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Fan made… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes on how we are all fans of something, and in licensing it’s a good time to be a ‘fan of the fan’.

One area of licensing that seems to be growing in importance is that of fan merchandise and pop culture.

Product ranges that are developed with a fan audience in mind and with an understanding of fan culture. Companies like Funko have been leading the way in this movement and retailers like HMV have recognised the potential in the fan market.

That said, selling pop culture products to fans is not an entirely new thing. The Forbidden Planet chain of shops has been doing it very successfully for many years, while publishers like Titan have a long history of publishing in the category. But in recent years what was seen as a little bit underground or niche has become more mainstream. There are lots of drivers for this but I suspect a key one is that IP owners, licensees and retailers have seen how products have sold through and it has encouraged them to develop the fan seam further.

Other factors arguably include the broadening of broadcast platforms – there are more outlets for content; the ever increasing rise in ecommerce – this has opened up more retail channels to sell through; better curation of archives by IP owners – they are more savvy about the value of their archives; and more demand from consumers – there is a generation of consumers who have grown up with merchandise.

LL1This week I saw that WH Smith was promoting a LEGO Minifigures collection featuring The Muppets in-store and outside the store with a street poster. The collection is a limited edition one comprising 12 mini figures. The in-store display was very impressive. It was sited near the till point and it was made up of a FSDU with a ceiling high 3D representation of the blindbag. It was very eye-catching and a clever piece of retail theatre. I imagine it wasn’t a cheap bit of retail kit which reinforces the potential sales value in merchandise like this collection.

Of course, LEGO has created a category for collectors with its mini figures and Disney is well placed to play in this category. Its rights portfolio is broad and deep. A property like The Muppets works well in this context because of its cross generational appeal, the cast of characters and their international reach. It was interesting to see WH Smith embracing this opportunity so fully. It has clearly had success with collections like this before and its high street locations are well suited to impulse purchases, but of course also equally well suited to regular store visits by consumers seeking to complete their collections.

As noted earlier, ecommerce has been a key driver in the rise of pop culture merchandise and one of the players at the forefront of this in licensing has been TruffleShuffle. Its strapline is ‘You Love It We Get It’. It has worked hard at building relationships with rights owners and agents, recognising that licensing can give it a competitive edge in a crowded market. It runs a mixed economy of selling licensed products sourced from licensee suppliers blended with producing its own exclusive products featuring bespoke designs.

This latter point is important in the fan merchandise sector as exclusive and unique designs can add more appeal to ranges and resonate with fans who are looking for something fresh. It is always worth checking out what TruffleShuffle is up to, both from a selection point of view but also its handle on design.

LL3An exclusive collection it is currently running celebrates 40 years of the Care Bears. As noted on the TruffleShuffle website ‘… the all-new exclusive Care Bears collection draws its dreamy inspiration from original artwork found on official vintage merch…”

A key point here is the inspiration for the design – it is based on authentic fan friendly source material. It also of course has the added appeal that it is exclusive to TruffleShuffle.

In addition to developing its own designs and products, TruffleShuffle stocks products from other suppliers. Often it gets these at launch and it is also very efficient at adding new products to its site. This ‘new in’ approach keeps customers interested and engaged.

LL2A quick scan of what is listed as ‘new in’ at the moment on the site gives a good flavour of TruffleShuffle’s product and brand mix. It is stocking accessories from Loungefly including Scooby Doo backpacks and wallets, along with items such as Masters of the Universe sunglasses and a Lord of the Rings Glitter Globe.

From my own point of view I was pleased to see that a collection of Wallace & Gromit ceramic coasters were ‘new in’ this week. It is very much an eclectic mix, but a common thread is that there is fan demand for the products and properties.

LL4Another interesting development in the pop and fan culture worlds is that fans are creating their own merchandise to sell to other fans.

With Aardman, we are working with Apparel of Laughs. This is an ecommerce site set up by an Aardman fan who wanted to develop and sell his own merchandise under licence. The designs featured on his t-shirt range have been created from a fan perspective and reflect specific details from the Wallace & Gromit films that resonate with fans. The inspiration behind the designs are the films themselves, but also comments and observations from other fans. It is great to be able to work with fans in this way and, of course, very welcome that it has chosen to work under licence. The majority of its designs were approved by Aardman with little input or need to change anything. It was recognised that a fan designed range offers something different to the market and doesn’t impede other developments.

Fan driven merchandise isn’t just confined to entertainment properties. An obvious example is the success of sports merchandise developed by companies like FOCO. It is also interesting to see how brands can tap into the fan market. This week I saw a new Volkswagen Camper launch. I was alerted to it by the excellent Retro To Go website. I would recommend the website both professionally but also as a fan consumer – it finds some fantastic products. The VW Camper Van product is a Cool Box on Wheels. It is a faithful to scale replica of the iconic VW Camper Van and it is easy to see how it will appeal to fans of Camper Vans. It is part of a range of developments that are lifestyle ones. This is a relatively high ticket price item so it isn’t pitching to the mass market and is very much for the committed fan.

Finally, it has been interesting to see how companies are embracing the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. While this is, of course, not a licensing opportunity I have found it interesting to see the range of Platinum Jubilee products and designs in the market.

LL5Two products that are my current favourites are a Mr Brainwash Art Print available from Clarendon Fine Art Galleries – Mr Brainwash is a contemporary artist and his take on the Queen appeals to the street art fan in me.

The artwork features pop culture details like button badges. It is a limited edition and was only on sale for a week – the edition size will be determined by the volume of orders received. An interesting sales technique.

I like to think the Queen would like this portrait of herself. Hope she placed an order.

LL6The other range that I thought stood out was Emma Bridgewater’s range of ceramics. I think Emma Bridgewater is a designer and a brand that always seems to find a way of stamping its own identity on a design theme and successfully standing out from the crowd.

Maybe both these products appealed to me because I am a fan of both brands. I like to think we are all fans of something and in licensing it is probably a good time to be a fan of the fan.

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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