Twila Myers, a cashier at Jackrabbit Central in downtown Brookings, models some of the items for sale there. The jackrabbit and the SDSU logo are big business for the university. Photo by Ken Curley/Register
• Need a Jacks jacket or a T-shirt proclaiming your loyalty? Product marketing is big
business at the state’s biggest school
BROOKINGS – The young accountant tosses back his Jackrabbit blanket, pulls off his Jackrabbit pajamas and heads for the shower.
Emerging in Jackrabbit flip-flops, wrapped in a warm SDSU towel, he pulls on his royal blue Jackrabbit dress shirt. As he sips his morning coffee from an SDSU mug, he glances down at his chrome Jackrabbit wristwatch.
He hops into his car – a Volkswagen Rabbit, as it happens – which sports Jackrabbit license plates. An SDSU pennant waves proudly from the antenna. As he pulls out of the driveway, he glances up at the metal street sign tacked above his garage door; it reads, “Jackrabbit Drive.”
A little too much? Has the fan turned fanatic?
More and more these days, SDSU alums are proudly wearing the school colors, proclaiming their support for the old alma mater.
And that brings a big smile to Mike Lockrem’s face.
Lockrem is director of marketing and communications for South Dakota State, and as such, he’s the “keeper of the logos.”
That menacing yellow-and-blue jackrabbit and the intertwined “SD” logo mean big money to State, and it’s getting bigger all the time. Every time a Jackrabbit ball cap or a pair of SDSU socks is sold anywhere in the country, the cash register rings on the Brookings campus.
Each time a Jackrabbit sweatshirt is sold at Walmart, whenever somebody buys an SDSU “replica jersey” or a Jacks football at Dunham’s or Scheel’s, the university now collects a 10 percent royalty fee.
“It’s been a successful program for us, very successful,” says Lockrem. “We’re excited to see where this takes us. It has been a six-figure revenue stream for the university, even when (the royalty) was 8 percent.”
By “six-figures,” Lockrem means that every year between $100,000 and $135,000 has gone into the SDSU kitty – just for use of the school’s marks. It’s a nice chunk of change, but it isn’t a huge number by University of Iowa standards. That school probably rakes in $1 million to $1.5 million, Lockrem said.
“For our size school, the University of Montana has been the largest revenue producer for its merchandise licensing, and it earns $350,000 to $550,000 a year. A lot of that comes from product placement. We would love to have our products in a lot more areas around the state, and I think the next step is to figure out how to do that.”
Lockrem is a U-Montana alum, and his parents live in the mountain state; he says, “You can buy Grizzly stuff everywhere.”
Lockrem and his staff keep a close eye on the rabbit. “There’s a cost associated with using the university’s mark in an apparel merchandise world,” he explains, “and there’s also a need for the university to protect how that mark is used.”
While the Jackrabbit’s merchandising rise has been relatively recent, the university has always guarded the use of its symbols and trademarks. The university has also registered its verbiage – even “SDSU” is registered.
When the school began transitioning to a Division I institution, “it was probably on the forefront of protecting the sales of its brand,” Lockrem says.
“The move to D-I increased the popularity of the jackrabbit, and with the exposure that the university now gets, the program really started to grow. It became more of an immediate need to bring our program up to the to level of others in our classification and size. It was the next step in management.”
While some schools turn over their product marketing to independent managers for a percentage of the royalties, SDSU decided to keep management in-house. Lockrem’s Marketing and Communications division (Trademark and Licensing Office) handles the products, and the Finance and Business Office under SDSU Vice President Wes Tschetter handles the contracts.
After months of review, Lockrem’s team rolled out a new marketing plan the past spring, moving the royalty that only a few years ago had been 6 percent to 10. They set a minimum royalty amount on T-shirts, sweaters and caps, too – at least 50 cents for caps and T’s, $1 for sweatshirts. The “no cheap stuff” rule helps protects the brand.
And they reduced the number of licensed vendors to 120 – less than half the 260 that were using SDSU marks a few years ago.
“That’s a far more manageable number, and in that 260, there were vendors who hadn’t been doing business for years,” the marketing cheif said.
SDSU not only increased its royalty fee, but it tacked on an $80 annual administrative fee.
The marketing group also “incentivized our vendors” to get out and sell SDSU products by asking for an up-front royalty payment.
“So if you’re selling T-shirts,” Lockrem explains, “we’d ask you for an up-front royalty payment of $250. You’d sell against that until the account’s at zero, and anything above that it’s 10 percent again.
Finally, there’s also a one-time, nonrefundable $350 application fee just to do business with the university.
Having to pay some money up front motivates vendors to make sure the product’s on store shelves.
“I think it protects the ones that really buy into the program, those vendors out there really trying to push our product,” Lockrem says. “It drives business to the companies that are really invested in us.”
Not everybody who wants to put the Jackrabbit logo on a tailgate party trailer (yes, that’s one of the items the school has licensed) gets a deal with SDSU. While the university doesn’t have a single “brand monitor,” it’s a marketing/communications staffer, Andrea Kieckhefer, who handles all the inquiries about new products. June and July are the busiest months for approvals, but Kieckhefer may get dozens of approval requests at a time.
If you want to manufacture an SDSU T-shirt (or anything else with the school’s brand), there are standards you have to meet: no profanity, nothing risqué, nothing that is inconsistent with the university’s image, reputation or goals.
Besides quality and appropriateness, Lockrem points out that both the jackrabbit and the interlocking SD are difficult marks, sometimes hard to reproduce.
“There are a lot of colors and nuances, and we have to coordinate that with (manufacturers) and make it work. We’ve had to work with vendors on how we embroider it; now we have a company putting our logo on rocks that you put in your yard.” …
Getting the colors the right shade of blue and yellow is critical, too. It’s not a simple thing, according to the SDSU staffers, since much of the coloring and painting is done by hand.
University Bookstore, headed by Derek Peterson, is one of the main outlets for SDSU products. Although the retail facility, located in the student union, is still called a bookstore, it’s clear that apparel sales are its biggest moneymaker. The bookstore has clothing and gift items galore, as does its Jackrabbit Central retail outlet in downtown Brookings.
“We have a wide variety of T’s,” says Steven Brua, the store’s marketing coordinator, “and over 100 styles of baseball caps and 80 different styles of sweatshirts.”
“With the campus under construction and parking in the student union area limited, we’re really pushing online sales.”
Brua says there’s a new Jackrabbit Central website where shopping is easier and more customer friendly.
The school’s merchandising fortunes rise and fall with fortunes of athletic teams. Last year, when SDSU participated in the NCAA tournament, there was a tremendous increase in traffic on the bookstore site. “Everybody was interested in yellow and blue apparel,” Lockrem says.
“I’m always impressed, when you look into the stands, whether its a Summit League tournament or a football game, by the amount of school clothing that’s on our fans. They take a lot of pride in wearing it. And we work really hard in making sure we give them a consistent, good-looking product.”
Contact Ken Curley at kcurley@-brookingsregister.com.