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Posted on Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 5:57 a.m.

Duct tape, underwear and pillow pets: How the block M is generating millions for the University of Michigan

By Kellie Woodhouse


University of Michigan fans donning their block M gear at a football game.

University of Michigan raked in $6 million in licensing revenue from June 2011 to July 2012, and it didn't all come from hoodies and T-shirts.

The Ann Arbor school has lent its brand to all sorts of retailers and items. Duct tape, Hello Kitty dolls and even the screws that hold your license plate in place — all these things and much, much more have been painted in maize and blue and printed with the block M.

In fact, you can buy a Michigan pillow pet for $20 at Meijer, a U-M snuggie for $30 on Amazon, lacy Wolverine underwear at Victorias Secret for $10.50 and, if you're looking for a yummy snack, you can pick up some "Go Blue!" Pop-Tarts.


A University of Michigan Hello Kitty doll.

There's even block M emoticons you can purchase and include in emails and text messages.

"Anything that seems to be a trend in the general retail market, there always seems to be an application for the collegiate brand as well," said Kristen Ablauf, U-M director of trademark licensing.

The school receives 10 percent of the wholesale sales of most licensed items.

Collegiate licensing is a $4.6 billion enterprise and U-M generated the fifth-highest licensing earnings of any university in fiscal 2012, according to Collegiate Licensing Company rankings.

"People are so attached [to their college brand] because everyone has a unique memory that can be tied back to these universal images," said Sean O'Brien, co-founder of TextPride, a smartphone application that allows users to post brand images in their text messages, social media posts and emails. TextPride launched two weeks ago and O'Brien says that Michigan, Alabama and Notre Dame have been the top three brands adopted by the roughly 5,000 app users.

U-M's licensing revenue climbed 22 percent in fiscal 2012, rising $1.1 million from the previous year's revenue of $4.9 million.

"It had a lot to do with increased excitement about the new football coach and the new football program in general," said Ablauf. Second-year football coach Brady Hoke has generated a lot of buzz among U-M's fan base and athletic director Dave Brandon has capitalized on that with a push to revamp athletic marketing and heighten the fan experience during game days.


Limited-edition collegiate Pop-Tarts went on sale this fall.

Trademark licensing has increased by more than 76 percent over the past decade. Revenues were $3.4 million in fiscal 2002.

U-M's first-quarter royalty earnings in fiscal 2013, the current year, were $2.2 million.

Roughly 70 percent of licensing revenue is from apparel. The biggest area of growth in recent years, according to Ablauf, has been in infant, toddler and women's clothing. Women's clothing, for example, now comprises just under 20 percent of apparel sales.

When the school offers licenses, they're restricted to a line of items. For example, a company can request to use the school's trademark on a pair shoes and, if approved, that license won't apply to non-footwear items unless otherwise noted. (Speaking of shoes, TOMS recently received a license to sell M-block shoes as part of its college line.)

U-M fielded 82 license requests in fiscal 2012 (approving 70 percent) and 81 requests in fiscal 2011 (approving 56 percent).

Top 5 U-M licensees in 2011-2012:

  • 1. Adidas
  • 2. Knights Apparel
  • 3. Outerstuff Ltd.
  • 4. J2 Licensing Ltd.
  • 5. Top of the World

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.



Thu, Nov 29, 2012 : 4:37 p.m.

A historical note: Michigan State Normal College (Now Eastern Michigan University) was the first to use the Block M on their athletic jerseys. Michigan, however, later decided to trademark it as their own. I wonder what would happen if students at Eastern wanted to use their Block M again?


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 11:23 p.m.

By all the delicate AA dot come censoring, I think it's safe to say that the UM panty line was well received by the guys!!


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 8:19 p.m. this link should explain some stuff

Steven Murphy

Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 7:03 p.m.

Nice job of marginalizing.


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 7:03 p.m.

The revenue distribution between the Athletic Deartment and the rest of the University is, or at least, was for a long time a sore spot. I haven't heard anything about it lately, so things may have changed, but some years ago I believe all the licencing revenue went to the Athletic Department. Whcih was widely seen as unfair, as the Block M is associated with the University as a whole, and not just athletics. So if a T-shirt said "Mathematics" and a featured a Block M, it's all Athletics, and nil for Math, money-wise.

music to my ear

Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 4:14 p.m.

I really get my money worth since one of my initials start with an M


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 3:59 p.m.

I really wish more of U of M's merchandise was Made in USA. Seems like their licensing procedures can be negotiated to include that.


Tue, Nov 27, 2012 : 12:18 a.m.

Would you be willing to pay 3 or 5 tines the price for that item?


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 3:40 p.m.

Headline is misleading. It should read " the block M is generating millions for U-M's Department of Athletics." I think that a portion of these revenues only filter through to the University insofar as they are used to help pay tuition for athletic scholarships. Otherwise, the proceeds remain with Athletics.


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 3:22 p.m.

Wonder if someone will bid for that maize-and-blue hydrant some Buckeyes placed at a dog relief station . . .


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 2:24 p.m.

There is WAY too much red in that photo! We need a new one without that color from the state down south!


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 3:09 p.m.

Joe, They don't get to have a color. ;-)

Ron Granger

Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 2 p.m.

So if an item costs $3 to produce and sells for $40, the U gets Forty Cents?


Tue, Nov 27, 2012 : 12:15 a.m.

The $3 item is sold to a retailer for $20 who sells it for $40. $20 is the WHOLESALE PRICE.

Ron Granger

Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 9:02 p.m.

Mick, the article says it is from the wholesale price.


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 3:11 p.m.

The % is from the sale price.

Great Lakes Lady

Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 2:26 p.m.

Certainly any product costing $3 to produce is made in China or offshore.


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 1:46 p.m.

I wonder why the U-M Pop Tarts are strawberry. Shouldn't they be either lemon or blueberry?


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 1:38 p.m.

It's nice to see all the UM students all stepping up to show their school spirit.

Tim Hornton

Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 1:17 p.m.

If I paid about $100,000 for my education then I'd be strutting my logos off too. Also I wonder how much "School of Sociology" window stickers for vehicles generates in revenue to the University each year?


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 1:07 p.m.

Mel Brooks had it right: "Merchandising, merchandising, where the real money from the movie is made. Spaceballs-the T-shirt, Spaceballs-the Coloring Book, Spaceballs-the Lunch box, Spaceballs-the Breakfast Cereal, Spaceballs-the Flame Thrower...." Leveraging the brand is powerful because there is direct benefit (revenue) and indirect benefit (people pay to do advertising for the school), to say nothing of the reenforcing circle of brand loyalty. Props to Ms. Ablauf and the staff for successfully managing it.

Tex Treeder

Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 12:39 p.m.

Please clarify: How is this revenue split between UM and the Athletic Department?


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 12:12 p.m.

Well I've been waiting for fan feet high heels to get licensed. Would love a pair of these


Tue, Nov 27, 2012 : 4:40 p.m.

They're not high heels, but Tom's shoes has UofM canvas shoes. When you buy a pair they donate a pair of shoes to needy children


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 11:43 a.m.

I also noted last summer that many of the television programs had characters who were Michigan fans and there were block M items such as chairs, sweatshirts and banners that were displayed in the pictures. I tried to FOIA any agreements with those shows for product placement but the University claims there are no such agreements. I doubt the producers would put logos into shows without permission. I would like to know what sort of arrangements the University makes for this kind of "branding".


Tue, Nov 27, 2012 : 7:01 p.m.

I don't know about movies, but I can tell you for certain that TV shows that use U-M products do NOT pay us. I know, because I'm the one they call for permission.


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 3:10 p.m.

I don't doubt at all the U would develop such an arrangement. It probably would cost more to pursue it that it is worth. I have heard though that in the film/tv industry people affiliated with various colleges will insert an item from their alma mater. Michigan has a lot of graduates in the film industry, like Lawrence Kasden. He directed and wrote the movie "The Big Chill," a movie about a group of Michigan graduates and in at least one scene I believe Kevin Kline wears a Michigan shirt while out jogging. I think the logo placement dollars are limited more to corporations like auto companies and companies like Coke, Pepsi, Budweiser, etc. Even if the U did do it they would hire a law firm so they can deny you on client/attorney privilege.

Great Lakes Lady

Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 2:23 p.m.

There are "placement" companies that prominently display your product or logo for a movies, TV shows, etc. There's no free lunch.


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 1:41 p.m.

>> I doubt the producers would put logos into shows without permission. I would like to know what sort of arrangements the University makes for this kind of "branding". << I don't know in fact, but it may be U-M has made the judgment that the occasional use of the block M etc. in TV shows is far more valuable than the modest license fee U-M might get, and that requiring a license would discourage such use to U-M's net detriment.


Mon, Nov 26, 2012 : 11:24 a.m.

Licenses are usually even more restrictive then noted, i.e. "12 inch doll made of vinyl" allowing licenses for 11 inch, 13 inch, and other materials to be licensed to another firm.