Start Licensing’s Ian Downes takes his ‘Looking Out’ to Valletta in Malta this week.
The Licensing Lookout went on tour this week. I spent a long weekend in Malta and despite the plan to switch off I couldn’t stop myself looking out.
That said initially I had to overcome the shock of being back in Maltese waters and the memories of the Maltese islands Light Fund swim I took part in some years ago. Memories of this particular challenge still chafe a bit and I was quite relieved that licensing’s Johnny Weissmuller – aka Stephen Gould – was nowhere to be seen on arrival in Valletta. Although he did send me some coaching tips during my stay. Despite Stephen’s tips, this time I let the local ferries do the work. Altogether a much more agreeable mode of transport.
Returning to my Lookout duties, it is worth noting Malta has a thriving tourism business and attracts a range of international visitors. It is also now a full member of the EU. It does, of course, also have a historical connection to Britain and there are still visible reminders of these links such as red pillar boxes and phone boxes. It also seems to be a place that is very proactively promoting itself internationally attracting business from sectors like online gambling, property development and, interestingly, the film industry. Malta is a popular location for film production. Films like Gladiator have been shot in Malta. During my trip I spotted two films in production. Sadly I am still waiting for the call to join the respective casts.
Indeed the connection to the film industry is quite visible around Malta. A legacy of the live action Popeye movie that was filmed on the island is that there is a Popeye visitor attraction. Popeye Village was originally built as the film set for the 1980 production. It is now a visitor attraction consisting of an open air museum and a family entertainment complex. Features include a comic museum, animation shows, a water park and the film set. I didn’t visit it, but it is a widely promoted and seemingly popular destination. The Maltese Film Commission is actively encouraging film companies to use Malta as a location with a range of incentives, but it was also interesting to note it is keen to see local people employed on productions and it is also promoting training schemes to attract new local talent into the industry.
I saw a model of the Jurassic World Dominion ‘Blue’ dinosaur located in a high profile location. I assume this is part of a wider trail. This production was in part filmed in Malta.
It was interesting to see how this connection is being developed in Malta and underpins the potential for brands to be used to connect with consumers in leisure settings.
Retail wise given the historical connection with the UK and the strength of the tourist business in Malta, it wasn’t a great surprise to see retailers like Next and M&S with a high street presence in Malta. However it was a surprise to see a branch of Mothercare open, but I surmised that the brand lives on outwith the UK as a legacy of a pre-existing franchise business. I remember working with the UK business on a licensing range for the franchise partners at one stage. The Mothercare name stretched quite far through franchising I believe.
I popped into this branch of Mothercare and apparel wise it seemed to be a licensing free zone, although it did have some licensed beach toys on sale featuring Disney and Baby Shark.
A retailer with a strong presence was Lidl. Like it does in the UK, the retailer uses a weekly flyer to promote the latest offers. A couple of pages of the flyer I picked up in Malta were dedicated to British and Irish style specialities.
As a nod to St Patrick’s Day part of the offer was a range of Guinness branded licensed products including gift sets featuring pint glasses, a Guinness flavoured steak sauce and Guinness caramel chocolate.
Other licensed lines included children’s apparel with Jurassic World, Spider-Man, PAW Patrol, Frozen and Looney Tunes all featuring. Underpinning the power and reach of gaming, there was also a complete collection of boyswear featuring Minecraft. These ranges were being offered on a ‘When It’s Gone It’s Gone’ basis – using well established in demand brands in this context helps drive overall footfall, but is a further reminder that well chosen licences are useful sales tools for retailers.
A couple of trends that I have observed in the UK seem to be travelling trends judging by my visit to Malta. One being the growth in popularity of manga and anime. Products from this genre – most notably graphic novels – popped up in a number of retailers while I spotted a dedicated anime and manga shop.
WH Smith at Valletta Airport had a specific graphic novel section in-store. I also noticed how retailers are adapting their store formats to embrace different products or ways of selling beyond their traditional model. This includes greater use of FSDUs and other custom display features. A branch of Costa Coffee at the airport included a space selling books – maybe influenced by the trend for independent book shops to double up as coffee shops, but an interesting reminder that retailers and retail outlets are shifting their shape at the moment.
Football is an international game and there was a fair spread of football-related merchandise on sale in different retailers across the island. This included a number of English clubs such as Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United. There was also a significant presence for Italian clubs including Juventus and AC Milan.
Given the proximity of Italy to Malta and the popularity of football on the island it wasn’t a surprise to see an official Panini shop in the centre of Valletta, the Maltese capital. The shop, Anastasi, seems to have been there a long time. It stocked a broad range of football merchandise including contemporary Panini sticker collections but also older collections that were no doubt collectors’ items.
One feature of the shop was a range of football club pennants arranged alphabetically – I am pleased to say that Millwall made the grade… although it did look like a rather old pennant so maybe not the shop’s best selling item.
It was good to see a specialist retailer like this seemingly thriving. Good to know that it had built a business around football stickers and the ongoing interest from consumers in collecting them. Also a great example of a retailer that has become a hub for specific products and consumers – a great example of a specialist retailer.
A final licensing observation in Malta was the plethora of licensed confectionery lines on sale. This may be in part explained by the fact that Malta is a holiday island and in this context confectionery is a popular treat or gift. It is also partly explained by the proximity to Italy and the fact that Italian-based licensees can distribute their products relatively easily in Malta.
Given the Italian connection, one type of product that featured prominently was a number of ‘flame eggs’ – Italian style Easter Eggs. There were a number of well stocked displays in retail in the run up to Easter and in some cases this included branded FSDUs. Featured brands included Jurassic World Kinder Flame Eggs and Tom & Jerry Flame Eggs from Bauli. There were also other formats like Scooby-Doo surprise eggs. Outside of products targeting children there were also Guinness and Bailey’s branded Easter Eggs on sale in a Valletta deli superstore. Interestingly there was also a number of examples of licensed ranges in categories like biscuits and cake slices including Hot Wheels, a range which seemed to include a Hot Wheels premium in each pack.
Other product examples included Smurfs shaped mini biscuits and a range of Peppa Pig biscuits. Definitely more character licensing on shelf in categories like confectionery, bakery and biscuits in Malta than you tend to see in the UK these days.
One other thing that caught my eye was that Postman Pat has got competition. Things are definitely more competitive in the character licensing world these days. The Maltese Post Office has its own character called Peppi Pustier.
As the son of a postman I feel qualified to make a judgement call here – I think Pat has the edge on Peppi, not least as Pat has a cat whereas Peppi seems to be delivering the post on his own. Maybe I need to switch off on arrival in future… or go for a long swim!
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.