As you peruse the aisles at your local grocery store, what you choose to put in your cart is just as likely to be influenced by price as it is by the brand name printed on the carton or bottle of whatever it is you are purchasing. You can make a reasonable assumption about a product’s quality based on its branding. That’s because the company represented by that brand has spent years earning your trust by selling you products of high value and quality in the past. The company has built a relationship with you by supplying the goods and services that suit your needs.
A university’s reputation works the same way. Students at UT enjoy the reputation that has been built and nurtured over the University’s nearly 130-year history. Thanks to UT’s high educational quality and successful sports programs, people who are otherwise unaffiliated with the school know to associate UT with academic and athletic excellence. Part of the reason that we pay to attend school here is because students know that a UT diploma will be attractive to potential employers who can trust that students graduating from UT will be high-quality employees.
UT’s “brand” of excellence has lately been co-opted into an ever-increasing array of consumer goods. Now UT’s reputation is used as a marketing tool in more places than just your resume; it also helps sell everything from bottled water to wind-generated electricity.
For years, UT’s Office of Trademark Licensing permitted the Longhorn logo and UT name to appear on University paraphernalia such as T-shirts, bumper stickers and other consumer items meant to promote school spirit. Lately, though, UT’s trademark mascot and colors have been appearing on items that aren’t what one would traditionally find in the school bookstore.
In 2010, UT licensed the image of the Tower for the first time to H2Orange LLC, which markets purified water in bottles shaped like the UT tower. Sales of the bottled water, which is endorsed by the Texas Exes as “the official water of the Texas Exes tailgating,” is meant to fund scholarships for UT students. Despite its benevolent intentions, the H2Orange’s launching sparked controversy among students, faculty and alumni concerned about the environmental consequences of the plastic bottles. Plans for a refillable stainless steel bottle and biodegradable plastic bottles announced by the company in 2010 have yet to materialize.
Later in 2010, UT Athletics, which oversees the Office of Trademark Licensing for the entire UT system, announced a “landmark sponsorship program” that would allow a Dallas-based company to sell electricity under the name “Texas Longhorns Energy.” In return for using the University’s logo, trademark colors and mascot to sell its product, Texas Longhorns Energy donates a portion of its profits to “support sustainability initiatives of UT Athletics and
Longhorn Bars are the most recent addition to the growing family of UT-licensed consumer goods and services. The company, which was founded by two UT alumnae, pays royalties to the University so that it can use the longhorn name, logo and colors in the branding of its products. Of these royalties, 12 percent are specially earmarked to support the University’s academic mission, according to The Daily Texan.
It is hard to criticize funding for scholarships, sustainability initiatives and academic expenditures, especially when budgets are being cut and funding is tight. Nonetheless, it also isn’t right to overlook the potentially negative consequences of these licensing deals just because they provide additional sources of income for the University.
H2Orange was launched as concerns about the tons of non-biodegradable plastic waste generated by single-use water bottles were coming to the fore. Similarly, Longhorn Bars are being introduced at a time when the public’s concerns about the connection between processed foods and health issues, such as diabetes and obesity, are growing. So many of the products for which the UT brand is licensed seem to contribute to today’s most challenging global and domestic problems.
Additionally, while all of these products claim to give people a way to show their support for UT, we should think twice before promoting a culture where you have to drink a special water or buy special electricity in order to “Bleed Orange.” People show their Longhorn pride every day upholding the University’s core values and by “contributing to the advancement of society through research, creative activity, scholarly inquiry and the development of new knowledge,” as stated by the University’s mission statement. Demonstrating school pride should not be made into yet another act of consumerism.
Finke is an architecture and urban studies senior.