Soft sell bears

June 30, 2006

From teddy bears to tea caddies, graduation gifts are money-spinners. Olga Wojtas goes shopping

It is not only lecturers, students and vice-chancellors who were anxiously hoping that graduations would go ahead this year. The graduation season is the peak selling time for the lucrative market of university-branded products because of the sentimentality of the occasion.

Sue Rees, alumni relations manager at Ulster University, says: "Far and away the bestseller is the university teddy bear, with a mortar board and university scarf, which costs £12. They just run off our stall at graduations." Bescarved teddies are a sector staple: Imperial College London's Bobbie Bear costs £18.95, Sheffield Hallam University's a mere Pounds 7.60. They sit alongside crested cufflinks (£45, Newcastle University), baseball caps (£4.99, Durham University), keyrings (£5.95, Luton University) and pen sets (£14, Paisley University).

But Robert Mighall, a former academic who is senior consultant at university branding specialists Lloyd Northover, believes there is a widespread view that there is something "quite naff" about traditional university merchandise. "In every American film you see someone going into their den where there's a pennant from their alma mater. That kind of gung-ho identification is not very British - we're not a great nation of flag-wavers." Mighall would like to see a drastic revamp of the products on offer. Some universities are already forging ahead, with games and toys based on their research strengths. But it depends very much on who the products are targeted at - the students or their parents.

"I imagine branded products are the kind of thing that parents buy when they're carried away by the wine and strawberries," Mighall says. "They've been supporting little Jessica through her degree and want some tangible evidence of their investment."

While teddy bears apparently appeal particularly to female graduands, university sales staff admit that students' parents are usually the main purchasers of mementoes. Perhaps this is because students feel they have accumulated enough debt. Rees has frequently witnessed students protesting to parents who want to buy a university tie, saying that they already have one. "They've bought one for their graduation, and think it's the only one they're ever going to need."

David Hull, supervisor of the Edinburgh University Centre, says that ties seem to be out of favour with the younger age group and the university has discontinued ladies' headscarves. So what are the big sellers?

"Graduation is a time when people are celebrating, and they may buy champagne glasses or prestige items such as silver cufflinks or jewellery,"

Hull says. Most buy clothing "so that they can wear the university name with pride wherever they go", he adds.

Mighall is not so sure that the old staples are still in demand, at least among students. "A university sweatshirt is something you might wear when you are gardening or jogging. I don't think a university would have a very strong brand unless it manifested itself in an ironic way, perhaps with a cartoon version of one of the animals in the shield, probably doing something obscene."

Hull, though, says that at Edinburgh clothing is attractive precisely because it is fairly conservative - the colours are sober and the logo is "discreet and tasteful". "It's not like some of the American stuff that is very flash," he says. "T-shirts that have great big logos tend to be bought not by the students but by tourists." Hull says tourists tend to buy T-shirts, smaller items such as bookmarks and keyrings, or particularly Scottish products such as the quaich, a traditional two-handled drinking cup.

For the Russell Group universities in particular, tourists are a crucial market. The majority of those buying Oxford University-branded clothing, for instance, are tourists, says Mike Davis, managing director of Oxford Limited. "Tourists love clothing such as Oxford sweatshirts and rugby shirts."

Oxford and Cambridge differ from other universities in having graduations throughout the year, and targeting tourists as well as students substantially increases their revenue from branded products.

"We have 18,000 students, 250,000 alumni, 50,000 staff, 35,000 people coming for conferences and summer schools, and 7 million annual visitors to (the city of) Oxford," says Davis. Oxford first got involved in merchandising 15 years ago after the London department store Liberty's indicated that it was interested in using the university's archives to develop designs for scarves. In recent years, the university's merchandising has had an annual turnover of about £200,000. At Edinburgh turnover is about £100,000 a year, with annual sales income rising by about £10,000 a year since 2002, a trend that is expected to continue.

But, substantial as these sums are, Oxford has decided that its drive for funds requires a more aggressive strategy for marketing branded products.

It has set itself a target of delivering £5 million over three years.

Some of its merchandise has a startlingly high price tag: a hand-painted tea caddy goes for £67.50, and there's a silver-lidded version tagged "price on application". These types of gift could be for guest speakers at conferences held in the university. But the prices pale into insignificance compared with those charged by US Ivy League universities, which offer personalised captain's chairs for hundreds of dollars.

Oxford says it is not aiming to increase its turnover by weighting its catalogue towards luxury items. Instead, it aims to capitalise on a wider concept of university branding than a logo on a hoodie.

It has developed a range of scientific toys, "Discover and Explore", with the help of its researchers. "It's a fantastic outlet for the passion of people in departments, the fact that they can share their expertise," Davis says. The prospect of further educational games, involving history, languages and ecology, is also being investigated. Branding experts think the move could signal a new trend in university merchandising, with more institutions capitalising on their academic strengths.

Mighall says the market could also be bucked by changes in university funding. He predicts, for instance, that students may feel a stronger bond with their institution as they pay for their education through top-up fees.

And he says moves to forge closer relationships between universities and their alumni may move them towards a more professional American model and increase the market for branded products. "But students will want sophisticated and meaningful merchandise," he speculates.

Hull adds that a concern in future will be ethical trading: "Students are involved in campaigns for trade justice and other international and environmental issues."

Edinburgh ensures that it buys only from producers with an ethical policy whose business practices are monitored by organisations such as Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production.

Harvard University, on the other hand, advertises an exclusive collection of university apparel by Nike, dogged for years by sweatshop allegations. This is one US trend that Edinburgh has no plans to follow.

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