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Protecting, promoting and growing the inclusive MSU brand

Erika Austin is the brand-new director of University Licensing for Michigan State University.

She describes her background and talks about what attracted her to MSU.

“I really like brands,” says Austin. “When you look at the Michigan State brand, it's not just a local brand. It's regional, it's national, and it's international. Sparty the mascot is very well known; I felt like the equity in the brand is here. There are always things that we can do to further the equity in the brand. But the brand, the school, the academic programs, and MSU’s reputation itself drew me to come here.”

What is university licensing? And what does it mean at Michigan State?

“University licensing really is three prongs. We're here to promote the brand so that we can generate revenue that then can be sent over to the general scholarship fund and other university programs. We are here to support the students. Every time someone buys licensed merchandise, a portion of the royalties goes back to the general scholarship fund. The general student body benefits from those funds through scholarships. And the merchandise programs that we develop garner revenue and royalties that then come them back to the university.

“And then the second part really is protecting the brand. We want to make sure that people aren't infringing on our brand. And I don't think of us as the logo cops or the no police. Our stance is more that if you want to use the university brand, you can, but just go through the proper processes and procedures and become a licensee and do it the correct way. By protecting the brand, we're adding equity into the brand. You have the promotion piece, you have the profit piece, and then you have the protection piece. And it’s looking at our trademarks portfolio. That doesn’t just mean our logos. It also means our wordmarks. Even the name, Michigan State University, and Go Green Go White, and some of our taglines are protected as well.

“And we have great licensees and partners that want to work with us to develop great merchandise. We want to make sure we have merchandise that is diverse that meets all sizes, all identities, and all genders. Of course, we have some things that we don't license, like tobacco. But our primary goal is to make sure our brand is out there. And if people want product with Michigan State's logos on it, we want them to be able to find it and get it.”

Austin emphasizes the importance of purchasing officially licensed product.

“Also, we do a lot of work with the Fair Labor Association and the Worker Rights Consortium. We make sure that the product is being produced in reputable factories and not sweat shops. With the infringed and the non-licensed product, we can't guarantee where that product is being produced. I can't guarantee the quality and the customer service behind that product if it's infringed product.”

How can someone tell if a product is officially licensed?

“The easiest way is to look for the hologram sticker. We make it a requirement that all our licensees have to include the hologram sticker on all of the product. And when you look at the product and you see the Spartan head, does it have a circle R behind it? Or is that little identifier missing? Is there a small TM after some of our marks? Or is that missing? That's the easiest way to tell. The hologram sticker also has an identifying mark on it; it has a code on it. If I see the number on the hologram sticker, I can even tell you which licensee made that product, and then I can tell you if it's not a licensee.”

As you get started as the director of university licensing at MSU, what are some of your goals?

“I want to learn this campus and the campus community. I want to know from the academic side who are our top departments, clubs, and organizations? What fundraising do we do? What cause marketing do we do? Because all of that information will generate marketing campaigns that we can then tie merchandise to. So learning the campus community is my number one goal right now. And then just trying to figure out who is doing the buying, what are they buying, what are they missing, and what opportunities are out there? That's definitely my number one goal. I would say second is learning who our key retailers are and where they’re located. Where are our alumni? How do we get product to states that may not be selling it now?

“I want to make sure that we have healthy e-commerce retailers. We do, but I want to be sure that they're getting the merchandise that they need. With COVID and everything you're hearing in the news, we are as well dealing with supply chain issues and our licensees are dealing with supply chain issues. And then through COVID when a lot of the stores were closed, the product was just sitting on shelves in the stores. A lot of the product that's in the stores is a year old, and those retailers aren't really looking to buy new product because they have to sell the product they have.

“And then my favorite part of the business is the business development part. I want to get started on developing some marketing campaigns where we can include merchandise with them, whether that's with Athletics, with the Alumni Office, or with the general student body and organizations. How can we help further their brand?”

Austin talks about how NIL (name, image, and likeness) and NFTs (non-fungible tokens) will impact university licensing in the months and years ahead.

Erika Austin
Russ White | MSU Todayt
Erika Austin

“This upcoming athletic season will be interesting to see the availability of custom jerseys with student athletes’ names and numbers on them. How are we going to handle that? And that will translate from football into basketball. And what does the product selection look like for the fans? And are they really interested in custom jerseys? We don't know yet. This will be a real test year for NIL. We’re still trying to figure out the value of NFTs. And how do we work with the NFT companies to make sure our brand is still gaining equity and being protected in that space? If I sell an NFT to somebody, can they then take it and do something to it that goes against our brand? Those are the unknowns right now. I do think a lot of the NIL opportunities are going to mirror what's being done in the professional sports.”

Austin is impressed with diversity, equity, and especially inclusion initiatives at MSU.

“I don't think I've ever worked at any place where inclusion has been at the forefront of the mission statement. And being a minority myself, it's very refreshing to come. One of the first questions that I was asked during the interview process was how I support inclusion. That was so important to me. I have gotten positions because I'm a minority so the diversity box or the equity box could be checked. But I think what has always been missing in my experience is the inclusion. And it means a lot to me that MSU is really focusing on the inclusion part.

“I'm focusing on the inclusion part when it comes my licensing portfolio and our portfolio of licensees in retailers. I'm starting to look at who are the minority-owned businesses? Who are the woman-owned businesses? Who are the smaller mom and pop businesses that we can either license, or if they aren't in the financial area to be able to acquire the license, can they work with one of our current licensees and get the education behind it? I have heard from a lot of small individual entrepreneurs that are interested in entering the world of licensing, but they might not know how or have the resources.

“And so how can our current licensing family help them and teach them the roles of licensing and how to get started? Are there some diverse printing companies that are local that maybe some of our larger licensees can work with to print the merchandise and get it into our retail locations? I want to continue the great work that MSU has done with inclusion and make sure that I am also paying attention to inclusion as well.”

MSU Today airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 5 a.m. on WKAR News/Talk and Sundays at 8 p.m. on 760 WJR. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.