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Volume 20 No. 42
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A licensing idea that’s really nuts

David Alper owns New York Giants season tickets that were once his dad’s, and he started going to Giants games when he was teething. So you would think he has seen everything possible to make with a “NYG” logo on it.

However, faced with time to kill in Indianapolis before the recent Super Bowl, he stopped at a merchandise store at the NFL Experience and found something unique: a string of Giants and Super Bowl XLVI-logoed kukui nuts. That he was already wearing a Giants jersey and a cap already didn’t matter; he forked over $30 for a Giants/Super Bowl lei necklace.

“A lot of that stuff was cookie-cutter, but these jumped right out,” said Alper. “They really allow you to show off a logo in a place people aren’t expecting it.”

Since the Giants won their fourth Super Bowl title hours later, Alper may never take them off. The beads brought him good luck, or ia manuia, as they would say in the South Pacific, where they are made.

Willie Salave’a has found a niche with team-logoed jewelry made from kukui nuts.
The licensed kukui nuts are the brainchild of Willie Salave’a, a Samoan who’s been granted permission by MLB, MLS, the NBA, NFL and NHL in the past 10 months to sell licensed kukui nut leis. Salave’a’s Style Pasifika company has grown from two people sharing a folding table and a “shipping center” that doubled as a garage to eight full-time employees, 25 sales representatives and projected sales of $3.5 million this year.

For Super Bowl orders this year, the company bought and strung together 1.3 million kukui nuts. It now claims to be the world’s biggest purchaser of kukui nuts, surpassing the state of Hawaii, wherein kukui is the state tree. However, Style Pasifika’s kukui nuts come from the Philippine island of Mindanao, where the jewelry is also made.

Kukui nuts have been polished and strung as leis and other jewelry by South Pacific islanders for years. They have also

been used in cooking and to manufacture dyes, inks, candles and oils. Not until recently however, were they a licensed product.

Salave’a grew his Las Vegas business from being the largest importer of Hawaiian floral leis to the pioneer of licensed kukui nuts almost coincidentally, when a company he was buying floral leis from sent him a bunch of orange and black painted kukui nuts.

Salave’a figured it was cheaper to make leis out of the nuts than to return them. In 2006, while the leis were on sale inside a Vegas casino, a woman who ran the San Francisco Giants fan club asked if she could order 500 leis, since black and orange are the Giants’ colors. Salave’a saw a business opportunity.

In 2007, he went to a college trade show with logos painted on beads, not knowing a license was required. Eventually he became a sublicensee of an affiliate of the Collegiate Licensing Company. By 2008, he had his own license, and with the help of some Polynesia marketing support in the form of costumed dancers in parking lots outside of USC Trojans football games, gross sales were as high $15,000 per game.

“They’re like a jersey you wear around your neck,” said Salave’a.

The cultural connection, which Style Pasifika plays up with ties to the NFL’s Samoan players, also helps.

“Everyone has great memories of the islands and you put that together with the passions that fans have, it’s a real emotional pull,” Salave’a said.

Further ia manuia came his way when his booth at a licensing show happened to be near Gene Goldberg, who had recently become an industry consultant after almost 30 years with the NFL’s licensing group. Nobody gets an NFL license quickly, but Style Pasifika was granted a license within four months, and licenses from the other leagues followed quickly.

“This is a licensed product that speaks directly to why sports are important to people — they are a community, a connection. People want to show that, and this is a unique way,” said Brian Jennings, NHL executive vice president of marketing.

Added NBA licensing chief Sal LaRocca, “They are unique and authentic. Those are two crucial qualities in making sports appealing, so there’s a natural fit.”

NFL kukui products arrived at retail just as the season started and are now available in team shops, Lids, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Following the kukui leis, now at retail are bracelets (around $14) and earrings (around $10) that will get their official launch at this week’s NFL Consumer Products Summit in Kansas City.

Next is the crucial question for any new licensing hit: Are they a fad or enduring?

“There have been Mardi Gras bead licenses for years; for now this is a one-of-a-kind. As long as it stays that way, there will be a market,” Goldberg said.

“Because this is a unisex product, I feel like we have another five years, and we’ll be adding more things from the islands, like surfing and tiki images,” said Salave’a, whose company has also been making licensed products for the Harlem Globetrotters and Jimmy Buffett. Smiling, he adds, “Of course, a lot of people think I’m nuts. But I take that as a compliment.”