The Business of Greek Life: Fraternity and Sorority Merchandise, Trademarks, and Licensing
If you know anything about fraternities and sororities, you probably know they are all about custom t-shirts. From rush week to formal and every event in between, there’s a t-shirt for any occasion.
But before you go ahead with placing or taking that order, there’s one very important thing you need to know about: licensing!
What is licensing?
You may not have given it much thought before, but the logos used by each Greek organization are trademarks.
This means that the Greek letters, names, mascots, crests, and any combination thereof are protected by law. So unless you have an official license to produce merchandise containing their marks, those organizations have the right to come after you for damages.
National fraternities and sororities fiercely protect their trademarks. Greek organizations frequently pursue cases of trademark infringement and have won several court cases in their efforts to protect their marks.
The only way to legally produce any merchandise that includes fraternity or sorority letters and logos is to get a license from that organization. That license is an agreement between your company and the Greek organization that will allow you to produce items containing their marks in exchange for royalties. Essentially the royalties are an exchange for the goodwill and affinity customers may associate with the group.
Selby Werner is the Director of Trademark Enforcement for Affinity Consultants, the licensing consultancy behind GreekLicensing.com. “Trademarks are property, assets, and a form of capital, and so just like any other property it’s important that they [Greek organizations] maintain them and make sure that they’re being used appropriately,” said Werner. “Just like any brand – the NFL, Nordstrom’s, or Apple – they all have brands that are valuable and they work hard to make sure that they impart an image of that organization’s history, heritage, and the values of that organization or company.”
Why do I need a license?
The obvious reason is that if you’re interested in working in the market of Greek organizations, licensing is the only way to do so legally. Other than that, there are other reasons why Greek organizations protect their marks and why getting licensed will benefit you.
Most national Greek organizations only allow their members to purchase merchandise and promotional items from licensed vendors. The main reason that Greek organizations are so persistent about only working with licensed vendors is that many of those organizations have hundreds of years of heritage to protect. They want to make sure that the Greek letters and crests that represent their organization are only used in ways that reflect their organizations values and standards.
The Greek market contains more than 8 million members nationwide, but you won’t be able to get in on any of that potential business if you aren’t officially licensed. Whether the Greek organization runs its licensing agreements through Affinity Consultants or has its own licensing agreement, most groups maintain their own list of approved officially licensed vendors for their members to purchase from.
Werner said, “By using licensed vendors they can ensure that they’re protecting those marks in the most efficient and effective way possible.”
When vendors are licensed through Greek Licensing, they receive an Official Licensed Product seal to display on their website and marketing materials. According to Werner, most Greek organizations have a “no seal, no deal” policy. So getting licensed opens your business’ doors to the Greek community.
(Quality Logo Products® is currently not an officially licensed vendor.)
When do I need a license for Greek merchandise?
The short answer to this question is “always,” but I’ll give you the long answer, too!
Whether you are a retail-based company and plan on producing a whole line of shirts and tote bags with Greek letters on them, or a promotional products company like Quality Logo Products® doing a custom order, anytime you are creating a product with Greek marks to sell commercially, you need a license.
“The national organizations, many of them have more than 100 years of history and heritage, and they need to protect that.” – Selby Werner, Director of Trademark Enforcement for Affinity Consultants
It’s important to note here that individual members or chapters are not the trademark owners. In other words, if an individual member comes to you with a custom order, even if they say it’s okay to place the order, they don’t actually have the power to give you that permission. Since individual members don’t own the marks, you still need to get a license from the national organization in order to print those items!
Werner said, “The national organization owns the mark, so therefore they have the right and the obligation to control how that mark is used.”
The only time a license is not required is when members of the organization want to make their own items by hand for non-commercial use. For example, if a sorority sister wanted to make another sister a bookmark or tote bag with their sorority’s letters on it, since it is a personal gift and won’t be sold for any kind of profit, she is allowed to do so. This only applies to items made by hand, so Greek members, bust out your puffy paint!
“It’s a privilege for the members to be able to use the marks for their own personal use, but the national organizations can’t necessarily leave it up to the members how the marks will be used because they don’t necessarily have the bigger picture in mind,” said Werner. “The national organizations, many of them have more than 100 years of history and heritage, and they need to protect that.”
How do I get licensed?
Now that you know all about why you need a license to sell Greek merchandise, you’re probably wondering how you get licensed!
There are a couple of different ways to acquire licenses for Greek marks. The first would be to go through Affinity Consultants, who protect and license the marks of more than 100 different Greek organizations. Through GreekLicensing.com, vendors are able to get licenses to produce merchandise for any of the organizations that they represent. The other option applies only to organizations that do not run their licensing program through Affinity Consultants, but we’ll get to that a bit later! Let’s start with the licensing process for GreekLicensing.com.
In order to become licensed through GreekLicensing.com, it takes a few steps:
- First, vendors fill out a short online application
- Vendors must submit a physical sample from each product category and one of each method that’s used to embellish the product
- There is a $20 application fee per organization and every organization requires vendors to agree to pay a royalty of 8.5% of gross sales
According to Werner once all of those requirements are met, the vendor is sent the agreement through Affinity Consultants’ electronic submitter. Once the vendor signs it, it is forwarded electronically to the Greek organization, which counter-signs it. “Once both parties have signed it, then it’s duly executed and the vendor has permission to use the marks,” said Werner.
“We’ve worked really hard and invested a lot of resources into making this process as easy, as simple, and accessible as possible to vendors of all sizes.” – Selby Werner
The good news is that once you’ve applied to be a vendor for the first time, the application process for any other organizations that you choose to get licenses for through GreekLicensing.com will be simple! According to Werner, the first application typically takes between 1-2 weeks to be processed, and then any subsequent applications are usually turned around within a few days. In addition, once you submit your physical samples with your first application, you do not have to re-submit them for every subsequent application.
Again, the reasoning for all of these steps in the licensing process is because the Greek organizations want to ensure that their marks are only used by vendors that will uphold their organization’s values and standards. So Affinity Consultants uses each step of the application process to make sure everything from the company they use to the products and printing processes are up to their clients’ standards.
So what kind of things don’t meet their standards? In general, anything that is not a good reflection of the organization and the Greek community as a whole. Specifically, most Greek organizations want to avoid any association between their fraternity or sorority and drinking. Werner explained that most groups will not approve of any kind of glassware because it can be associated with drinking. Other products that won’t be approved include bottle openers and flasks.
Aside from these products, there is a very high likelihood you will be approved to become a licensed vendor.
“We’ve worked really hard and invested a lot of resources into making this process as easy, as simple, and accessible as possible to vendors of all sizes,” said Werner. “I’d say probably about 95% of vendors who apply are approved if they complete the whole process.”
Once you become an officially licensed vendor through Affinity Consultants, there are still a few more important requirements:
- All licensed vendors have to provide proof of a $1 million product liability insurance
- Licensed vendors are required to use the Official Licensed Product logo on their website and social media to identify themselves as officially licensed
- Even though you are licensed, each unique design needs to be approved by Affinity Consultants before it can be printed
Wait…even with a license I still need artwork approval?
Let’s talk about that artwork approval process a bit more, shall we? Whether you are adding a new design to your retail catalog or creating a new custom order, your artwork must be approved before you can proceed. Werner said, “Each unique design needs to be approved so we can make sure it meets the standards of our clients, their values and their brand guidelines.”
Vendors upload their artwork to the GreekLicensing.com website, and then Affinity Consultants has a full-time team that reviews each design and approves them typically within 24-48 hours. Even though it’s a relatively quick process, if you do create custom orders make sure that you factor this artwork approval process into your timeline!
“One of the great things about our clients is that most of them are flexible when it comes to creative license in how the marks are used as long as they’re within the standards of the organization,” said Werner. “There are exceptions to this, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that their Greek letters need to be in a certain color or a certain font. There’s flexibility when it comes to that. Things like their crests, those can’t be altered in any way, but most other things are pretty flexible.”
Werner said that while it’s true that many groups are flexible, there are some groups that are more rigid and careful about their brand guidelines, which is why the artwork approval process is so important!
What if my desired group isn’t on GreekLicensing.com?
If the organization you are planning on producing merchandise for is not a client of Affinity Consultants, then you will have to go through that individual organization’s licensing process. Fraternities and sororities that don’t issue their licenses through GreekLicensing.com all have different policies, application processes, and fees, but most national Greek organizations have links and documentation about licensing readily available on their websites. When in doubt, always reach out to the organization before you proceed with an order!
Greek licensing is a tricky landscape to navigate, but certainly worthwhile if you are interested in breaking into a new large market. By getting officially licensed, you gain access to a really niche market that has over 8 million members nationwide! Whether you are a business looking to enter the Greek market or a member of a Greek organization, be sure that all of the merchandise you sell or purchase is legal.
What do you think? Did you know you need a license in order to print Greek merchandise? Have you run into any issues with Greek licensing? Do you have any questions I didn’t answer? Sound off in the comments below!