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Taking it beyond the t-shirt… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes spots some deals which are prime examples of moving licensing on from the traditional.

One of the conversations I have missed during lockdown has been with London cab drivers. Often you jump into a cab and the driver cheerily engages you in conversation. Without pigeonholing the drivers, it is always useful to have a passing knowledge of football, racing and “that Boris Johnson”. That said the conversation does move on from time to time and I often get asked “what do you do mate?”. I have several stock ways of answering this one as I found out ‘early doors’ that to say I work in licensing can lead you down a rabbit hole of chat about the Hackney Carriage Licensing office or a one way dialogue about pub opening hours. These days I tend to say that I work in the business that produces t-shirts that have famous characters on or toys that you buy in Argos. I probably don’t sell licensing as well as I could. So with this in mind it is always good to see some new deals that move licensing on and take my back of the cab chat beyond the t-shirt.

This week via the excellent Retro to Go website I read about a deal for the Volkswagen brand. The deal was for a VW-themed ‘home bar’. As far as I can work out this is an ‘officially licensed product’. This assumption is borne out by the attention to detail in the product. It features the iconic VW Camper shape and naturally includes the VW badge up front. Retro to Go reports that the bar has been fashioned from a VW mould so captures the shape and lines of the original vehicle faithfully. It is available in a range of colour finishes, includes headlights and is very much a lifestyle product.

VW uses licensing well to reinforce the brand’s values and tap into the VW lifestyle. This product fits well into the trend for home bars and garden cabins, plus it would work well in office settings.

Eye-catching VW licensing deals have included the likes of fridges and cool boxes.
Eye-catching VW licensing deals have included the likes of fridges and cool boxes.

It follows on from a number of other eye-catching VW deals that have included fridges and cool boxes. They all use the iconic VW shape well and are instantly recognisable as part of the brand family. More broadly there is a wider trend for upcycling and re-use – an internet search calls up a number of companies which upcycle old car parts and give them a second life including home bars.

Having an officially licensed product builds on this trend, fills a demand and may also gently persuade upcyclers to look to other brands. It is a statement piece and the fact that a site such as Retro to Go features it underlines the value deals like this can bring a brand in PR terms.

Lost Universe is selling a limited edition Pac-Man arcade game, hand signed by the brand's creator.
Lost Universe is selling a limited edition Pac-Man arcade game, hand signed by the brand's creator.

Another product that I was reading about this week has a similar feel to the VW Home Bar. Retro gaming is a noteworthy trend and there is a real interest in the category. This is partly fired up by consumers who remember certain gaming brands well from playing them first time round, but also consumers whose lifestyle and life stage now allows them to pursue their passion in a different way.

The product that caught my eye was a quarter-sized replica Pac-Man arcade game. Pac-Man is celebrating it’s 40th anniversary this year. As part of the celebrations this product has been developed to mark the anniversary. It is a limited edition product with only 256 units developed. They are also hand signed by Pac-Man’s creator Toru Iwatani. The product is priced at £250. I saw it for sale on the Lost Universe website.

This kind of product is a great example of how licensing can trade up and also how licensing is ageing up – by that I mean there is a consumer group of older consumers who have disposable income and are looking for products that are ‘beyond the t-shirt’. The VW Bar and the Pac-Man product reinforce the point that licensing can be lifestyle lead and that there is scope to think about well developed higher ticket priced products.

A key challenge with products like these is connecting with consumers and that’s where the growing presence of sites like Lost Universe are a useful ally to licensing. Sites like these know how to reach fans and how to market products like this effectively via social media.

Attention to detail in product development is one of the keys to licensing success, coupled with a willingness to add value to licensed product. Clearly with products selling at £250 this is vital, but it is also an approach that is to be encouraged at lower price points. I have always been impressed by That Company Called IF. It is a gift company which has specialised in products that relate to books, reading and publishing. I have worked with it a couple of times over its 20-year history and was always impressed by the creative approach to product development. So it is a company I always look for in retail. This week I spotted one of its spinners in my local WH Smith store. IF is not heavy users of licensing and seems to take a very selective approach to licensing, majoring on properties that are connected to the publishing world and ones that are ‘giftable’.

IF's Dr Seuss range includes a Children's Reading Timer.
IF's Dr Seuss range includes a Children's Reading Timer.

On the WH Smith spinner I really liked IF’s Dr Seuss range of magnetic bookmarks and the ‘star’ Dr Seuss product which is a Children’s Reading Timer. The presentation and packaging of these products is really effective and it has made good use of quotes from the books. This range feels really authentic and ‘on brand’.

Bookmarks may not traditionally be high ticket price items, but the approach that IF has taken in this category has added value to it. Licensing has helped it trade up and also kept out competition.

These are good gift items, but also in some cases are self purchase items so they have to appeal to fans. They are also good items for bookshops to sell as they encourage purchasers to spend more and trade up particularly when buying gifts. A book and bookmark make a great gift combination. Ranges like these also help give publishing brands extra presence at retail and in some cases help push book brands into new channels.

Crayola has a number of co-branded licensed lines in its portfolio.
Crayola has a number of co-branded licensed lines in its portfolio.

I think it is also good to see licensing being used by well known brands in tandem with their own brands. This is a real nod to the power of licensing. On my WH Smith trip I spotted a number of Crayola products that are ‘co-branded’ with licensed brands. The products include activity packs and colouring sets featuring the likes of Peppa Pig. This kind of ‘co-brand’ approach to licensing is a useful example to point to for the industry and hopefully it is one that encourages other brand owners to consider licensing when reflecting on NPD.

Licensing doesn’t have to diminish the core brand and, indeed, it can help enhance it. Well established brands like Peppa Pig can be a consumer segway into a brand. A consumer who uses this Crayola product may well go onto buy other Crayola products and start to recognise the Crayola brand more readily. LEGO is, of course, another good example of this kind of licensing.

Sainsbury's has filled shelves near the front of the store with its new summer promotion.
Sainsbury's has filled shelves near the front of the store with its new summer promotion.

My local Sainsbury’s has started a summer promotion with an eye on school holidays and has filled a lot of shelves at the front of store with ‘summer products’ ranging from food and drink to books and toys. However, it has also backed some brand horses like LEGO and given the brand a prominent end cap. From a licensing point of view it is good to see that the offering includes a number of licensed options such as Spider-Man and Harry Potter. Seeing brands like LEGO and Crayola using licensing should give us some encouragement about licensing’s ability to engage with consumers.

That said, it is also good to see that brands like LEGO seems to recognise that attention to detail when it comes to licensing is important and that you have to engage fans with products that reflect their passion for a film or franchise. It could easily skim over this and assume that their brand will get the sale alone. LEGO seems to look at licensing as a long-term part of the NPD process.

LEGO seems to look at licensing as a long-term part of the NPD process.
LEGO seems to look at licensing as a long-term part of the NPD process.

Thinking back to my London taxi experiences, I have decided that it might be useful to have a licensed product on me to show them what I do. This should help me cut to the chase more quickly. Clearly it would be odd and impractical to carry around a VW Bar so I am thinking of investing in a Dr Seuss reading timer. I think it is a great example of licensing and is an easy ‘licensed product’ to present in the back of a cab. It also has another attractive attribute in the context of cab rides – it would allow me to put the taxi driver on my metre, cut down on chat and hopefully free up some time for quiet reflection!

That said, I can’t wait to be back in a cab being asked what I do, what I think of Boris and discussing whether Millwall will ever be promoted.

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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