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Licensing Lookout 2020: Five of the Best

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes rounds out 2020 by picking some of his licensing highlights from the strangest of years.

My first ‘real’ job after leaving university was working in a London advertising agency. Specifically a media buying agency. I worked in the TV department and was involved in a range of TV advertising campaigns including for companies like Norwich Union, Walkers Crisps and Amstrad.

We also had some record companies as clients including Teledisc and K Tel. Both of these companies made a success of compilation albums before Now That’s What I Call Music, with the Christmas season being the busiest sales period. We had Greatest Hits in all shapes and sizes. Probably colours as well – it was the age of coloured vinyl after all.

As a nod to those happy days I thought I would release a Licensing Lookout Greatest Hits this weekpicking some of my licensing highlights from the strangest of years. My Looking Out has been very different this year and as such the Licensing Lookout column has changed. I have pivoted, adapted and adjusted – something we have all had to do. I appreciate the input from industry colleagues who helped me with the column this year – it was great to talk and a real reminder that we are in a people business. More than ever it has been important to be in touch and stay in touch. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and a brighter 2021.

Here is my Licensing Lookout 2020: Five of the Best – a mini album rather than the usual K Tel style of double or triple albums…

Nadiya appeared at London Toy Fair back in January to promote her new range with Wilton Bradley.
Nadiya appeared at London Toy Fair back in January to promote her new range with Wilton Bradley.

For me one of my personal highlights came early in 2020 at the London Toy Fair. Yes a trade show – do you remember those?

Licensee Wilton Bradley launched a range of Children’s Baking Kits in partnership with our client Nadiya Hussain. Nadiya visited the Toy Fair to help promote the range and the launch. Her visit was a great success and the range has been successfully launched.

It has been great to work with Nadiya and help her develop a licensing programme. It has been a learning curve for me and a reminder that patience is a virtue in licensing some times. Success in licensing can sometimes be measured by speed to market or numbers of deals done. With Nadiya and her licensing programme we have been selective. We have said no more than yes. I think this has been the correct approach and is paying dividends. It is nice to be involved in a programme that has taken its time.

Nadiya has loved working with licensees and in licensing – hopefully we will see more new deals in 2021.

Funko's Lemmy Pop Vinyl figure is a reminder that music is a more and more important feature on the licensing landscape.
Funko's Lemmy Pop Vinyl figure is a reminder that music is a more and more important feature on the licensing landscape.

A fast growing category of licensing is centred on pop culture and fan culture.

One of the great success stories at the heart of this movement has been Funko. Thinking back to the Toy Fair again, the Funko stand is always one of the ones I love visiting. Its use of licences and licensing is always intriguing and it seems to have its finger on the pulse of pop culture.

Like a lot of companies, I imagine 2020 has been a challenging year for Funko and it will be interesting to see how things go for it in 2021. But it, like a lot of companies, has used licensing to build and propel a business. It has made an effort to understand fans and what fans want. As the retail landscape evolves and changes, arguably companies that can get close to fans and consumers will grow even more successful.

A particular Funko favourite of mine was the Lemmy Pop Vinyl figure… also a reminder that music is a more and more important feature on the licensing landscape.

World Book Day has become key for the licensing industry.
World Book Day has become key for the licensing industry.

Being able to pivot and adapt have become watchwords of 2020, but my Looking Out has shown me over the years that licensing companies are fast movers and able to embrace new opportunities quite rapidly.

A great example of this is the activity around World Book Day and how dress-up companies in particular have managed to build business for themselves around this annual event.

This year I spotted some great costumes that were based on book characters and were selling in places like Sainsbury’s. World Book Day has become a retail and consumer event. Licensing has in turn become interwoven into it. Hopefully those involved take a long-term view and also recognise the drive behind World Book Day. What we are definitely seeing are specialist companies applying themselves creatively to a commercial opportunity and embracing a new opportunity.

It made me think, are there other events that licensing could play a part in that it currently doesn’t? As the market changes maybe we need to be alive to new markets and sectors. And, of course, licensing needs to keep up its commitment to creativity and invest in NPD.

FMCG companies are recognising the benefits that licensing can bring to their brand.
FMCG companies are recognising the benefits that licensing can bring to their brand.

Over recent years I have found myself working more and more in the food and drink category. In turn this has made me more aware of developments in the category.

FMCG companies are seemingly recognising the benefits that licensing can bring to their brand – these benefits include widening distribution, stimulating more consumer engagement and trial, adding financial value to their brand and creating new ways of using their brand. Specialist food licensees like Finsbury Foods have been pioneers in this kind of licensing – a great example is Finsbury’s range of Bailey’s cakes and bakery products. In a case like this the brand owner sets the bar high in terms of product quality and delivery. Licensees are showing they can meet these expectations.

2020 saw some interesting partnerships in a variety of categories – for example Seabrook’s Crisps launched a limited edition crisp range featuring Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. Often these kind of partnerships may be time limited, but are very impactful. They can open up a brand owner’s eyes to other opportunities.

It is also interesting to see how a retailer like Iceland has embraced licensing and forged some innovative partnerships, for example with Gregg’s and Slimming World. I think Iceland’s use of licensing in the FMCG sector has been very effective and is a model for other retailers to look at. In turn, NPD from the likes of Finsbury should encourage other brand owners to consider licensing as a way of building their brand and enhancing their skill set.

New licensees and new business - such as Pin Limited - are a key part of the licensing economy.
New licensees and new business - such as Pin Limited - are a key part of the licensing economy.

New licensees and new business are a key part of the licensing economy in my view.

At The Licensing Awards I always like to take note of ‘new players’ – this is good to see and it is encouraging that companies are willing to engage with licensing and licensing opportunities. Of course for some companies licensing can be a way of them achieving rapid growth and entering a market sector more easily. Licensing is a great new business tool. I am always pleased to work with new licensees.

This year has, of course, been challenging on all levels but delivering new business especially so. That said we have worked with a number of new companies including Pin Limited which has launched a range of Wallace & Gromit Collector Pin badges. Working with new companies should be seen as an investment by the licensor/agent community. I think it is a way we can grow the industry and develop some new market sectors.

Hopefully 2021 will create an opportunity for more new conversations – I suspect for some companies licensing might be a useful way of bolstering their revenues in a tougher times.

Danbury Mint's Steiff Del Boy Bear gets Ian's award for licensed product that made him smile the most in 2020.
Danbury Mint's Steiff Del Boy Bear gets Ian's award for licensed product that made him smile the most in 2020.

In the week after The Licensing Awards, I would like to get in on the act and award The Licensing Lookout Award for the Licensed Product That Made Me Smile the Most in 2020 to Danbury Mint’s Only Fools and Horse Steiff Del Boy bear. The level of detail in Del Bear is to be admired – right down to the Gold D around his neck. Hopefully we won’t see these being sold from a suitcase in a South London street market any day soon!

Finally, and in the spirit of smiling and looking for uplifting moments, I was pleased to see a tweet from The Beatles official account this week. The tweet linked to a clip from film director Peter Jackson who was providing a sneak peek of The Beatles: Get Back. The film – which features a lot of unseen Beatles footage – was due out this year but has been put back until 2021. The five-minute clip that Peter Jackson showed was full of colour and verve. It put a smile on my face. Great to see The Beatles having so much fun and enjoying each other’s company. Would recommend taking a look at the clip here.

Let’s hope we can have more moments like this in 2021.

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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