By Jim Gourley
Best Defense military culture columnist
Christmas is almost upon us, which means military brats, Twitter junkies, and Google Earth nuts around the world will gather online for NORAD's yearly tracking of Saint Nick as he delivers presents across the globe. How the tradition began is a heart-touching story that demonstrates the holiday spirit. The tradition now enters its 58th year, and despite some PR snags you can keep faith that the Air Force will ensure it's an authentic experience.
Because they've trademarked it.
The Air Force took the legal step to secure rights to "NORAD Tracks Santa" just last year. As Air Force staff explained to the Denver Post, it was more to protect the endeavor from predatory marketers than to actually turn a profit (total sales of officially-licensed "I tracked Santa" shirts only totaled around $200). However, it was a highly visible step in what's become an aggressive Defense Department-wide initiative to craft the military's good name into a lucrative brand.
The program began in 2007 when the Defense Department issued a directive calling for the component services to establish a branding and trademark licensing office, which would answer to the DOD level through a separate office working for the undersecretary of defense for public affairs. Holding to its tradition of being first in the fight, the Marines were the most aggressive in the early going. In 2009, they began contacting large-scale print-on-demand t-shirt suppliers Zazzle and CafePress. It immediately shut down several small online retailers of military-themed hats and shirts. It even came up with rules applying to USMC-themed stuff sold on Etsy.
The other services quickly caught up. Between 2007 and 2011, sales of officially-licensed U.S. Army merchandise increased from $5 million to $50 million, more than $1 million of which went to the Army in the form of royalties. The services are fairly uniform in how they treat different manufacturers. So long as items are handmade and sold face-to-face, they don't intend to charge people on the grounds that they're probably engaging in healthy patriotism, which they ostensibly recognize as holding intangible value. But for enterprises taking in more than $250,000 annually from goods bearing the military stamp of approval, the services are happy to take up to an 8 percent cut of the profits. The margins are hardly chasing anyone away. As Catherine Traywick wrote on Foreign Policy recently, clothier Authentic Apparel Group has gone in big with the Army to create its first officially licensed fashion line. They even have a bona fide G.I. Joe modeling it. Paying The Rock to wear it and the Army to bless it must come with a price tag fitting a defense procurement contract. A pair of "Delta Pants" will cost you 80 bucks. The "Ultimate Bomber Jacket" runs just over $146 (down from $195!). It provokes one to wonder if the Air Force would sue the Army over infringement, however, since they do have all the airplanes.
Maybe they're betting on the drone pilot seat cushion. Or, more likely, Big Blue has its hands full dealing with its more than 200 official licensees. It's more than enough for the Marines. The website for their branding and licensing office specifically tells interested parties that they have maxed out the number of license holders for shirts, hats, and mugs. As laid out in the original 2007 directive, all income derived from licenses in excess of the various offices' operating expenses is channeled to morale, welfare, and recreation budgets. However, those operating expenses have ballooned with the increased interest in marketing. To help protect its brand, the Air Force has contracted a company to make holographic hang tags identifying officially licensed products. The Army partnered with global brand management company Beanstalk Group from the very beginning, helping them to launch more than 50 different product categories, from cologne to camping equipment, into 80,000 stores across the country.
Whatever the margins are, the sheer volume of the military merchandising complex makes it an extraordinarily lucrative -- and reliable -- market. With the military in possession of the most exotic gadgets and firmly holding the notoriety of America's most trusted institution, it seems unlikely that its consumer allure will fade in the near future. MWR coffers have a trustworthy inflow and the military message continues to propagate. It doesn't always go in expected directions, though. There have been a couple of noteworthy awkward copyright issues in the last couple of years. Video game maker NovaLogic sued rival ActiVision over the use of the name "Delta Force" in one of its Call of Duty games. The Army didn't touch that one, and eventually the judge dismissed the case. Navy officials were similarly relieved when public outcry dissuaded Disney from trying to copyright "SEAL Team 6" just days after the death of Osama Bin Laden. There would have been no way to object to the action, as you can't copyright what you don't acknowledge.
This leads to the final concern, and possible murky situations on the horizon. Loosely speaking, trademark law requires logos and marks to be used at least every five years for the trademark to remain in effect. That leaves a substantial number of "retro" designs ripe for the picking. And of course there's always room for creative interpretation. The guys at Ranger Up seem to have a good formula, and the outcome of Dan McCall v. Keith Alexander, debating whether a private citizen can use a governmental agency's logo in the context of political speech, ought to be as provoking as it is entertaining. Whatever the decision, if history is any indicator, the military will have a bottomless can of worms to accompany its golden goose.
Jim Gourley is an author, journalist, and former military intelligence officer.