Brand Extension
The Marketing Matchmaker

Originally published in Auburn Magazine

By Rob Lee

SOMEWHERE BETWEEN testing electronic warfare systems in the United States Air Force and working with IBM to develop their brand licensing program, 1982 electrical engineering alumnus Ray Uhlir realized he had a knack for marketing complex products.

Making the jump in 1988 from active military duty to engineering in the private sector, Uhlir went to work for a company called E-Systems (soon bought by Raytheon), where he focused on electronic and communication intelligence collection.

Uhlir said the products Raytheon produced were complex and difficult for the core sales and marketing team to understand. It was clear they needed an engineer’s expertise to guide their efforts.

“We ended up developing marketing programs for those and creating special branding and naming for those systems, so I was involved in a lot of that. That’s how I really got into the marketing aspects of the engineering business,” Uhlir said.

A native of Montgomery, Ala., Uhlir had looked at other colleges, but when he received an engineering scholarship, he chose to attend Auburn.

In 1996, IBM recruited him from Raytheon as the product line manager for digital signal processors in the semiconductor group, eventually naming him program director of brand strategy and licensing for the IBM brand.

“[IBM] was looking to expand their offerings; basically, we floated the idea of ‘hey, we can’t do everything ourselves and there are a lot of products that you want to [create], so why don’t we explore licensing the brand out to companies who are experts in their various fields? And we’ll be able to offer IBM­branded products in all of the categories that our customers want that we currently can’t provide them,”‘ Uhlir said.

Although IBM had a sterling reputation in the industry at the time, Uhlir said their products weren’t yet household staples -market research revealed that some consumers even considered the brand “old and stodgy.” Uhlir led the revitalization of IBM’s image by working to make the company’s offerings both attractive and attainable for the mainstream consumer.

That involved putting IBM in products where you normally wouldn’t find them. Uhlir helped lead the brand into paper printing, PC accessories, small business servers, multiline digital business phone systems and more.

“I managed the program globally and built it to at least a couple billion dollars of sales a year in licensed products, generating tens of millions of bottom-line profit for IBM,” said Uhlir. “That’s really how I cut my teeth in the whole licensing segment, and I’ve been in it for over 20 years now.”

After IBM, Uhlir established brand licensing programs in a similar capacity for companies like Motorola and Gibson guitars. Since 2010, he has served as the managing director of brand licensing for Leverage Marketing Corporation of America (LMCA), representing companies such as Ingersoll-Rand, HP and Westinghouse.

LMCA works mostly with mainstream corporate brands, acting as an agent that finds appropriate categories for companies to expand into utilizing brand licensing. One of the more iconic deals the company is known for is the Eddie Bauer and Ford Explorer collaboration -one of the first examples of combining a lifestyle brand with a vehicle company.

One of LMCA’s hallmarks is breathing life into dormant brands or brands that still enjoy slight market awareness, Uhlir said. Through licensing products, LMCA has established new points of distribution and brand outlook for a variety of clients.

“For example, Westinghouse is one of the brands we work with, and it was a huge company that used to be in everything from nuclear power to TV,” he said. “Over the last 15 years, we have brought Westinghouse back into the market; now you can see Westinghouse in things like TVs, small appliances, water heaters, consumer electronic accessories and smart home products.”

When it’s done well, the entire process looks seamless. The brand packaging and marketing look uniform and the process allows the brand owner to expand with new products and into new channels of distribution.

“Involving consumer electronics, appliances, industrial goods, consumer packaged goods, food, it really varies, but that’s the really interesting thing about this business -it involves so many diverse, well-known brands,” Uhlir said. “You can kind of think about what we do – at least what corporate brand ­licensing is – basically like talent agents for brands. But instead of representing celebrities, brands are our superstars.”

Read the Online Auburn Magazine Here

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