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Tales from Toy Fair… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes reflects on a busy three days spent at Toy Fair at London’s Olympia last week.

Having spent three days at Toy Fair at London’s Olympia last week, I can confirm that the trade show roadshow is well and truly back on the road. It was my third trade show of the year already. I know many toy and licensing personnel were hotfooting it to Nuremberg after the London show while others, including myself, are readying ourselves for Spring Fair in Birmingham.

Over the years that I have attended trade shows, their nature has changed with more sideshows integrated into the main show with feature areas, seminar programmes and media events. In most cases I think show organisers have got things right and managed to deliver industry focused events that still have a relevance and resonance with the businesses they serve. For me, a key quality of trade shows is their ability to create momentum and focus; they are industry hubs and succeed in bringing people together. Of course there has to be a commercial upside for participants, but the Toy Fair reminded that a well curated trade show is a catalyst for companies and, if used wisely, can really help businesses, particularly in challenging times.

In a general sense, my reading of the licensing room at the Toy Fair was that there were some concerns around a lack of ‘newness’ both in brand and product terms. Many non-toy attendees from the licensing community attend in the hope of spotting the next big thing. My view is that there won’t be one. That’s not to say there aren’t opportunities out there, but these are likely to evolve and develop in different ways rather than deliver an immediate knockout punch.

My sense is that toy companies are embracing the notion that they have to nurture brands over a longer period, investing in NPD and marketing support to help them grow rather than relying entirely on the licensed brand to drive things on its own. I think this approach is one that licensees in other categories need to recognise as well – there is a value and sense in long-term planning coupled with a philosophy of proactive partnership and consumer engagement.

Another point to note is that ‘master’ toy companies are more savvy about licensing and licensing rights so tend to ring-fence more rights these days, which means there are fewer opportunities for other companies to pick up ancillary rights in a brand. It is also more efficient for brand owners to work with fewer licensees. Of course, another industry dynamic is that toy companies like Mattel and Hasbro are firmly established as rights holders now and have fully integrated licensing into their business models. This is another factor that has changed the licensing and toy landscape.

LL4While at the show I was able to make a few observations, combining Looking Out with my day job.

It was interesting to see how brand owners continue to embrace licensing and have recognised how licensed products can deliver them new distribution opportunities, fresh ways of engaging with consumers and of course create new revenue streams. My sense is that in a number of cases consumer engagement is the key driver, particularly in regards to brand positioning and social media engagement. Licensed product can, of course, extend a brand’s reach at retail and help build up retail presence.

LL6I certainly think Hornby and Corgi’s entry into jigsaw puzzles plays to this point, coupled with being a logical brand extension for brands of this kind. The ranges were presented at Toy Fair in branded FSDUs, making it easy for retailers to see how they could activate the range in their stores. Similarly, Love Hearts’ entry into plush seems to have been a success and adds a new dynamic to the brand’s consumer connections.

Another interesting brand to have a presence in the toy category was Polaroid which has partnered with LEGO under the auspices of the LEGO Ideas stream (which allows fans to nominate and vote for design ideas they would like to see LEGO develop). This is a great example of a brand owner engaging with consumers and empowering them to become part of the ‘brand team’. It is also a neat way for LEGO to work with a variety of brands and IP with the safety net of consumer support. The LEGO version of the Polaroid OneStep SX-70 camera includes a number of working functions such as a viewfinder. It is a great example of the creativity associated with LEGO and how it can adapt the product to make best use of a licence.

I spotted the Polaroid product on LEGO’s stand – it was great to see LEGO at the show. I think Toy Fair and other trade shows are a way that an industry can show a united front of support – in this context having household name brands like LEGO on show helps the cause, particularly in regards to consumer media engagement and selling the story of toys at a general level.

LL2There were also good examples of how publishing, toys and licensing are businesses that are bound together. I always like to see new entrants into the licensing market and with this in mind it was good to see The Puppet Company’s Elmer and Paddington ranges at the show. For what I understand is the first foray into licensing, The Puppet Company has done a great job of developing product ranges which represent the brands really well and gave these brands a noteworthy presence at the show. Licensing as a whole definitely benefits from the fresh impetus new licensees bring.

For brands like Elmer, licensees like The Puppet Company dovetail nicely with the book trade and reflect how the business of book selling is changing as well.

LL1Vivid Goliath was showcasing a Murdle board game on its stand, a bestselling book linked to a daily online puzzle. Its journey and popularity demonstrate how in categories like board games and puzzles, companies such as Goliath have to be ever alert to new opportunities and open minded to their origins. Online gaming, podcasts and influencers are all potential sources of new rights but arguably complex rights to weigh up. That said, a well chosen brand like Murdle can make an immediate impact.

Goliath also had The Traitors board game on its stand. This was a vivid reminder of the enduring relationship between TV game shows and board games. Also, full marks for timing as this product certainly benefitted from the buzz around the TV show which was on air during Toy Fair.

Elsewhere, classic TV games shows like Catchphrase were featured. It was also good to see TV personalities such as Stephen Mulhern and Richard Hammond at the show helping to promote products they are associated with; these sort of appearances add lustre to the event.

LL3Two final observations I would make are that the growth of licensed product ranges that have been developed for fans and collectors seems to be continuing its rise; of course companies like Funko are in the vanguard of this. Interestingly, it launched a Michael McIntyre Pop! Vinyl at the show with the comedian present and very proactively promoting his Pop! I am guessing a lot of this product will be sold direct to consumers at Michael McIntyre’s arena shows – this is a reminder that sometimes new sales channels need to be embraced.

Other companies such as Playmobil are tapping into the Kidult space – its Asterix range is a good example of a brand being actively positioned in this area. Also, this is a category where animals, manga, comic and gaming properties are thriving.

LL7My other observation is that the arts and crafts category seems to be a strong performer at present. I saw a lot of arts and crafts ranges at the show, with licensing playing a role in many of them. Seemingly consumers and retailers are seeking out these kind of products, not least because they have an in-built added value in terms of their play value and the fact that many crafting activities are ‘shared experiences’ across a family group. I know from my work with Paper Engine and its Aardman card construction kits that consumers are responding well to products that challenge them, while allowing them to acquire new skills coupled with a sense of achievement in completing a kit. There is also a growing demand for these kind of products in a range of retailers from value through to more specialist retailers like Hobbycraft.

I would say overall that Toy Fair was a good show for licensing albeit the ‘next big thing’ may still remain undiscovered. Conversely, it was clear that there are a number of licensed brands that are stalwart performers in the toy sector, while licensees seem more committed than ever to developing authentic products that utilise a licence well with close regard to the fan experience.

LL5To this end it was encouraging to see a number of licensed products featured in the Toy Fair Heroes showcase – this really reinforces how licensing works well when used with focus and purpose in the toy and games category.

It also emphasises the ongoing link between licensing and toys – two industries which need each other, but also seem to work well together

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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