It's beginning to look a lot like a corporate Christmas. Just take a peek at Santa's list. For Jeff, a C.P.A. who dreams of the open road, St. Nick is bringing a Harley-Davidson beach towel. Steve, a devoted cola drinker, is getting a sweatshirt emblazoned with the Coke trademark. Lara, a young sweet tooth, will find a pair of Hershey overalls under the tree. Dan, a Dr Pepper fan, will get a brand-new refrigerator (price: $529) plastered with his favorite soda's trademark. Indeed, as consumers head to the stores this week for the first official day of Christmas shopping, they will encounter a cornucopia of corporate logos. Companies have boldly stamped their name on everything from hats to shoes and telephones to toiletries.
Of course, corporations already put their logo on the principal products that they make. But now, to push their profile even higher and sometimes to bring in extra revenue, they have begun to license their name for use on all sorts of other items. Some $5 billion worth of such merchandise will be sold this year, up 20% from 1984. Says Thomas Murn, editor of Licensing Today, a trade journal: "It has enormous consumer appeal. Between now and the 1990s we will see an explosion of corporate licensing products."
Coca-Cola has made the biggest splash so far. Three years ago the company began a program to put its name on more than 30 different products, including radios and baseball bats. Last year Coke licensed its name to Murjani, the maker of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, which now offers 125 items of sportswear emblazoned with the cola's trademark. Sales of the clothes have been so effervescent that the beveragemaker opened a Manhattan store called Fizzazz to sell only Coca-Cola clothes. Shoppers sip free cola as they gaze at clothing displays projected onto a 25-ft. wall of viewing screens.
The first such licensed product was probably the Mickey Mouse watch in 1933. Retailers now annually sell more than $40 billion worth of these goods, ranging from Dynasty perfume to Mr T guitars. The popularity of corporate logos may have begun with people who proudly sported the brand names of machinery they used, such as farmers who wore International Harvester caps or truck drivers with Peterbilt belt buckles. Anheuser-Busch during the 1970s began to put its Budweiser logo on such souvenirs as dart boards and Frisbees.
So why are consumers so willing to become walking billboards? "Wearing these items is a way of broadcasting your preferences to the world," says Ellen Auster, a sociologist at Columbia University's business school. Many people want to assert something about their life-style, as in the case of young adults proclaiming their newfound privilege of drinking beer. Others want to reveal some hidden part of their personality. Says Auster: "The yuppie wears a Harley-Davidson shirt because it triggers a side of him that is most of the time suppressed."
Like many companies, Harley-Davidson started licensing its name partly to protect the reputation of its trademark. Shady operators were doing a brisk business in cheap, phony Harley souvenirs. So now, after a hot day on his Harley-Davidson bike, an easy rider wearing genuine Harley boots and a Harley shirt can reach into his Harley wallet and pull out some money to pay for a Harley-Davidson wine cooler. --By Stephen Koepp. Reported by Wilmer Ames Jr./New York