its main campus 144 years ago and was recently ranked 16th among the nation’s best public universities by U.S. News & World Report.
The licensing program, Van Brimmer says, began when a part-time paralegal in Ohio State’s contract office began registering its marks. “That was a woman named Anne Chasser, who is one of the legends of the industry and my boss for several years before I took over,” he recalls.
The university’s licensing program began with t-shirts and sweatshirts that were sold out of its bookstore. “It moved out of that one closet in the bedroom into drapes, bed coverings and sport products,” Van Brimmer says.
Ohio State also has licensed products for patios, rec rooms, basement and garages, including storage items and bar supplies. “It’s evolved as people have embraced following teams and their loyalty to the school,” he says, but notes that the items keep the school front and center.
This is part of the philosophy that Chasser instilled in the program from the beginning, Van Brimmer says. “It was never overshadowed by any other interest,” he says. “We’ve always taken a ‘university first’ point of view.”
That latest products Ohio State has licensed include storage items for the patio, as well as a Bluetooth speaker in the shape of a football helmet. “The licenses are just following what you’re seeing in a Bose store,” he says. “People use those to show their allegiance to their teams.”
Although Ohio State listens to every proposal, it does not license products that it would have trepidations about, Van Brimmer says. For example, “We don’t license alcohol and we don’t license firearms,” he says.
Ohio State’s licensing partners include Nike Inc., which is “one of our two licensees,” Van Brimmer says, noting that the school recently extended its agreement with the famed footwear company. “We extended the license and our sideline agreements an additional 15 years.
“What was most exciting about that deal was that we included the rest of the university,” he continues. “We got products for our students, discounts and merchandise for our club sports team, and scholarships and internships.”
When a need for product arises at the university, its president can utilize its “product allowance” with Nike to fill that need. “It was truly a unique way of looking at the relationship with one of your primary sideline partners,” Van Brimmer says.
Ohio State’s longtime partners also include headwear retailer Lids. “We’re in the third contract year with them,” Van Brimmer says, noting that Lids operates the university’s official team shop on its campus.
“They also own and operate fan shops in the community that we are now connected with,” he says. “They are the official retailer of Ohio State.”
Ohio State also is in its third year of partnership with sportswear company J. America LLC, Van Brimmer adds. “Both Nike and J. America have exclusives with our apparel for licensed products,” he explains, noting that J. America will guarantee Ohio State a minimum of $85 million in royalties over the next decade.
Ready to Help
Ohio State maintains long-term relationships with its licensees through strong communication, Van Brimmer says. “That’s the key,” he says. “Our approach has been that we want to hear from them, engage with them and know them by name.”
It can be difficult to do that with a list of 400 licensees and a staff of only four, but Van Brimmer’s team regularly pulls it off. “That’s why we attend the [industry] shows and why we become involved in our professional associations,” he says. “You’d be surprised how rare we’re here [in the office].
“We are out there, talking to them,” Van Brimmer says, noting that this puts his team in a position where they are open to understanding how the licensees do business and how the university can help.
The desire to help is so essential that it plays a part in the recruiting process, he notes. “We look for people with a customer-service bent,” Van Brimmer says. “They know they’re here to help somebody else. I don’t think they would last very long here if their attitude was, ‘I don’t have time for you today.’”
His current staff exemplifies that, including Assistant Director of Trademark and Licensing Karen Dertinger. “They understand that part of a licensor’s role is not to find everything and exploit it,” Van Brimmer says. “It’s to help the licensee, whether it’s a database issue or an approval issue or understanding our brand limits.”
Ohio State will continue to look for strategic partnerships and marketing initiatives that can help drive its business as it matures, Van Brimmer says. However, “There are less licensees in our business than there have been in a while, [due to] consolidation,” he says.
But less is better, Van Brimmer says, since it allows the university and its licensees to be more in strategic alignment. “As our business evolves and matures, we talk about that a lot,” he says.
“It’s not, ‘Let’s print up a bunch of stuff and see if it sells,’” he continues. “It’s about asking our licensees, ‘What do you see coming and how can we help?’”
Ohio State also is in the process of developing a new five- to 10-year plan, Van Brimmer says. “We’re looking at the way we’re doing business right now, and watching how business changes,” he says, noting that the university has done this over the last 30 years.
The process involves looking at the way Ohio State does business and how the industry has changed, Van Brimmer says. “We pull those things out after a few years and say, ‘Here’s our five- to 10-year plan from 10 years ago,’” he says.
“We’re surprised how many of those things that we did,” he says. “We’re going to continue to adhere to good business practices.”