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A trip down the virtual high street… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes explores how the virtual high street has become a key feature of licensing this week.

This week my Looking Out has been confined to my computer screen – home shopping and surfing rather than visiting retailers.

The virtual high street has become a feature of licensing and most certainly e-commerce is part of the retail landscape. Most retailers have some form of e-commerce platform these days and licensing is tuned into this way of selling. Of course, selling direct to consumers isn’t such a new thing for licensing companies – mail order has been a big feature in licensing for a long time but in recent times there has been growth in e-commerce only companies.

In part this is fired up by general shopping trends combined with a growth in categories like fan merchandise and a legacy of lockdown, which certainly converted more consumers to shopping in this way.

LL1Another dynamic in this space is the growth of personalised products, personalisation and limited editions. Companies like Moonpig and Funky Pigeon have shown how licensing can play a part in this marketplace. A quick visit to Moonpig’s site shows how important licensing is to its offer – you can search on the site by brand. Featured brands include rights sourced from a range of categories including character, heritage, football and TV shows. Disney as a brand has 990 listings alone. Beyond the world of cards, brands like Snugzy have developed products to service the personalised market in a bespoke way making full use of the route to market and advances in production processes. Snugzy are mini me cushions – allowing consumers to personalise the products by uploading photographs which are used to create the Snugzy’s face. They offer a number of licensed ranges including a range of football clubs. Working with football brands which also include England/The FA allows Snugzy to tap into the football fan world and opens the door to marketing partnerships with the clubs coupled with targeted advertising campaigns around football. This kind of opportunity gives the football clubs a way of extending the fan experience while also extending the product line in a fun way. Snugzy are also products that work well for social media sharing so create their own marketing momentum.

Two sites that are very active in harnessing licensing in the e-commerce space are TruffleShuffle and Lost Universe. Both sites focus on fan friendly merchandise and have a keen eye on emerging trends.

LL2TruffleShuffle is very proactive in the licensing market and has built up a good network within it. Traditionally it has blended well established brands with ones that are less well represented in mainstream retail. This is a key way that it achieves a point of difference and of course plays to the strength of online selling (and searching).

It was interesting to see products such as a Rainbow Brite t-shirt with the ‘Made in the 80s’ slogan – a good example of tapping into retro properties that are maybe off the radar – while TruffleShuffle has also been quick to embrace categories such as ‘techcessories’ for example a range of Care Bears products including phone holders.

LL6It is also adept at developing its own exclusive designs to give consumers additional reasons to return to the site. At the moment it has an Aardman t-shirt which is a multi-character one in a design that has been created in tandem with Aardman. Working in this way helps rights holders test concepts and also generates good content for their own social media activities. It also helps enhance the fan experience.

TruffleShuffle is also very good at its customer marketing and managing the consumer experience on site. It stays in touch with consumers through regular e-newsletters and when on the site is good at cross promoting products.

LL5Lost Universe is also well tuned into trends, fan merchandise and new product development. At the moment it has a range of lighting products featuring the likes of Marvel characters, tapping into the trend for 3D lighting. It also encourages consumers to pre-order products and also check out trending products. This works well with fans who like to feel they are in touch with the brands they follow and have some kind of inside track on them. Properties that Lost Universe feature as trending at the moment include The Last of Us and Stranger Things. It also promotes products as ‘Coming Soon’ – again working well with the fan psyche and culture. It also has a Lost Universe Club that consumers can sign up to for discounts and news updates.

Among the products you can pre-order on Lost Universe is a McDonalds 3D backpack from Loungefly, a brand that features heavily on TruffleShuffle as well and is a good example of how some brands have been able to build up a following through licensing, ecommerce and a commitment to creative NPD.

LL4Online selling has also opened up opportunities for fan lead businesses to get involved in retailing and to work with their fellow fans. A great example of this is Apparel of Laughs. The site recently launched a range of t-shirts featuring covers of a range of UK humour comics owned by Rebellion Publishing. These include titles like Buster, Cor, Whizzer & Chips. These are all comics that had big readerships in the 1970s and 1980s with significant fan followings. It would be hard to get mainstream retailers to engage with them, but an e-commerce site like Apparel of Laughs provides a great platform for a range like this and serves a significant fan market well. It operates on a print on demand basis so doesn’t have to carry stock, but can offer a comprehensive range of designs.

LL3Likewise e-commerce has also opened up more opportunities for companies creating limited editions in areas like wall art. A great example of this is Vice Press. It works with a range of brand owners such as Aardman, Universal and Studio Canal, exploring the back catalogues but also find new ways of bringing a new look to classic franchises. It works with a range of artists who develop fresh artwork and interpretations of brands like Jurassic Park, JAWS and Wallace & Gromit. A current new offer is Blade Runner 2049. It also uses printing techniques such as foiling to enhance the products and designs. Programmes like Vice Press can also help inspire other licensing developments and categories.

I did manage to leave my desk a couple of times this week and was rewarded by spotting Nadiya Hussain’s Mother’s Day cards developed by Woodmansterne starring in the window of my local gift shop Between the Lines. It was a feel good moment for me and a reminder that there is light at the end of the licensing tunnel – sometimes it is easy to forget that we are working in a dynamic business. Seeing ‘my products’ in a local shop was really satisfying.

I might send my mum one of the cards – it might finally help her understand what I do for a living.

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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