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Autumn Fair’s licensing highlights… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes reports back on a productive two days at last week’s Autumn Fair at Birmingham NEC.

I spent a very productive two days at the Autumn Fair in Birmingham last week.

It was a show that was very useful for me and provided a great showcase for a number of our Aardman licensees, but I know it also attracted some criticism from exhibitors.

As has been reported elsewhere some exhibitors were disappointed with the Connect meeting system that was in use at the show and it is reported that they felt it didn’t deliver the promised meetings. Connect was certainly a hot conversation topic at the show and it was a conversation starter that lead onto a few chats with exhibitors about their approach to trade shows, specifically around meeting retail buyers.

A number of exhibitors I talked to felt that you have to use a range of techniques to succeed at a trade show including pre-show marketing but, of course, in-show marketing as well.

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It was interesting to see start up company WillSow using a ‘free to play’ seaside crane machine on its stand as a way of engaging with visitors and getting them onto the stand. Once on the stand, it could start a conversation about its plantable books. Other companies featured traditional techniques like show offers.

Thinking of the forthcoming BLE, I think the BLE Meeting Platform that is up and running is a very useful tool and has helped me meet new companies, but I am not relying on this entirely to promote Start Licensing’s presence. We are looking at a range of promotional techniques including PR, social media, direct marketing and old fashioned phone calls to reach people. I also think that visitors to trade shows can play their part by being prepared to engage with exhibitors and to be open about their business. Trade shows may be changing and will need to evolve, but I think we shouldn’t underestimate their ability to bring businesses together. They also create focus and momentum. It is a shame that the Autumn Fair was somewhat overshadowed by ‘Connectgate’, but my experience was a positive one and I know a number of exhibitors I talked to found it equally positive. Let’s hope the Connect initiative is ironed out and it becomes a trusted part of the marketing mix at future shows.

One reason I attend trade shows is that I think they provide a good temperature check on a market sector and also provide a good insight into market trends. Of course, it is also a chance to catch up with current business partners. At Autumn Fair we had a number of licensee partners exhibiting at the show. It is always good to see ‘your’ products on show and this again reinforces the potential that trade shows have to showcase products from different suppliers.

Trend-wise I used my NEC visit as an opportunity to make some observations about developments in licensing – in no particular order here is a quick summary of some of them.

My first observation was actually made outside the show halls. I saw a poster promoting Loose Women Live on my walk into the halls. It was a reminder of how live events, stage shows and other experiential lead deals are now a regular part of the licensing landscape. The Loose Women Live show is licensed by ITV and based on the successful daytime TV show. It is interesting to see how TV companies can build programming franchises beyond the screen through things like theatre shows. I suspect a lot of programme makers are looking at this route as a way of extending the reach of a franchise, but also a way of taking a TV brand in different directions creatively. Experiential licensing is, of course, one of the themes of this year’s BLE and it will be interesting to see what new business opportunities this focus throws up for exhibitors.

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I also noticed another interesting example of a charity-led partnership at Autumn Fair. Card and gift company The Little Dog Laughed presented a product range it has developed in association with the Dogs Trust. The range included cards, calendars and a book I believe. The book tells the story of a number of rescue dogs which, of course, dovetails with The Dogs Trust’s purpose. It was well presented on the stand and given a feature area.

Indeed, the way the product was displayed was very retailer friendly and I am sure would have encouraged buyers to think about how they could replicate the display in their store. It was good to see an exhibitor thinking about retail uptake and participation in this way.

This is a really good example of how manufacturers can work with well chosen charities to enhance their offer and create a new story for the trade as well.

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It was also good to see licensees working together collaboratively. To me, one of the upsides of licensing is its potential to bring companies together and for them to work together to deliver more impact at retail. This can also work in product development as well.

I noticed that gift company SUCK UK has developed a range of Original Stormtrooper products including gift sets that feature Stormtrooper ale. It has developed composite gift packs that combine ale with glassware. Again it was really well displayed and presented in a way that I think would inspire retailers to think about their own in-store displays.

It is a great example of collaborative licensing and also using a distribution channel like the gift channel to open up a new opportunity for products like the Stormtrooper ale.

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My Autumn Fair trip also confirmed that there is a strong market for arts and crafts products. This is a category that licensing can play a strong part in. It is, of course, an area that has traditionally been strong for licensing. It was good to see some new players coming into the licensing market with arts and crafts products.

A great example of this is Eat Sleep Doodle’s new range of Peter Rabbit colour-in gifts. It has developed a range of Peter Rabbit colour-in double-sided placemats presented in a kit format with wash-out pens. The licence fits the product and brand well. It has added a new dynamic to Eat Sleep Doodle’s portfolio and hopefully it has opened new retail doors for it.

Newness and freshness are important components in business I think and are particularly relevant to licensing. In my view, the industry needs new players to enter the market especially ones that are taking licensing into new categories or sectors.

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With this in mind it was great to see the progress Aardman licensee, Zippy & George has made with its range of Aardman-inspired wooden signs and plaques. Still a relative newcomer to licensing, it was telling me how its licensed products have created new distribution opportunities for it and started fresh conversations. It hasn’t stood still either NPD and design wise, as it used Autumn Fair as an opportunity to introduce a new range of Feathers-inspired products.

Interestingly long-term licensee Half Moon Bay also used Autumn Fair as an opportunity to introduce its Designed by Half Moon Bay concept. This featured design-led brands like William Morris. It is a timely reminder that even well established and trusted suppliers have to add to and refresh their offer.

I think Half Moon Bay’s new collection is also a good and timely way to further unlock the emerging opportunity for heritage inspired products.

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Heritage licensing was definitely a feature of the show, with another highlight being The English Soap company’s range of Kew soaps. This range is beautifully packaged making great use of Kew’s archives and, of course, the fragrance combinations were also well chosen.

It is a great example of how a respected heritage brand with authenticity and content can add value to a traditional product category.

It was also good to see licensees are continuing to work harder at adding value to their products through design and embellishments.

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Bag and footwear licensee William Lamb had a stand full of licensed products and has built its business around licensed products. But it was good to see that it is not standing still product development wise. In the current climate it would be tempting to row back from investing in product development and enhancements.

William Lamb’s Sonic the Hedgehog range was a very visible example of investing in product, with examples such as a backpack with a moulded front giving it a 3D effect. This design approach works well with Sonic and shows the character off to great affect. Hopefully retailers will support this kind of approach and recognise that licensing is one way of them insulating themselves price-wise while delivering distinctive products to consumers.

Indeed my direct experience of working with Half Moon Bay on its gifting range – which includes 3D moulded mugs and items like water bottles with design features such as Feather’s rubber glove – shows that investment in tooling and product development can pay off with good retailer uptake that translates into solid consumer sales. It is about adding to the fan experience and utilising a licence fully from a creative perspective.

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It was also good to see The Puppet Company’s range of Elmer puppets. It has been a good week for Elmer – I believe Elmer will be one of the World Book Day titles next year. It is encouraging to see a well established and traditional company like The Puppet Company adding licensing to its portfolio, but doing it in a way that fits in with the rest of the business. It has developed a really nice range of puppets which are priced competitively and I can see this being a range that works well.

It is also a good choice of licence for an entry point to licensing as Elmer is well established, has a publishing heritage and is, I assume, trusted by the core retailers The Puppet Company deal with. It is important to realise that for some companies ‘onboarding’ licensing can be a cultural and retail challenge for them – the licensing element of their range needs to sit well with their established business. I think The Puppet Company seems to have achieved that balance well.

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Autumn Fair was also a reminder that FMCG brands are more active in licensing these days as they seek new ways to engage with consumers. Fragrance company RTC had a range of Swizzels Matlow and Chupa Chups room sprays and scented kitchen towels on its stand. The display included ready to use FSDUs – again a reminder that a trade show is a good way of showing product and showing retailers how they can sell product. RTC has really embraced the licensing opportunity, not least in its approach to NPD giving brands the chance to dial up their flavours in a new category. This kind of product is not for all brands, but RTC has certainly shown what is achievable in the category.

While there was a bit of a grey cloud over the NEC because of Connect, there was enough sunshine filling the halls to encourage me that there is still a role for trade shows to play in the mix and specifically for licensing. Shows like Autumn Fair provide a valuable shop window for the industry, not least in their ability to signal the commercial potential licensing provides.

I look forward to my next trade show – I am due to attend two this week… have lanyard, will travel!

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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