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Card sharp… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes visits PG Live at the Business Design Centre and finds that licensing remains a fulsome part of the greeting cards market.

I studied the shops very carefully on my walk from Angel tube station to the Business Design Centre last week.

The Business Design Centre was the venue for the Progressive Greetings Live trade show – this is the signature show for the UK greeting cards industry. My short walk reinforced the point how widespread and varied the distribution of greeting cards is. Just on this five-minute stroll I saw seven or eight shops that sold cards. These ranged from specialists like Scribbler through to charity shops like Oxfam. On the one hand I imagine this level of retail engagement is very welcome by card companies, but on the other hand it creates issues around distribution, pricing, market positioning and design.

Licensing plays a fulsome part in the greeting cards market with lots of card publishers featuring licensed designs on their cards, while a number of card brands have found success in the licensing market. The licensing in side of the card market is in itself quite diverse with a mix of rights featuring, including those licensed directly by artists through to globally recognised brands like Disney.

The business of greeting cards varies in scale, design and business model. It is a specialist business which has its own quirks and intricacies, but it is one that in overall terms is a licensing friendly one.

LL10Progressive Greetings Live presents the industry and the players within it in a very focused way. Shows being more focused seems to be a recurring theme these days – it seems to be the way forward, with exhibitors and visitors appreciating the fact that shows are being carefully curated. This optimises exhibitors’ and visitors’ time.

From my perspective it was a good show to visit and the exhibitors I spoke to seemed very positive about things. Clearly we are in challenging times but there did seem to be business being done at the show. As an aside I do think exhibitors at trade shows sometimes miss a trick by not offering more ‘show deals’ to encourage retailers to place orders at the show. I noticed Rainbow Designs had a well communicated show offer on its stand – I’m sure other exhibitors did as well. The organisers also run a Golden Ticket scheme which gives retailers which featured in The Greats Awards an opportunity to use the ticket to buy product from exhibitors. I saw a number of exhibitors proudly displaying the ‘golden ticket’ they had received from buyers. I think there is a lot to be said for making the most of being an exhibitor at a trade show and creating ‘show offers’ is one way of creating further engagement. I am now starting to think of what ‘show offer’ I can create for Brand Licensing Europe where Start Licensing is an exhibitor.

LL5Back to the show floor – as noted earlier licensing and greeting cards are close companions and this was certainly emphasised at Progressive Greetings Live this year.

I saw on LinkedIn that Danilo’s md Daniel Prince was full of praise for the show and it was good to see Danilo at there. It is a card publisher which has used licensing to build its portfolio and I imagine for many retail buyers is a ‘go to’ company for licensed ranges. It is worth noting that it hasn’t stood still in regards to product development and formats it features in its range. It is always good to see licensees progressing things from a design and format perspective.

Danilo has also built up ranges in different areas of licensing, reflecting the changes from where successful licensing opportunities emerge. A good example is its work with football clubs and national football teams. It was showcasing a range of cards featuring the likes of England, Chelsea and Manchester United. I am sure the clubs and national federations like working with Danilo to develop a range of ‘official’ cards as this helps them deliver authentic products for fans. I often see football themed cards that feature ‘unofficial’ art and artwork based on ‘real’ players. I realise that there are challenges and costs around player rights, but I think most fans would want to buy an official product – Danilo has made good use of the available assets and its football range is a good example of how new categories in licensing can be nurtured with careful management.

LL8Another good example of the nurturing approach to licensing and a licensed brand could be found on Cardology‘s stand. One of the licensed brands it works with is Battersea Dogs and Cats Home – the range includes pop-up cards, Christmas cards and everyday cards. It is a licence it has held for sometime and is an example of how ranges can grow over time. It is good to see licensees buying into the concept of developing ranges and investing in bespoke design. Cardology has developed pop-up cards which add a new dynamic to a range and make good use of the licence. The licence is also a good example of how charity brands are gaining a foothold in the licensing market. Charities have recognised licensing is a new fundraising platform for them and also a way of connecting with the public – licensed products can also be a great way of getting a core message across from a charity. Of course it helps in the case of Battersea that it features on an ITV series.

I think to succeed in licensing, charities have to find an angle that allows them to compete with other brands in the market and then package that up for licensees to be able to use creatively. Cardology’s Battersea card range is a good example of how licensed products and licensing can help tell a charity’s story. It was also interesting to hear from Cardology’s David Falkner about Cardology’s role in the Greeting Card Association’s #cardmitment campaign which is lobbying the Government around issues connected to the postal service and an ongoing review by Ofcom of postal services. It is a reminder that licensing is connected with a range of industries that are dealing with issues that impact them beyond retail listings. Perhaps sometimes we need to reflect on ways that Licensing PLC can get involved in issues like this which will have an impact on an important licensing category.

LL9Sticking with charities, there were several examples of card ranges and card companies which have created card ranges in association with charities or with the intention of helping charities.

Brilliantly Brave was one that caught my eye in particular. It has created a range of cards that are bright, colourful and contemporary – the strapline reads ‘Transforming well-wishes into wellbeing one card, one course, one life at a time’. It is using profits from the sale of the cards to fund wellbeing and mental health initiatives in the community. It is good to see this sort of initiative being taken by card publishers and it is also interesting to note that Brilliantly Brave has ambitions in licensing. I can definitely see the designs translating well to licensed products. This underpins the fact that card designs and ranges can jump across from cards to other product categories.

LL3As noted earlier, greeting cards retailers come in all shapes and sizes now with, of course, a crossover into areas like gifting.

With this in mind, it was no surprise to see the likes of Rainbow Designs exhibiting at PG Live, showcasing ranges like the Paddington plush toys. Retailers are keen to build ranges across categories these days and by being at the show Rainbow Designs had the chance to tap into that trend. It was also interesting to see Rainbow Designs showcase branded FSDUs – as noted before in the Lookout there does seem to be examples of FSDUs being used in retail at the moment, as retailers look to maximise space and in this context licensing can score well delivering some in-store theatre in a simple but effective way. Rainbow Design’s Paddington FSDU would certainly have high impact in retail.

LL4It was also interesting to see how companies have built product ranges around cards. Coach House Publishing mixes licensing and non-licensed lines. It was exhibiting a product range that included cards, notebooks, jigsaw puzzles and construction kits. The designs focus on sports, cars, trains and hobbies. It has licences with the likes of Brooklands Museum and the London Transport Museum. It also tops these up with deals with artists – a recent new release is a range based on the iconic Bluebird car and boat; it has worked with illustrator Mick Hill to develop this range.

Coach House works with a range of retailers including specialist outlets such as museum shops – in this context a supplier that can deliver in a readymade range of products is an attractive proposition.

LL2Another example is Hype Cards – it has a broad range of licences in its portfolio including Aardman, The Beano and Snoopy. The product ranges include standard cards, mini cards, giftwrap and button badges. Regarding the latter product, it has developed compact counter top selling boxes for badges. These take up little space and give retailers a ready made impulse sales opportunity. This is a reflection of the fact that some shops are tight for space and welcome clever solutions to help them sell more.

Hype’s Paula Ford gave me some insight into their decision to add badges into the product range. She attended a business seminar a while ago where designer Sebastian Conran was the headline speaker. Paula recalled Sebastian advising manufacturers and retailers to think about consumers’ ‘itchy wallet’ meaning that often when in a shop consumers are keen to buy or add to their purchase. Button badges sold at till points are a perfect cure for ‘itchy wallet syndrome’.

LL6Carousel Calendars has also expanded its product offering to include notebooks. This move is in part to create more international opportunities and to bolster the product offer for retailers. Of course, it also helps the company be in the market beyond the calendar season. Licensing is playing its role in this expansion with licensed ranges like New York Botanical Garden, Kilted Yoga and Bree Merryn. It was also interesting to note that Carousel Calendars’ product included a call out to the fact that it had been nominated for a Best Sustainable Product in the Licensing Awards (with a further reference to Products of Change). It is good to see a licensee embracing and using their nomination to call out their credentials. Further to this, Carousel Calendars is also very direct about its efforts in regard to being an Environmentally Responsible Company. It provides details of its commitments and actions in this area in its catalogue. As well as explaining how it is making reductions in its use of plastic. Good to see and to read, but also I’m sure something Carousel finds helpful in its retail pitches.

All in all from my perspective a very worthwhile show, not least as it gave me an opportunity to see a lot of product and take note of how some companies are adding to their product capabilities.

When I first started in licensing, licensees used to generally be single product companies but this is clearly not the case now. Likewise I think companies are more inclined to look for sales opportunities beyond their traditional core area, not least as the shape of retail is changing. Licensees, agents and rights holders have to be more flexible and maybe less traditional in their thinking.

LL1To emphasise how new opportunities can emerge in a category like greeting cards, I called into a WH Smith after PG Live and noticed it was promoting Thank You Teacher cards next to the self checkout area. This is a small example of how new occasions and opportunities are emerging. Licensing needs to be market savvy and alert to new opportunities. Shows like PG Live help with this by keeping us in touch with the market, with trends and of course most importantly people.

Also actions speak louder than words sometimes… since PG Live I have written and sent three greeting cards…

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

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