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Licensing vibes from Toy Fair New York 2020

Sharon Weisman gives her view on what went down across the four-day show.

At shows like CES, Housewares or Toy Fair, it’s really easy to get distracted by what you, as a consumer, think is super cool (Spin Master’s Ninja Bots which are anything but silent and deadly fighting each other with frying pans and plungers) instead of evaluating the categorial licensing potential/angle.

In case you didn’t get to run around Toy Fair New York 2020, or left your licensing lenses at home, here are some licensing hacks I picked up:

Mergers & Acquisitions = Marriages & Divorce in the Licensing Community

The brand summits and booth structures at TFNY 2020 implied the upcoming shifts of the licensing tectonic plates, and therefore the upcoming change.
Everyone changed their relationship status to: IT’S COMPLICATED.

Sealed off stands, super-secret, no photos allowed and over all NDA Hell (I was very close to getting frisked and undergo a cavity-search at MGA and Jazwares).

Sitting through the eOne Summit, made you think: TOMY, Playmates and WTC toys presented as its amazing supporting longstanding partners, while Hasbro was sitting comfortably in the crowd, as its new proud owner.

A walk through the Jazwares booth made you understand that by acquiring WCT, which is an eOne licensee, now owned by Hasbro, that licences its NERF and Micro Machines to WCT…

Walking through the NBCUniversal press preview makes one ponder as to how the rise of Peacock will affect the brand licensing strategies (we’ve already witnessed The Office taken back in-house) and the strong relationship with Netflix (Spy Races, Spirit, etc).

Who gets voted off the island and who gets to stay in the incestuous Licensing Game of Thrones?

This also means major licensing executive shuffles. It was cool to see some major mavens back in the game and superstars wearing different capes: Simon Phillips (Moonbug), Matthew Wexler (WexWorks Media), Anoulay Tsai (now Netflix), Caryl Liebmann (MOJO Toys), Scott Halpren (now Brandgenuity), Woody Brown, Alan Gordon and Van Raatle combine forces to form a Trifecta agency: BG&VR, Amy Jarashow (now LEGO)… and for the first time in 12 years, Russ Brown wasn’t telling me about how Valiant is going to be the next Marvel!

The Child from The Mandalorian was a stand out new launch for Hasbro.
The Child from The Mandalorian was a stand out new launch for Hasbro.

The Murshnitzel (Urban Dictionary it, will ya?)

Properties:

The Witcher and CyberPunk – I will not get into how the rights have been negotiated because it’s not final yet, but let’s just say that these IPs transformed from the Polish publisher’s books/games series to bedazzled Netflix and Hollywood platforms (Hello, Henry and Keanu), therefore, attracting new fan bases.

J!NX and McFarlane are riding shotgun with the initial owners and showing how connected they are to their target audience. However, I will not lie, I will never read the books or play the games, but I cannot wait to smell like Lilac & Goose Berries while sporting purple contact lenses… in the tub.

Tom and Jerry – the Warner Bros. movie is coming out and everyone is in. Moose Toys and Reebok have the most exciting products I’ve seen to date.

Baby Yoda – sorry, I mean ‘The Child’. Disney and Hasbro gave birth to a superior animatronic baby bounty pod… speaking of ‘pod’, Print On Demand, enabled smaller but fierce companies like Trends International to justify the company name and hop on with posters and such to satisfy anxious fans. LEGO over-delivered with a miniature Baby Yoda figure (as part of a 1,023-piece Razor Crest set, that will make me oh-so-much poorer).

Lucas the Spider – WB + Cake Entertainment bring us the cutest ugly friend. While everyone keeps on insisting that ‘bugs don’t make good licensing properties’, I am rooting for this little furry property.

Yet another creator/influencer in the pocket for our kids to watch? I can’t say much, but Pocket.Watch caught lightning in a bottle once (and does a smashing job organically taking it global with the new travel programme)… will Diana be a Ryan?

Say hello to Keanu as part of the CyberPunk line.
Say hello to Keanu as part of the CyberPunk line.

Cocomelon – anything that is in form of a digital channel, and not just promoting on social platforms, has bigger licensing equity. Nursery rhymes will never go out of fashion, and repetition is recognition, so massive congrats to Jazwares, as it showcased a really fun authentic line.

Blues Clues & You – Nickelodeon is the master of ‘Everything old is new again’ and Joshua Dela Cruz’s likability is off the charts. Just Play’s licensed line is infused with music, cuteness and educational themes, promising a strong partnership.

ZAG’s new team means business, and invites Playmates Toys to Dinner and a Show…and a Movie. Hopefully the whole ladybugs bring good luck thing is true, and in from of a Miraculous movie in the US by Fall 2021. In addition, the ‘reversed toy story’ that Power Players will be telling on CN and Netflix ticks a lot of boxes. Fingers crossed!

LEGO is now putting some muscle behind licensing out LEGO CITY. Attaching names and characteristics to the individual otherwise generic figures, along with the unique LEGO humor that hits every demo at the right spot, might be enough to leverage.

Obvious wins: Spin Master snatching DC and showcasing the new figurines, and LEGO scooping Universal’s Minions and Trolls.

Misses: After making a big deal at Comic-Con about the Netflix series and the upcoming movie, He-Man and She-ra products was nowhere to be found at Toy Fair… not even retro action figures… maybe they gave up their majestic titles and escaped to Canada with Harry and Meghan?

LoungeFly offers limited editions of affordable luxury accessories.
LoungeFly offers limited editions of affordable luxury accessories.

Manufacturers get creative to level up their licences

LoungeFly’s is Funko’s Halo Effect, delivering detailed designs fans are willing to invest in. Limited editions of affordable luxury accessories, mix materials huge pins, subtle flair fashion and more to come… Take all my monies now #KTNXBai

LEGO Dots is a line that can be leveraged in a big way by many brands – mosaic bracelets and creative packs, make for a different and personalised 2D fun concept.

WowWee Power Treads is what play is all about, truly promoting creativity, and encouraging kids to build their own custom course using the Power Treads modular track set, as well as anything they can find around the house.

Influencers Vs. Creators

Companies like Bonkers Toys seem to follow the eyeballs and sign YouTube influencers that tell their viewers where their consumer products can be found (spoiler alert: WM exclusives), while companies such as Moose Toys seem to take a more strategic approach by ‘gamifying’ creators like Collins Key, but also leveraging UGC via influencers to promote the Oh My GIF line on TikTok.

The key is to understand the difference between a channel and a platform in order to ensure the best contracts, products and marketing strategies.

Pay close attention to: Pocket.Watch revealed in-depth research on Generation Alpha, including third-party studies conducted in partnership with Insight Research, at Toy Fair. Shortly after, it announced the launch of Clock.Work, a new full-service advertising agency designed to help major brands across a variety of verticals reach kids effectively and in a fully compliant way.

PinkFong's Baby Shark Dancing DJ features dance detection technology.
PinkFong's Baby Shark Dancing DJ features dance detection technology.

When technology enhances and changes play

Finally. It seems that toy manufacture understood that parents aren’t willing to give up their mobile phones for kids to play just for the sake of a digital component. Not everything has to have a screen or an app.

Examples of cool toy infused tech:

Mattel’s Hot Wheels ID technology – Special track readers for Hot Wheels, Thomas the Tank Engine (he can even recognise Percy and conduct a dialogue) all the way to a Tesla Cybertruck.

Playmates Storytelling Frozen II dolls, with over 50 phrases and sounds from the movie, Frozen II, including Elsa singing Into The Unknown. The dolls even correspond with each other.

WowWee’s PinkFong Baby Shark Dancing DJ with dance detection technology, enables the entire family to Coachella in the living room.

The Spin Master Monster Jam Megalodon STORM – the only R/C vehicle that can drive on water, dirt, rock, snow and more.

Tastemakers’ gamified sensorised table. I can tell you more, but you’ll find my body in the bottom of the Thames.

Hasbro’s relaunch of Tiger Electronics’ handheld LCD games got me in my feelings. It’s nostalgia played right and priced correctly.

The Uni-Verse 'universe' expanded with new collectables.
The Uni-Verse 'universe' expanded with new collectables.

Key Plays

H20 play and reveal: Unboxing, unwrapping, revealing… it’s all still a tactic in hopes to get a desensitised child to feel something for a few moments before they discover it’s not what they were waiting for, and ask for… another.

MGA doubled up on the surprise with the Na! Na! Na! Surprise and dumbed down on creativity with an opportunity to unbox a 2-in-1, including a posable fashion doll and plush pom with a clip to attach to a purse or backpack.

Mattel stepped up the Barbie Color Reveal, using water to reveal your doll and activate colour change transformations. More surprises? Unwrap the surprise packs to discover a wig and accessories to complete your doll’s outfit.

Spin Master expands the Uni-Verse universe, the idea still being dunking a cute cloud in warm water and witness it magically dissolves, revealing bags filled with your collectable unicorn, matching friend, two accessories, a bio card and collector poster.

Hasbro’s My Little Pony Magical Potion Surprise occurs when you fill the potion bottle-shaped blind pack with water and shake to reveal a mystery My Little Pony character hidden inside (extra brownie points to Hasbro: Potion package doubles as a storage case).

Crayola stays true to its DNA and mission with Arts and Crafts’ Scribble Scrubbie Pets – washable designs.

Zuru spotlighted its industry-leading ten-year sustainability programme.
Zuru spotlighted its industry-leading ten-year sustainability programme.

Sustainability

We already know that leading toy companies made it very clear that the sustainability mission is now altering their DNA.

Zuru spotlighted its industry leading ten-year Sustainability Program, and it’s the first thing you were introduced to when you walked into its booth. It includes rethinking designs, new and existing products, reducing the use of plastics and their products carbon footprint, offering consumers easy avenues to recycle, all while still delivering a top-quality experience.

Mattel showcased its first fully sustainable item in 2020: a revamp of the Fisher-Price Rock-a-Stack using sugarcane-based plastic and recycled or sustainably sourced packaging. This is a first step towards the goal of transitioning its toys and packaging to 100% recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastic by 2030.

Mattel grew its Barbie diversified collections.
Mattel grew its Barbie diversified collections.

Diversity and Inclusion

High-five to Mattel on recognising this is an ongoing mission and expending its Barbie diversified collections – from the Fashionistas all the way to non-binary dolls, career dolls and Japan Olympics line.

Pixar deserves a fist-bump (followed by a mock explosion), as it announced that the upcoming animated Onward movie would feature its first LGBTQ+ character, and it will be voiced by a gay person, Lena Waithe.

Licensing International, the industry’s trade organisation, has also taken a strong stand on Diversity & Inclusion, forming the IDEA Committee (Inclusion Diversity Equity and Accessibility) and driving the following statement: “The global licensing industry is committed to attracting, developing and retaining the best and brightest from all backgrounds to achieve superior business goals. To that end, Licensing International’s mission is to help its members and the broader licensing community build a diverse and inclusive workplace.”

The IDEA committee conducted its first formal in-person meeting during TFNY and by Licensing Expo 2020, it will be revealing very exciting actionable objectives and partnerships.

Supreme x Hot Wheels was one of the many co-brands on show.
Supreme x Hot Wheels was one of the many co-brands on show.

Co-Branding for Buzz rather than Royalties

Supreme x Hot Wheels, Supreme x NERF, Tesla x RC Racers… Fine. Yes, it sold out. But what does the brand get? Buzz. And the customer? The opportunity to try to sell it for more on eBay (so another idiot can continue the vicious cycle and do the same…).

But there is a whole lot of co-branding that made sense. Toho and Legendary Bromance: King and Godzilla, Build a Bear and The Yoda Child, Just Play’s Hairdorables for JoJo and Trolls.

Shrinkage

Toy manufactures are still shrinking consumables, but getting pushback on all the plastic and marketing certain foods to kids. Some believe the trend can bleed into other categories, but won’t tell us what they are going to shrink next… any guesses?

Candy was still a key trend on the show floor.
Candy was still a key trend on the show floor.

Candy

With all honesty, I don’t know why this is still a thing… but I guess playing with things that look and smell like candy/sweets is healthier than actually eating them.

Zuru’s Cotton Candy Cuties Pops, Spin Master’s Cosmic Candy Hatchimal CollEGGtibles and Hachtopia, Disney Princess Ralph Breaks the Internet Movie Dolls, etc are still riding this ice cream truck…

Health and wellness is bleeding into mainstream categories such as toys and games.
Health and wellness is bleeding into mainstream categories such as toys and games.

Health and wellness

This booming trend is bleeding into mainstream categories such as toys and games. Everyone wants to calm the hell down.

Spin Master offers us chill in the form of Kinetic sands and Zen Cats, as well as licensed Calm puzzles. Mattel partners Barbie with Head Space, the meditation platform, offering a super Zen doll that practices breathing exercises with you.

Apropos health and wellness…

Coronavirus and still looming tariffs

Everyone is talking about these grey clouds following us around, but no one has control over or true understanding as to how to plan ahead. So, relax, wash your hands a lot and don’t lick your colleagues.

Shows were cancelled/shifted all over the world, but the Toy Association truly tackled these ominous threats in the best possible way by being transparent, constantly communicating with their audience, providing education and analysis, reconfiguring the show floor and making sure ‘The Show Must Go On’.

Fans Decide

If retailers don’t have shelf space or the buyers don’t get it? The fans still want it and willing to pay for it. Not only are they willing to pay a premium, but they are so excited and appreciative of becoming part of the process – production, design, exclusives, benefits and specials.

Although Kickstarter is also a way to raise money, it’s a way to engage true fans, give them a voice and create a customised product without having to sweat the placement.

Spin Master Games leveraged Kickstarter for Marvel United.
Spin Master Games leveraged Kickstarter for Marvel United.

Two great examples are include Spin Master Games which leveraged Kickstarter for Marvel United. Backers pledging $60 or more for the game received the ULTIMATE fan edition, including the Marvel United core box and all applicable stretch goal rewards that will be unlocked throughout the campaign.

McFarlane Toys is giving fans a choice, and will be using Kickstarter to recreate the original line of Spawn toys, with classic packaging but with the modern sensibilities.

We Be Snackin’!

Once upon a time, we sat by a table and ate three full meals a day.
 Now we just snack all day. Not only when it comes to food, but content consumption, too. There is still the same vast appetite for content and increasing number of eyeballs but scattered – Disney+, Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Twitch, HULU, etc. Therefore, the licensing programmes should be reflected and scaled as such.

It’s not about one big order from a big retailer, or a property that everyone will be watching. And yes, it’s going to take more time, effort and resources to find the eyeballs as well as the fingers (to click ‘BUY NOW’). The game will also be quicker. Only the right data will bring us to the right partnerships.

Look at what Care Bears is doing on Dolls Kill, how ITV is leveraging RedBubble, fashion brands riding ntwrk, toy companies figuring out Camp Stores, licensed accessories finding space at Its Sugar and so forth.

Pabulum for reflection

Trends are great ladders, but what happens if a manufacturer hops on a trend that tinkers off rather quickly? Managing inventory is key nowadays. Can you adapt your strategy to include sustainable business models beyond consumer products, such as Services and Subscriptions?

Think B2B instead of B2C – travel, hotels, resorts, pediatrics, doctors’ waiting rooms, vets, schools, museums, gas stations, cinemas, planes, SPAs, beauty salons… It’s becoming an important revenue stream. Get to more consumers via a strategic partnership.

These kinds of deals are structured a bit differently, but if managed correctly, they will solve for inventory issues and save a lot on marketing expenses.

Sharon Weisman is vp global business development at Licensing International. She can be contacted on sweisman@licensing.org. She’s also very entertaining on social media, @sharon.weisman. Please note, the above is all her own views and not those of the association.

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