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Centre of attention: Early Learning Centre’s licensing ambitions

Source talks to The Entertainer’s Stuart Grant and Riverside Brands’ Ashley Holman to find out more.

When The Entertainer revealed that it had acquired Early Learning Centre in March 2019, you could tell that the brand had found its forever home. Gary Grant, founder and executive chairman of The Entertainer, spoke fondly of the heritage of the much-loved British brand and how he, and the team, were looking forward to reinvigorating it for generations to come.

Earlier this year, we got an idea of how that reinvigoration would begin to take shape when the retailer confirmed it had appointed Ashley Holman and his agency, Riverside Brands, to work on a brand extension programme for Early Learning Centre.

“Stuart [Grant] and I had worked previously together for a number of years on a number of key projects, but specifically on developing and building the Nickelodeon and Nick Jr. branded range of toys at The Entertainer into a great success story for both companies,” Ashley tells us. “This was the foundation for the conversation and it showed that a strong enough brand name and identity can really resonate on product and with consumers.”

Stuart (left) and Ashley have a history of working together on successful preschool brands.
Stuart (left) and Ashley have a history of working together on successful preschool brands.

Ashley says that both he and Stuart could instantly see licensing potential for Early Learning Centre: “It is such a recognised brand and with the plans The Entertainer has for it over the coming years, we could instantly see a long-term and scalable opportunity for partners. The style guide is currently in development and as well as bringing the brand and characters to life with fantastic creative, they will also benefit from strong back stories to add to the connection children will have to the brand.”

Advanced discussions are underway on publishing, outerwear, accessories and nightwear, while Ashley sees further scope in bedding, bedroom furniture, stationery and back to school, as well as experiential activity once that area begins to return to normal.

For Stuart Grant, group sourcing director at The Entertainer, the opportunity with Early Learning Centre is “monumental” and he is keen to work with partners which will “love and cherish the brand”.

“The brand is having a huge resonance with young mums now – they were Early Learning Centre children and there is a huge amount of trust there,” Stuart explains. “People want good value for money, but they are also conscious of the social and environmental cost, while also encouraging their child in their development in the early years. We’re asking what categories will create awareness and are relevant for Early Learning Centre and how we put the brand at the forefront of mums’ minds.”

The Happyland characters will be as important as the Early Learning Centre brand itself in the licensed space, says Ashley.
The Happyland characters will be as important as the Early Learning Centre brand itself in the licensed space, says Ashley.

Ashley says that it will be “very important” that products are reflective of Early Learning Centre’s core brand values.

“Every category and product format we are looking at will adhere to the Early Learning Centre’s core brand values and brand positioning in terms of quality and customer experience, as well as a creating a fun learning experience wherever relevant,” he says. “There is already a lot of data that has been compiled, so we have clear guidelines and strategy to ensure going into licensed categories enhances the overall Early Learning Centre offer.”

And the brand’s heritage will really help products to stand out on shelf, Ashley believes: “Virtually no other brand in this space has the heritage at its core with multi-generational customers. Overlaid with The Entertainer’s ambitious plans for the brand over the coming years and scope of retail opportunity that already exists and will be developed, we feel this is an exceptional opportunity for partners to build a long-term evergreen licensed proposition. Early Learning Centre product will always be that little bit different and that little bit better.”

Stuart agrees: “We see huge potential; the shop-in-shop in the Bullring looks phenomenal and is trading well, plus the brand is really big online. There is a huge resurgence back to it and the same love, care and attention goes back into the product. That’s why consumers are responding. There is a huge opportunity in selected categories in licensing that touch on the values of the brand.”

What is key now, adds Stuart, is getting the right partners, with the right product into the right retail location.

Ashley admits that the preschool market in general in the UK is a crowded one, but both he and Stuart feel that Early Learning Centre is relatively risk free and is “a long-term opportunity that should be around in another 50+ years”.

“We think Early Learning Centre has resonated with a lot of people, is an evergreen brand and attractive because it’s stable,” Stuart concludes.

The brand is performing well online.
The brand is performing well online.

Early Learning Centre: Need to know

The Early Learning Centre brand was established in 1972 by John Beale and became a powerhouse of the high street during the 1980s and 1990s, supporting children’s early years development through play.

It was acquired by Mothercare in 2007 for £85 million (when it had more than 200 stores) before The Entertainer made it part of its portfolio in 2019, acquiring it in a £13.5 million deal.

There are now around 600 franchised Early Learning Centre stores around the world including established footprints in the likes of Russia (over 100 stores), the Middle East, Malta, Cyprus, Indonesia, China and Singapore. Notably, it is the biggest toy retailer in the UAE region. A selection of its toys has also launched on in the US.

A shop-in-shop in The Entertainer in Birmingham’s Bullring recently opened, while the range is available in over 170 of The Entertainer’s outlets.

“There is a huge amount of awareness across the globe for the Early Learning Centre brand,” Stuart comments.

This feature originally appeared in the autumn 2020 edition of Licensing Source Book. To read the full publication, click on this link.

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