A design for life… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes checks out some examples of the evolving design work in the apparel category this week.

Apparel has always been an important part of the licensing mix in terms of its retail impact, ability to generate revenues and its design influence.

I remember when I first started in licensing at Copyright Promotions in the 1990s, the team that managed apparel had three or four members in it and were very active dealmakers. CPL recognised the potential of the category. Apparel remains a buoyant part of licensing today and gets a lot of attention from brand owners as a consequence. The sound of the cheers that greeted the winners of The Licensing Awards for apparel on Tuesday were a measure of this.

To get a snapshot of latest market activity in the category I visited Sainsbury’s in Godalming this week. Of course this is just a Sainsbury’s snapshot, but it is always useful to see what is going on apparel wise, not least as it can be a category that leads onto other licensing activity.

The first area I looked at was men’s t-shirts. This has always been a good area for licensing. Featured brands included Coca-Cola which is a strong performer in the category with traditionally most designs focused on the classic logo – this was the case this time round as well.

VW apparel has moved beyond a logo-based programme.
VW apparel has moved beyond a logo-based programme.

Volkswagen (VW) also seems to have cemented itself in the category. One factor here seems to be an ongoing commitment to mixing in new design work by VW. It has moved beyond a logo-based programme and has some great lifestyle design work that nods towards VW’s heritage. The design I saw this time was around the classic Camper van. VW also had a good presence in the sleepwear area as well with a set of VW pyjamas on sale.

Another featured brand was heritage motorcycle property BSA. A good reminder that apparel licensees are adept at tapping into a range of brands and often seek out heritage brands, particularly if they help deliver a design that hits a particular consumer demographic. That said brand owners need to have a ready to use archive of art. Apparel is a category that can move very fast.

Clever design has given well-known characters further momentum.
Clever design has given well-known characters further momentum.

Gaming is a licensing area in growth generally, but specifically seems increasingly popular in apparel. In the adult category classic game Pac-Man featured with a design that had a vintage feel it. There was actually a gaming section of sorts in-store with brands like PlayStation, Xbox and SEGA featuring. There was a focus on the gaming devices rather than the games.

Interestingly, given the hard work that goes into design some of the brands get less visual presence than others as t-shirts are covered by other t-shirts. This is, of course, a difficult challenge to overcome and retailers like Sainsbury’s are addressing it with new display techniques such as using mannequins, but it would be interesting to see what impact front of fixture display has on sales.

SEGA's Sonic the Hedgehog and Pac-Man were just two of the gaming brands featured in Sainsbury's.
SEGA's Sonic the Hedgehog and Pac-Man were just two of the gaming brands featured in Sainsbury's.

In the children’s space it was no surprise to see evergreen character brands such as Spider-Man, Peppa Pig and Disney. A key feature here though is how design has evolved and how design has given these well known names new momentum.

Licensed apparel companies and retailers have got better at following design trends and merging them into licensed designs. Brand owners are less rigid in their approach to design. One benefit of the move to ‘collabs’ with designers that we see in the category is that this then trickles down to the more mainstream and mass ranges.

An interesting design feature is the increasing use of ‘added value’ finishes whether these are things like sequin designs or lenticular style finishes. I saw a couple of good examples of these type of embellishments with Minecraft and Sonic the Hedgehog products. Gaming has a strong presence in the children’s apparel category, as well.

Commitment to new style guides has helped boost classic brands, while positive messages and slogans are prominent.
Commitment to new style guides has helped boost classic brands, while positive messages and slogans are prominent.

It was also good to see classic characters such as Snoopy having a presence in-store. Again, a commitment to new style guides seems to have helped breathe new life into Snoopy apparel wise. I also noticed how designs were featuring more positive messages and slogans. In part I am sure fired up by lockdown – for example there was a Mickey Mouse t-shirt with the slogan Do What Makes You Happy All Day Every Day, Lady & the Tramp with Sweet Dreams and a Peppa Pig top with the message Be Kind Always.

Again brand owners are being less rigid and allowing their characters to explore a world beyond the set character universe.

Within the children’s space Disney and Peppa Pig seemed the strongest players, but Sainsbury’s is still backing brands like The Gruffalo and also seems prepared to try new things. Well certainly new to me! Waffle the dog featured in this category.

Sainsbury's featured a Scribbler branded area within its greeting cards space.
Sainsbury's featured a Scribbler branded area within its greeting cards space.

Beyond the apparel area it was interesting to see Sainsbury’s featuring a Scribbler branded area in its greeting cards section. It also had a Habitat curated space featured elsewhere.

This seems to be a trend in retail at the moment – more cooperation among retailers and retailers like Sainsbury’s utilising other retail brands to deliver targeted offers to their consumers.

It was also interesting to see which children’s books were featured in-store as well. Again publishing can be an indicator of emerging new properties or a confirmation of the solid performers. In the former category there was good presence for Bluey, while in the latter Peppa Pig had a strong presence. It is also interesting to see how publishers and licensors are creating new formats in the book space and pursuing new storylines.

Again rather like apparel, there is a recognition that licensing is part of a bigger picture and it is better to embrace market trends rather than stick rigidly to a character universe. Licensing has learnt to be a little bit more relaxed design wise.

The arrival of the Back to the Future stage show was heralded at Waterloo station.
The arrival of the Back to the Future stage show was heralded at Waterloo station.

In the week that we were able to enjoy a fabulous night at The Licensing Awards, it is also good to see more and more live events and theatre shows opening up for business. This week the Back to the Future stage show opened in London’s West End. Its arrival was announced with a supersized poster at London’s Waterloo Station. It is great to see theatre shows back in business and events like The Licensing Awards going ahead.

I think The Licensing Awards will be a real kickstart for the industry and it going ahead has hopefully helped give people renewed confidence to meet up with industry colleagues.

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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