Isenberg Grad Changed the Rules in Sportswear Marketing
December 07, 2017
“My brother excelled in operations; marketing always came easily for me,” remarked Marty Jacobson ’68 (seen below with Chancellor Sabbaswamy) in Matthew Glennon’s course, Fundamentals of Marketing. The Isenberg marketing grad’s prowess was a critical ingredient in the innovation and success of Nutmeg Industries, the brothers’ upscale sportswear company. The Tampa-based company succeeded spectacularly throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, when Vanity Fair Corporation bought it for $325.5M in cash.
In the early 1980s, after discovering a hot potential nonstudent market for University of Florida Gator sportswear, they deftly retooled Nutmeg and test marketed logo-embossed, upscale offerings. “We could easily outmaneuver the competition. We were positioned to customize; to move with speed to market,” he told the students. College bookstores, which had originally enjoyed market dominance via captive consumers, “had no understanding of the market,” Marty recalled. “We sold to off-campus stores that competed with them.”
Untapped Competitive Advantage. Building its fortunes on licensing (an innovation back then in the collegiate apparel industry), Nutmeg consistently deployed “unofficial” knockoffs to competitive advantage, emphasizing innovative, detailed graphics, including interwoven designs in shirts that enhanced their durability. It also hired former high-profile college athletes, who made the most of their collegiate networks to drive sales. With those connections at the University of Florida, Florida State, Michigan, and other schools, Nutmeg rapidly gained national prominence.
“Our next stop was breaking into the pro market,” continued Jacobson, describing it as “the crown jewel.” To position Nutmeg, the brothers partnered with Charles Schultz, who created shirt mashups pairing Snoopy in unofficial pro team uniforms. “That got professional sports to look at us,” Jacobson recalled. Aided by ties with players associations in professional football, basketball, and other sports, Nutmeg created an eclectic line of spectator wear with diverse colors, patterns, and insignias. “Because we weren’t authentic, we didn’t use official marks,” he remarked. Mirroring Nutmeg’s college business, the company excelled as more adaptable and quicker-to-market in aesthetics, marketing, and distribution. In its heyday following an IPO, Nutmeg employed and worked with more than 90 artists.
Entrepreneurship Meets Family. For Marty, entrepreneurship and family were two sides of a unified business culture. After graduating from Isenberg, he joined his father and brother Dick in a Massachusetts-based wall panel supply business that the trio expanded to 63 stores in nine states. “I always did everything with my brother,” Marty emphasized. “The satisfaction of teaming up with a family member—you can’t recreate that.” The brothers left the company a year and a half after selling it to a Fortune 500 firm. “I wasn’t comfortable in a large company culture; their expectations were too rigid,” he said. “I still identified as an entrepreneur.”
That’s when the brothers began investing in apparel companies in Florida, including a private label manufacturer that focused on junior sportswear to women. Combining that company with two others, they founded Nutmeg, which expanded its offerings to embrace guys, nonstudent college sports fans, and finally pro sports.
Marty offered parting advice to the students: “If you’re running a company, give people something they want at the lowest price. If not, you have to be value added,” he insisted. “But,” he cautioned, “If your timing is off, the best idea in the world is unlikely to succeed.”