Confirmed Anglophile Carole Postal on how to position UK brands for success in the US.
As ‘An American Licensing Agent in London’ attending this year’s Brand Licensing Europe trade fair, I was pleased to see how the show had grown in size and stature and certainly in attendance… the largest I’ve seen in my 20+ years of attending the show and, just as importantly, with such great enthusiasm for licensing.
For as long as I can remember I’ve always been attracted to all things British. I am a true Anglophile; fascinated by the language and pronunciations, the stories and authors, the history, the royalty, the culture and so on.
It comes as no surprise to those who know me that I have immersed myself and my agency in all things British and developed an eye for evaluating British opportunities which are currently enjoying licensing success in UK and/or European markets and, therefore, might be capable of driving a successful licensing programme in North America (US and Canada) as well.
As president of Spotlight Licensing and Brand Management, my agency currently manages the US and Canadian licensing programmes for the acclaimed British television series Downton Abbey, Victoria and The Great British Baking Show; as well as British cultural institution the Imperial War Museums.
Work with these clients combined with work at Knockout Licensing on such properties such as Outlander and Poldark, has helped me develop some expertise and something of a reputation for knowing how to position and launch UK brands – both media and non-media based, adult and child – for licensing success in the US marketplace.
Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned over the years about licensing of UK brands in the US:
The audience is out there.
American audiences have long turned to PBS for British imports such as Downton Abbey, Poldark, Victoria, Sherlock, Call the Midwife, The Great British Baking Show or Monty Python’s Flying Circus and to BBC America for shows such as Doctor Who and Orphan Black. Yet these and other British television shows are now readily available not just on those channels, but also channels such as Starz and HBO as well as streaming content providers such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Acorn and BritBox among others.
The bandwidth of media outlets at this moment in time is extraordinary with even more players about to enter the media arena… Apple anyone? As an agent, the key is being able to sense which properties – whether television, publishing or otherwise – are poised or can be positioned to find a large and enthusiastic US audience.
It’s important to find the right balance between American tastes and British branding.
English and American are different languages. Back in the late 90’s, CopCorp was engaged by the good folks at Britt-Alcroft to help resurrect Thomas The Tank Engine and Friends and help to bring it back to the licensing phenomenon it once was years before.
Well, the first question I asked was “how many two year olds can even say Thomas The Tank Engine and Friends?” and “do American children know what a ‘tank engine’ is?” Shortening to ‘Thomas The Tank’ didn’t work (since Thomas is clearly not a tank), so the first course of business was to change the name to Thomas and Friends.
Some of our UK friends called that ‘heresy’ but it was the right move and the beginning of putting Thomas back on track in the US market, to the tune of almost a 400% increase in licensing revenue in the first year. The rest, as they say, is ‘train and TV’ history.
US fans of British brands want products that fit their American lifestyles, while still retaining a distinctly British flavor/flavour.
In licensing Downton Abbey for American audiences, on the other hand, it was important that product reflect the look and feel of the show. Our jewelry line featured Downton-inspired necklaces, tiaras, ear bobs and more with packaging labeled Downton Abbey Jewellery.
This was not a mistake, but a conscious choice to use the British spelling in order to lend that feeling of authenticity everyone wanted. We strove for similar authenticity in other products such as our delicious Downton Abbey wines which were sourced from French vineyards, as would wines served by the Crawleys during the time period depicted.
Building US licensing programmes for UK properties requires patience.
Because of differences between British and American sensibilities, it can take a while for a UK property to find and grow its audience in the US. Downton Abbey wasn’t really ready to support a significant US licensing programme until critical acclaim and word of mouth began driving significant audience growth.
Our US licensing efforts began sometime around the third season and because it wasn’t rushed, we were able to strategically build a strong programme that has become evergreen and is continuing long after the final season of new episodes.
The trick of the trade or the agent’s licensing acumen, as it were, is what helps us select what we feel has the potential to make the jump from the UK to US audiences and from there, which can likely become a licensing bonanza.
For sure, the very definition of Downton Abbey, a period piece Edwardian drama televised on Masterpiece Theater on PBS would not generally have fit that bill to anyone… manufacturers, retailers, licensed product consumers alike.
But to us, it represented what was missing in the US marketplace and that, as they say, has made all the difference.
Carole Postal is president of Spotlight Licensing and Brand Management.