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Erika Palmer, director of trademarks and licensing for UM, sits in her office on campus where almost every space is covered with Griz gear. The school sold a record $4 million in logo products in the last fiscal year.

Erika Palmer counted a record $4 million in sales of Griz products in the most recent fiscal year to fans of the University of Montana.

But Palmer, director of trademarks and licensing for UM, can't count the number of items with UM logos in her closet.

"Oh my gosh. My entire wardrobe," Palmer said last week.

In fact, she said her husband played football for the UM Grizzlies, their kids wear the brand, and their laundry piles on Sundays show the theme. "Every pile is red or maroon or of that tint."

Palmer, at UM some 16 years in all, counted 530,000 single units sold last year with the UM brand. Apparel accounts for most of the sold products, but mugs and sporting goods are popular, too.

The record 2018 fiscal year came despite another drop in students, and the healthy sales aren't an anomaly. UM's Cary Shimek, who has worked with Palmer at least a decade, described her as one of UM's "unsung heroes," pushing creative ideas, bringing in dollars, and being the "nicest person" to police the brand when necessary.

"We've had downturns in enrollment," Shimek said. "(But) the sales of our licensing has continued unabated."

Throwbacks

Palmer, who has a marketing and management degree from the UM College of Business, attributes the record in the most recent year to Big Sky Brewing Co.'s Griz Lager, created to celebrate UM's 125th birthday. She said 60 percent of the net profit increase came from the brew.

"It gave us a big push, and that was a really cool thing that we could offer for a short time," Palmer said.

She was behind the throwback jerseys that thrilled fans several years ago, too. When UM President George Dennison was at the helm, the flagship made the transition from copper and gold to maroon and silver, and Palmer said it was important to the late leader to make an impact with the new color in the market.

Toward the end of his tenure and the beginning of President Royce Engstrom's, fans and alumni started asking for the old colors. Palmer saw an opportunity to release the copper and gold in 2015 to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the colors being retired, and the throwback jerseys made a splash.

She said her proudest moment came this past fall with a program based on former quarterback Dave Dickenson, who led the Grizzlies to their first national football championship and was the second Montana Grizzly inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He returned to campus in September as part of the National Football Foundation's "On Campus Salute" in advance of the December induction.

"I was a huge Dave Dickenson fan. It was fun to be able to offer those colors again," Palmer said.

Some of the money from those sales goes to the scholarship set up in Dickenson's name.

Palmer also said she's proud UM works with Operation Hat Trick, which launched in 2014 and partners with campuses and their brands to support veterans. She said Operation Hat Trick has donated more than $1 million to organizations that support wounded veterans.

Policing the products

Shimek said he appreciates the significant role Palmer plays in promoting UM's identity.

"She does such a great job and there's such loyalty, and she's a key part of building our fan base," he said.

Shimek said it's also her job to protect the brand if someone is using it without permission. It's impossible to fully police every rogue T-shirt, but he said Palmer will not hesitate to let people know the right way to sell a product with a UM logo.

"She has some steel in her spine. She will call you up and say, 'Hey, you've got to cease and desist or you're going to get in trouble,'" Shimek said.

In most cases, Palmer said people simply don't know there's a protocol to follow, so she tries to be sensitive to them and use a "soft approach," although she said some days are tougher than others. Currently, UM counts just under 250 active licensees, 30 of them local vendors in Montana.

Of the $4 million in products sold last year, UM earned nearly $500,000, she said. The money goes toward supporting the funding for campus trademarks and branding, marketing and communications, community outreach and athletics. She said she hopes for another increase in the current fiscal year, but she's seen two or three dips since 2012 as well. 

UM works with an agency that helps manage its branding portfolio in products, and Palmer estimated the company represents 140 institutions in the U.S. In the first quarter of this fiscal year, UM moved up a few notches to No. 45 of its top merchandise sellers, ahead of schools such as both Duke University at 48 and Montana State University in Bozeman at 63.

Palmer said she's grateful to retailers who invest in the brand. Her job means thinking about the big picture and long-term plans in order to tell those retailers how to plan for the fall, for instance. It also means ensuring every type of thread that takes maroon dye looks just the right shade.

To her, the Griz fans are the best part of the gig.

"I think it's cool to be able to hear what the fans want and then be able to deliver that," Palmer said.

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University of Montana, higher education