Who's Buying the Brands?

While potentially beneficial, the product licensing process is long and full of rules. These companies don't take chances with their names.

WITH 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Washington Redskins lead the Dallas Cowboys by four points. John, a 34-year-old construction worker, holds his breath as Cowboys quarterback Quincy Carter steps back and throws a deep pass to the end zone. Amid a throng of defenders, the ball is miraculously caught. John jumps off his couch and screams along with the television announcer, "Touchdown Cowboys! Dallas wins!" As he turns off the TV, he chuckles to himself, surprised at how much he's looking forward to Monday morning: Tomorrow, he can wear his Dallas Cowboys hard hat on the job site with pride.

The Branding Trend
Brands elicit "a strong emotional attachment which remains with people over time."
-- Suzanne Hogan, senior partner for Lippincott Mercer, a branding consultancy, (Brandweek, 44 no.27, 2003).

John and his hard hat are part of a product-branding trend that manufacturers say is taking the safety industry by storm. Sports team logos and players' names, popular recreational brands, and even some company names have long adorned T-shirts, baseball caps, and hundreds of other products, so some say it only made sense to incorporate these names into personal protective equipment.

"People are always looking for these products in stuff like pennants and baseball caps, but there was nothing like them in safety" said Jim Byrnes, product line manager, head, eye, face, and hearing for MSA Safety Products. "We noticed that people were always slapping these kinds of stickers on their plain hard hats."

With sales based largely on worker compliance, safety product manufacturers saw product branding as a definite opportunity. According to Byrnes, product branding meets two goals. "It brings out recognition for the product you're trying to sell, and it promotes the use of the product," he explained.

Anne Chambers, brand manager, eye and face protection for Bacou-Dalloz, agrees. "Brand names in general have been proven to drive sales," she said. "In the safety eyewear market, manufacturers are always looking for ways to drive compliance. When workers associate with a brand, the product will be more appealing and will be worn."

Brands of Choice
Not every brand will appeal to a wearer of safety equipment, of course, which makes brand selection extremely important.

Bacou-Dalloz chose the Harley-Davidson brand for a line of safety eyewear, based on its popularity and the associated attitude. "Harley-Davidson is the third most-recognized brand in the world and the number one brand tattooed on people's bodies," said Chambers.

Marketed under the slogan, "Don't lose your cool," safety eyewear products in the Harley-Davidson line feature the Harley-Davidson name, bar and shield logo, or flames imprinted on the temples and the Harley-Davidson name on the bottom right corner of the lens. Chambers said while wearing the eyewear might be as close as some will ever get to owning a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, it still says a lot about their personality. "Having Harley on a shirt, a tattoo, a jacket, etc. says something about the individual," she said. "It's all about the experience."

MSA Safety Products based its decision to carry both NFL and NASCAR branded products not only on popularity, but also because of how well the brands fit their market. "We looked at lots of other sports, but these just seemed to fit," Byrnes said. "NFL is a more rugged, hard hat kind of sport. People relate to it and even wear the hard hats to games."

Offered for all 32 NFL teams, MSA's NFL hard hats feature markings and colors identical to those on the helmets worn by NFL players. Byrnes said the company also hopes to add a college football product line.

The Nascar Signature Series line offers a choice of seven NASCAR drivers, with products featuring the driver's team logo, car number, and signature. The drivers offered on the line change about every two years. "We like to keep it fresh," Byrnes said. "We'll keep the stable drivers, but we like to add some of the young, up-and-coming guys."

While potentially beneficial, the product licensing process is long and full of rules. These companies don't take chances with their names.

According to Dan Masonson, a spokesman for the NFL, approximately only one of every 1,000 product licensing applications is approved, and the NFL is still cutting back. He said the organization licensed only two companies last year.

To be considered for a product license, a company must demonstrate the ability to produce and take to market a product for all 32 teams, Masonson said. "If someone in Green Bay wanted to license a product related to snow, it probably wouldn't work," he said. "What are people in Miami going to do with that?"

Unlike the NFL, NASCAR allows for contracts with individual driving teams.

All products carrying NFL, NASCAR, Harley-Davidson, or likely any other brand name must go through quality control for preapproval from the branding organization, a rule that also applies to all related advertising.

The Price of Style
In addition to the long and often restrictive licensing process, product branding includes other costs. On top of additional insurance requirements, a manufacturer must pay for the use of the brand through a royalty payment system. These payments can range from an amount based on forecasted sales figures to actual sales figures and may change over a period of time. "Each and every one is different," Chambers explained.

With both the NFL and the NASCAR drivers, royalty payments were based on a percentage of sales, but MSA also had to guarantee an amount up front. While all contracted NASCAR driving teams are guaranteed the same percentage, actual sales figures can result in differing payments.

Regardless of the royalty payment system, the ultimate result is an increased cost to the consumer. Products "generally cost more to cover the cost of royalties manufacturers have to pay for the use of the name," Chambers said, adding the increase is usually anywhere between 20 and 40 percent.

"You have to make up for your costs somewhere," Byrnes agreed. He said the amount "really depends on the product [and] the manufacturing process you have in place."

A standard MSA hard hat costs approximately $7. The company's NFL hard hats are being sold for $19.95.

Some safety managers and employees may find the price difference hard to justify. "I wouldn't hesitate to pay more for something that's good, that's going to last longer, the better product," said George Pitts, a safety coordinator for New Mexico-based Les File Drywall Inc. "What we'll pay really depends on the item. I have a pair of plain black safety glasses that work great. Overall, function is a lot more important."

Byrnes and Chambers point out the largest buyers of branded PPE are the employees themselves, not their employers. While Pitts thinks some of his employees would buy a branded product, he thinks most would still take the less expensive option. "There are probably some younger guys who want to look cool, but I think most of our employees would stick with what's free or less expensive," he said. "Shoot, we're still fighting the 'wear it until it wears out' attitude."

Style Minus the Brand
Responsible for the safety of anywhere from 150 to 300 employees at any given time, Pitts acknowledges stylized PPE might help increase compliance. "It seems it could, just because the workers would be more proud to wear it."

Despite the positive response reported by the manufacturers, Pitts thinks the branding trend might not be popular enough yet for his company to buy into. "It seems like it's becoming more common, but I wouldn't say it's a hit," he said. "I'd say 98 percent of the workers are still going with the plain old stuff."

Instead of investing in branded products, Les File Drywall puts extra money toward safety and other products that are decorated with the company logo, which the company gives as safety incentive awards. "I'd rather promote our company than some sports team," he said. "It shows that [our workers] are doing a good job and gives them the recognition they deserve."

A worker new to the company must initially provide his own hard hat. After a certain amount of time, if that worker has demonstrated a commitment to safety and to his job, he is awarded a hard hat with the Les File Drywall company logo. "It really works," Pitts said. "Guys are always asking me when they're going to get their hard hat. They want to feel like they're part of a team."

Les File Drywall employees are far from the only ones with an affinity for customized products. According to Byrnes, products customized with company logos, safety messages, patriotic images, and high visibility stripes account for a large portion of MSA's business. "We do more customization than we sell plain," he said. "People don't like plain vanilla-they like spice."

The Future of Style
Because they are more accustomed to this "spice" or variety of style options that they see as expressions of themselves, Pitts said he thinks the younger generation of employees may force employers to take a closer look at branded products in order to keep their employees happy and ultimately maintain compliance. "My son is in school and does this sort of work during the summer," he said. "He'll call me up going on and on about this and that glasses or those pants, telling me I should get them. He's really into that."

But branded or customized products may yet hold some appeal for even Pitts and the older generation of workers. "I did see someone today with a hard hat with an eagle or something like that on it," he said, laughing. "It looked pretty sharp."

This article originally appeared in the February 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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