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Hit the mark without crossing the line: Using university trademarks in advertising

WARNING! Before you print up 100,000 blue foam Wolverine claws with your company logo on them or put up a billboard with a Longhorns logo to promote your new steak burrito menu item, read this.

For many advertisers, trying to reach students in a campus environment is essential to their success. Everyone from the local campus barber to national fast-food chains want to weave themselves into the fabric of campus to better resonate with students. This desire makes it tempting for marketers to slap a university logo on their website or use a mascot in their college newspaper ad. It’s not a bad strategy if you have some basic knowledge of trademark law.

Photo Source: Victoria's Secret
Photo Source: Victoria's Secret

A trademark or service mark can be a phrase, school name, symbol, design, or a combination thereof. Some schools have even successfully argued that their school colors are protected. Because the law recognizes that colleges and universities have a protectable property interest in their names and emblems, these symbols can function as trademarks and service marks. Words such as “University of Minnesota” or symbols like the distinctive “Goldy Gopher” mascot are examples of trademarks in the context of collegiate sports.

There are three areas most commonly associated with collegiate mark usage.  The first is simply using a logo or name of the school in an advertisement such as in print or in television. The second is akin to the use of a logo, name, or mascot on a premium item – for example, a bank that gives away a university-branded water bottle during dorm move-in to promote student checking. The third area revolves around the more complicated field of licensing – usage of a mark on products being sold such as branded apparel (think Victoria’s Secret Pink Collegiate Collection line).

Most schools have strict guidelines for usage of their marks so they won’t appear to be unknowingly endorsing a particular brand or product. And because billions are made each year nationwide off licensed products and corporate sponsors, universities also need to protect their corporate partners that pay to play. Don’t get discouraged, though. Colleges understand that companies big and small want to tie into the campus community and revel in school spirit. Most are willing to work with you so it is done correctly and in a way that preserves the integrity of the school. The definition of “integrity” also tends to vary from school to school. The University of Minnesota (my alma-mater) backed out of the Pink Collegiate line because being associated with Victoria’s Secret lingerie was not in step with the school’s values.

A good test for any college marketer is to look over ad and marketing concepts carefully. The water gets murky when brands start to imply school endorsement of a product, so stay clear of copy or imagery that insinuates that. One example of this stemmed from a recent effort by Anheuser-Busch to sell and promote Bud Light in cans branded in university colors. Needless to say, the folks at Bud Light received a few certified letters in the mail.

However, using a mark as a statement of fact – such as saying “Movie screening tonight on the University of Florida campus!” or showing school spirit through copy that reads “Fighting Irish fans receive 10% off with a game day ticket stub” – is normally acceptable for use, but should still be cleared with the university’s licensing office.

The best thing for brands to do is gain approval for any mention or usage of a university logo, name, mascot or other mark. Gaining permission for general short-term usage is a relatively painless process that can be done by contacting the school’s campus licensing office and submitting an example of your advertisement for approval. For licensing matters, there is a good chance that Collegiate Licensing Company, which oversees the trademark rights of 200 colleges and universities, can help you out. Due diligence up front will save you a lot of time and money in the end.

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