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Armed Forces Take Aim at Licensing

By: Mark Seavy

Armed forces are expanding their licensing campaigns as they seek to appeal to a new generation of recruits. 

In doing so, different branches of the armed forces are designing style guides and licensing programs with a focus on attracting female and Gen Z consumers, licensing executives said. 

The U.S. Army, for example, has 250 licensees across wholesale and its military exchanges. In 2023, it launched a new style guide for its partners, said Caren Chacko, SVP for Brand Management at Beanstalk, which has represented the U.S. Army for licensing since 2004.  

The new guide revived the Army’s “Be All You Can Be” motto, which was in place for 20 years starting in 1981 before being replaced by “Army of One” and then “Army Strong.” The Army’s logo was also revised with bolder colors and a slightly different design. 

 The majority of licensees are transitioning to the new logo and motto this year and, as part of this new launch, the U.S. Army is working with partners to develop apparel and jewelry for women as well as drones, electronics, and pickleball products aimed at Gen Z consumers. 

This focus on connecting with new demographics through consumer products is a possible response to the fact that more traditional recruiting efforts have fallen short of recent targets. The U.S. Army, for example, targeted attracting 60,000 new recruits in 2022 but ended up with 45,000, a shortfall it partly blamed on Covid reducing its access to schools and events.  The Army also is targeting recent college graduates and individuals entering the workforce to bring a new demographic of soldiers.  It also targeted 60,000 recruits for 2023. 

In addition to serving as a recruitment tool, licensing programs tied to the armed forces also serve the purpose of protecting trademarks. In the U.S., this was something that became an issue in 2014 as soldiers returned from combat in regions like Iraq and Afghanistan with business plans that traded on their military affiliation. At the same time, established companies also had their sights set on military brands.  

The U.S. Marine Corp registered one trademark in 2003, but that increased to nine by 2011 and has grown in the years since. In 2011, following a raid by Navy SEALS on Osama bin Laden’s complex in Pakistan, Disney filed a trademark application for “SEAL Team 6.” The company later withdrew the application and the U.S. Navy responded by filing registrations for “SEAL team” and “Navy SEALs.” 

“Recruiting and protecting the trademarks are the two main reasons for licensing,” Chacko said. “You want to make sure the licensed products are done in a respectful way and for recruiting, you want to make sure the right message is getting out about the U.S. Army.” 

In delivering its brand message, the U.S. Army, for one, has launched products in 150 categories. Its licensing program generates about $74 million annually in revenue, a portion of which goes to the Moral Welfare and Recreation (MWR) program, which provides support services for military personnel and their families.  

Licensing appears to be a focus moving forward, with all four U.S. military branches represented at the recent SHOT and Sports Licensing and Tailgate shows in Las Vegas. And while licensing agreements for the various branches of the military contain many of the same contract provisions as agreements for other brands, there are some added provisions. 

Products connected to the U.S. Marines, for example, carry 2.5% and 3.5% royalties for retail and wholesale, respectively, for products made in the U.S. For products manufactured outside the U.S., the royalties increase to 10% (retail), 12% (wholesale), and 14% (distributor/FOB/letter credit). There is also a processing fee (running from $100 up to $1,500) and an annual minimum guarantee (from $500 to $10,000) based on a company’s size and sales volume. 

“The military branches really want to control their brands and they are policing them very heavily to make sure that they are following the brand structure,” said James McCullough, Director of Licensed Sales at apparel supplier Blue84. “They are probably pickiest with their logos, but they need to be that way.” 

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