Guardians of the Brand: Inside the MTA’s Licensing Strategy

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Heavey’s department is responsible for overseeing all the marketing and licensing efforts of the MTA, which range from licensing the authority’s trademarks for consumer goods to approving usage of the city’s trains and buses for film and television. Heavey is a 35-year veteran of the marketing industry, having joined the MTA 10 years ago. He says his focus is less on licensing consumer products than it is on protecting the MTA’s brands and helping maintain a positive image for the authority in the public’s mind.

“It’s really more about quality control than it is about creating revenue, but the more we can get people to use those marks, the more protected those marks become,” Heavey says.

Bringing the City Home

Although licensing isn’t Heavey’s main focus at the MTA, there have been a number of exciting recent developments on that front nevertheless. He says the MTA recently signed a deal with Uncommon Goods to produce house signs based on the New York City subway’s distinctive tile mosaic signs that mark many stations around the city.

The MTA’s New York Transit Museum also recently brought its ecommerce site entirely in-house for the first time. This ecommerce site is where shoppers can find products featuring MTA trademarks ranging from jewelry to prints of subway maps, with all sales benefiting the Museum, the largest museum in the United States devoted to urban public transportation history.

Heavey explains that the authority brought the site in-house after years of outsourcing it to retain more of the revenue generated by the site, but also to become more intelligent about what customers want through monitoring data from the site.

Already, the MTA is making more informed decisions about the licensing agreements it signs based on information from the ecommerce site, Heavey says. In recent years, the authority has expanded licensing agreements with licensees in Japan and the United Kingdom, and it is looking into forging agreements with licensees in South America and Israel. Heavey says the majority of tourists who visit New York City from abroad these days come from Brazil. By collecting information from its ecommerce site and working closely with the city’s own marketing department, the MTA can better understand the people visiting the city and better research the types of licensed products they are interested in buying.

Protecting the Brand

More important than the licensing aspect of what Heavey does is protecting the MTA brand, he says. For example, the authority has done a lot to make the entire transit system graffiti-free, and the MTA works to ensure that any depiction of subways or buses in the media reflect that. Heavey says that the authority is approached frequently by advertising agencies representing clients who want to invoke the graffiti-ed trains of the past, but the MTA denies these requests to maintain the image of clean and safe transit that the authority has worked so hard to maintain.

The other way in which the MTA works to protect its brand is by identifying bootleg products. Heavey says many people assume that the MTA’s trademarks and design elements are in the public domain and can be used without permission, but all maps and symbols are protected by federal copyright law.

Heavy adds that the popularity of products featuring MTA iconography drives bootlegging even further. “The more successful you are in the licensing business, the more people try to counterfeit you,” he says.

Fortunately, many of these cases of counterfeiting are simple misunderstandings, and the MTA reaches out to companies producing goods using its trademarks without permission to remind them of the copyrights. In some instances, these misunderstandings have led to good licensing partnerships as the manufacturers cooperate with the MTA on securing the proper agreements.

Looking Outward

Heavey says the MTA wants to continue to build upon its past success in licensing and marketing, expanding its reach even further to other international markets. The authority wants to extend its brand to new product categories like housewares and home goods, but it encounters some resistance from manufacturers that don’t see more than a regional appeal.

Heavey says the number of tourists who visit the city each year, combined with the number of former New York City residents who have been transplanted to other cities and the iconic nature of the city’s transit system make the MTA much more than a regional brand.

“I think the growth is really outside of this country,” he says. “We already have sales in Alaska and in many foreign markets, and we need to continue to build on that success.”