Every college campus has something that sets it apart, and integrating those unique elements into your store can be a very successful strategy; just ask The WKU Store at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. The campus is known for white squirrels (not albino, either!) that roam the area and, two years ago, their assistant director of Retail Operations, Jim Sears, had the idea to incorporate them into the store’s merchandise offerings.
“You’ll spot one or two around town, but the white squirrels really seem to flock toward campus,” explained Sarah Sears, e-commerce supervisor. “No one knows exactly why they’re here, but everyone loves to come up with their own theories!”
Each semester, the store features a new, free giveaway T-shirt at their Textbook Sellback and the staff members work together to come up with a catchy and quirky item to feature on it. To achieve that goal with the white squirrel, they got creative.
“Because a white squirrel is unique, we wanted to give him a unique name, so we called him Colonel Blanco,” she explained. “We chose Colonel to pretend he’s been in Bowling Green since the Civil War – plus it makes him sound more official – and Blanco because it means white in Spanish.”
Keeping with the Spanish influence, the shirt simply read: “¿Dónde está la ardilla blanca?” or “Where is the white squirrel?” As in previous years, students had to bring their textbook reservation box to Textbook Sellback in order to receive the free shirt.
“After having a few really good free t-shirts, the promotion became very popular. We had students pulling reservation boxes out of dumpsters in order to get a shirt!” she described. “That definitely didn’t change with the white squirrel shirt; everyone loved it!”
After Sellback, community members began coming into the store, asking if they could buy one of the exclusive shirts. The store quickly realized they had a winning design on their hands and, over time, has made the animal their unofficial mascot.
“Now, we have Colonel Blanco on everything from baseball caps to hoodies,” Sears explained. “Everyone just loves him!”
The logo has also offered the store a unique opportunity to provide lower-cost merchandise to their customers.
“As long as we keep the official school logo off the item, we don’t have to pay royalties, so we can sell it for a lower price,” she added.
As the mascot grew in popularity, it started cropping up in other areas of town as well. Local businesses and even an alumni-run organization have adopted the white squirrel in their own promotions.
“It’s been so cool to see the idea spread throughout the community,” she described. “It’s brought our store a lot of traffic and recognition, which has been great!”
And, the white squirrel has the potential to go beyond the Bowling Green area. Sears hopes that other stores will use the idea as a springboard to help them launch their own creative campaign.
“Every campus has something that makes it unique,” she said. “It doesn't have to be an animal, either. For example, another popular T-shirt featured our University President and read Gary Ransdell is my Homeboy. There are all kind of opportunities out there; you just have to find them. This was something we stumbled upon, and it’s been so successful. It’s all about being creative and going for it!”