The corner of Matt Curran’s new office is filled with boxes and organized piles of clothes on the floor.
Curran, the director of Trademark Licensing and Social Responsibility at USC, along with the rest of his department, was recently transferred to a freshly painted former dentist’s office on the second floor of University Village — but the mess is not from the move.
Every day, product samples arrive in his mailbox — most printed with the logos and colors of other universities — their creators hoping for the Trademarks & Licensing Services department’s blessing to bear any of USC’s seven identifying marks instead.
Established in 1976, USC’s licensing program was one of the first programs of its kind on a university level. For the last 30 years, TLS has overseen the use of familiar school identifiers such as the USC block lettering, the university seal, the Traveler mascot, “Fight On!,” the Trojan head and the SC interlock.
The crop of prospects in the mound on the floor of Curran’s office are similar to ones that would have poured in 10 years ago — headgear, novelties, apparel — but USC’s commitment to fair labor practices in the last decade has made it harder for these hopefuls to appear on the bookstore’s shelves. USC’s licensing stipulations are some of the most stringent in the country and are now raising the bar for the future of university branding.
As a member of the Fair Labor Association (since 1999), the International Labor Rights Fund (since 2000) and the Designated Suppliers Program (since 2008), USC takes its social responsibility very seriously — and the world is noticing.
Last year, after joining the Designator Suppliers Program —an organization whose members agree to work with only a pre-approved list of fair-labor merchandise suppliers — USC’s licensing services was named the 2009 Synergy Award Program of the Year by the International Collegiate Licensing Association.
The road to royalties, however, still starts with a sample. Every month, a committee of representatives from TLS and other various campus groups holds a meeting where the 10-to-20 items that come in during the month go up on the chopping block and the comittee decides if they are worthy of the right to continue the licensing process.
“The idea is only one piece of the product,” Curran says. “The group has to weigh in on it.”
But getting the committee’s initial approval is the easy part.
While most collegiate licensing programs have some form of fair-labor agreement for licensees to adhere to, USC became one of the first in the country to erase the honor system and require third party factory audits to ensure compliance with the USC Workplace Code of Conduct.
“We’re taking a stand and saying that this is important to us,” Curran says.
The 2007 decision to firmly enforce the Code of Conduct — which includes general workers rights such as minimum-wage pay, overtime compensation and nondiscrimination — costs the university 88 unrenewed licenses from companies either unwilling or unable to meet USC’s new rules.
“It’s been hard to find replacement vendors,” said USC Pertusati Bookstore Director Dan Archer. ”We’ve been able to recover some products but not all.”
Although the stricter standards have driven some brands away, it is a risk that comes with a global gain. USC currently only has around 200 licenses, but all have had their manufacturer’s factories annually inspected by an auditor, ensuring that USC’s fair labor standards are being upheld.
“Part of that [low number] speaks to the nature of what it takes to get a license here,” Curran said. “If you’re not willing to go through the social compliance process, it’s not going to happen.”
USC began its effort to preserve workers’ rights in the late ‘90s during a lull in product sales stemming from poor sports team performances.
“When I came on board 15 years ago, the feeling of the Trojan Family was at an all time low,” Archer said.
But a morale boost in 2002 sparked a $10 million sales increase in general merchandise and the demand for USC-emblazoned products skyrocketed. Licenses were given out for typical fan gear like t-shirts and pullover hoodies, but also more specialized items like the Trojan head string lights and the ‘SC interlock hamburger brander currently in the bookstore.
“You can now find very unique products [at the bookstore], whereas you wouldn’t have seen that before,” Archer said.
The future of USC-branded products, however, might be less about marked up neckties and handcut brandy glasses and more about connecting the school with companies not normally associated with collegiate licensing.
“Because of where we are in L.A. and everything that goes on here, the evolution of the business will be to address the lifestyle options available,” Curran said. “There’s no end to the types of product we’re happy to accept.”