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The Licensing Lookout: The joy of variety

From Morph making to London Book Fair, it’s been a busy week for Start Licensing’s Ian Downes.

My licensing week this week reminded me that it is a diverse industry and one that offers lots of potential for companies, particularly when thinking about new ways of using licensing and IP. This is reassuring in the context of tough trading conditions.

On Monday I took part in an Aardman Away Day – I visited Bristol and joined a group of local business people at an Aardman Model Making class. We were taught how to make our own Gromits and Morphs by a team of Aardman modelmakers. The workshop ended with our groups making a short animated film featuring the Morph and associated props we had made. The workshop took place at the SS Great Britain so all the films had a nautical theme – our film revolved around a message in a bottle.

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The message I received was that I am a better licensing executive than a modelmaker and I am certainly no filmmaker!

Aardman has cleverly harnessed the appeal of its character brands alongside its expertise in film and modelmaking to create an ‘event’ package, meaning that groups such as visitor attractions and businesses can buy into to access an off the shelf ‘experiential’ product.

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In the context of businesses, the Modelmaking Workshops are excellent teambuilding exercises with a novel twist with a permanent reminder of your day as you get to keep your models and film. This is a really good example of IP such as Wallace & Gromit and Morph being used in an innovative way to create a new ‘product’ and, in licensing terms, creating another route to market beyond conventional retail.

It really was a great way to start my licensing week, not least as Jim our ‘tutor’ from Aardman clearly knows his subject so well and was enthusiastic. A reminder that experiential products need to be good experiences and represent the brand well.

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I was then lucky enough to attend a conference at the London Games Festival hosted by Mojo Nation. I heard a number of presentations from tech toy companies about new developments and the future of tech in toys.

One of the companies speaking was Hasbro and it showcased a new product Dropmix, which is a joint development between Hasbro and Harmonix I believe (Harmonix created Guitar Hero). The product uses technology mixed with traditional card collecting to allow users to mix their own music and compete with their friends in the arena of music mixing.

From my perspective it seemed like a great use of technology and a good example of a traditional toy company recognising the potential of new technology in gameplay. Hasbro has seemingly used its in-built knowledge of licensing to secure rights to music and create the card collection that is part of Dropmix (leaning in part on its Wizards of the Coast knowledge).

DropMix and the session in general was a reminder that licensing needs to look forward to be alert to opportunities that new technology can offer and be aware that licensing has a big role to play in this emerging trend. The skillset needed to manage and develop a licensing programme will be as relevant in the ‘new world’ as it was in the ‘old world’. Well deployed IP will be an asset and, of course, there may be new brands emerging from the space that will go onto to offer licensing opportunities themselves.

An example of this is that the artwork associated with DropMix looked really strong and appealing – I am sure it would have commercial appeal in categories like wall art and apparel, assuming the rights were cleared to use in this way.

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I then spent a couple of days at the hustle and bustle of the London Book Fair at Olympia. This must be the contender for the show with the most crowded aisles – it seems books still appeal to people… well certainly bookpeople. The London Book Fair seems to be the show that has the highest rate of ‘aisle crashing’ as people stop abruptly to pick up and admire a book that has caught their eye. Where there’s blame there’s a claim.

It is difficult to cover a show like the London Book Fair in a comprehensive way from a licensing perspective, but my impression was that publishers are still recognising the value of licensing to their lists and not just in the children’s category.

The other observation I would make is that publishers do seem more alert to the potential of their own IP for both licensing and other media developments such as TV and stage shows. There is clearly still a strong link between the licensing and publishing industries.

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A few things I noticed included the fact that Haynes Publishing has acquired the book series The Bluffer’s Guides and is re-launching it. Given the fact that Haynes has had success in licensing with its classic manuals, I would expect to see a licensing range associated with The Bluffer’s Guides including products such as composite gifts, greetings cards and stationery.

I think this is an example of a publisher recognising the value and potential in a brand. A brand such as The Bluffer’s Guides has a history and an awareness making NPD easier, while it does have potential to be developed beyond books which in a challenging market is appealing to a publisher as it brings new revenues and distribution points.

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Companies such as Bonnier had really nailed its licensing colours to the mast promoting licensed ranges such as Beano very prominently on stands. While this sort of promotion is great for brand Beano it is also an encouraging sign for Licensing PLC. It is good to see a publisher on the main showfloor put so much faith in a licensed range.

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The London Book Fair also reminded that the World Cup is fast approaching. Carlton Books was showcasing its range of official World Cup tie-in books. The range included children’s books in fairly standard formats such as Activity and Colouring, but there was also a more expensive hardback book which I assume is targeted at adults. This is a smart move by Carlton and recognises that there is a growing opportunity in publishing licensing within the adult consumer category. With the right books and subject matter, adults are prepared to invest in special edition books to ‘celebrate’ and pursue their passions. I expect to see more growth in this sector in publishing/licensing.

With this in mind, I noticed one publisher promoting a Led Zeppelin book very prominently. Again they are tapping into a passion. I also noticed that museums and galleries seem to be working more with third party publishers to create their publishing programmes and stretch the reach of their resources. For example Octopus Publishing announced a deal with the Tate. A Tate-branded list of books will be published by Octopus next year. The museum and gallery sector is one that offers publishers a great deal of potential.

So for me it has been a busy, but encouraging week. It reminded me that we need to think about new ways of using IP and align ourselves to emerging trends. It is easy to be weighed down by challenges and market realities, but this week has given me new found inspiration that there are new opportunities out there and that licensing has a role to play.

And it is only Thursday…

Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His Twitter handle is @startlicensing – he would welcome your suggestions for what to look out for.

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