The Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes casts an eye over the greeting cards and gifting space this week.

A product category that seems to be licensing friendly is greeting cards. Companies such as Danilo, Hype, Gemma and Portico are all familiar names to licensing executives as leading players in licensed greeting cards. However, it is also an extremely competitive sector – with competition coming from within the licensing sector, but also from outside it with generic designs. A licence is no guarantee of success in this crowded sector. Retail space is much prized.

Of course, a well chosen licence can provide greeting card companies with a strong point of difference and a clear way of offering something unique to retailers.

I am not an expert on the science of ranging and designing greeting cards, but as a consumer I buy a lot of cards and know that often my buying decision is made up in an instant by the look of the card and how it catches my eye.

That said often you only see the top half of a card especially in larger stores such as WH Smith where there are large display areas for cards that are racked up. So with this thought in mind it has always struck me that design is a key component of success in greeting cards. A strong licence will sell when it is hot, but to build a longer lasting model with licensed greeting cards design and copywriting are crucial elements. In short, the licence has to be designed and not just used.

I spotted two ranges of cards this week which I thought had got design and copywriting spot on and the resulting cards were very strong offerings.


The first of these ranges was by Carlton Cards part of UK Greetings. It was based on the classic Disney character Minnie Mouse. The design work looked very fresh and new using new colourways, bright colours, background patterns and what I imagine are new illustrations. These are combined with clever greeting friendly slogans such as ‘a true classic’, ‘just naturally fabulous’ and ‘girls just wanna have fun’.

The design team seemed to have worked hard on producing cards that work well at retail with the design catching the eye whilst browsing. Disney have managed to breathe new life into a classic character by investing in design and focusing on the end use of the design – it is easy to take a one design fits all approach to licensing.

I think here they have designed with the category in mind. Success in the greeting cards strategy could kickstart activity in other product sectors.


I was also impressed by the way Hanson White have used The Muppets licence. Using photographs of the puppet characters on white backgrounds, they have developed a range that uses the fun and humour of the series well. Slogans are written in very striking fonts and the cards seem to have a strong sense of identity with the the card recipient in mind. They are tapping into the nostalgic value of The Muppets coupled with their high recognition. A strong combination at retail. The cards work well as a range.

My particular favourite is one featuring the two grumpy old men Statler and Waldorf, one who is dancing – ‘You May Be Old But You Can Still Get Down’ says the lead slogan, with the clever riposte ‘Question Is, Can You Get Back Up Again?’

Hanson White is a UK Greetings brand as well and I am guessing they have developed a close working partnership with Disney. This seems to be paying off from a design point of view – hopefully this will translate into good sales. Both ranges are good examples of using a licence in a progressive way in an effective manner. I just hope I don’t receive the Statler and Waldorf card this year!


Licensing is a diverse industry and you can get involved in lots of types of business. We have been involved with pub restaurant chain Brewer’s Fayre on behalf of our client The Beano. Brewer’s Fayre use The Beano to brand their Children’s Menu, develop activities such as a ‘free’ comic for child diners and, more recently, brand their soft play areas.

I went on a site visit this week and it was great to see what licensing can do in the leisure sector at first hand. It would be easy for Brewer’s Fayre to create their own characters or use a generic design for their activities, but they have recognised that a brand and licensed characters can add value, originality and a talking point to their activity. They have embraced The Beano well and have looked at ways they can use the characters throughout the children’s activities.

One particular highlight for me was the use of Beano ‘sounds’ to create the carpet designs in the play area – the use of Beano words such as Thwack, Chomp and Bash on the carpet is really effective. I think this kind of partnership is a good template for the future of licensing – the leisure industry should be licensing friendly, but licensors need to enter this sector with the spirit of partnership in mind and long-term thinking.

A further benefit of my Brewer’s Fayre visit was the chance to try a Kit Kat Chocolate Sundae dessert. The dessert which includes a Kit Kat finger and pieces of Kit Kat was very nice and a great example of a trend in restaurants for confectionery brands to be used as ingredients for desserts, but also to be use in a branded way on the menus and sales material in the restaurant. Brewer’s Fayre also feature Guinness as an ingredient in one of their pies.

The brand owner sells ingredients in bulk and, of course, the opportunity to be featured on a menu allows consumers to try the core product and it also offers a new revenue stream. Please rest assured after eating my Kit Kat dessert I spent a very energetic half hour playing in The Beano soft play area to assuage my guilt!


Finally, I would also point out how good the Happy Jackson product I have seen in retailers such as WH Smith looks. Bright and colourful, the product and displays really stand out, but there also seems to be a commitment to new product designs and new types of products – not simply a case of slapping the design on standard products.

Licensees such as Wild & Wolf seem to have recognised that licensing can be a trigger for innovation and not a substitute it. Innovation, good design and a strong licence are a winning combination. The Happy Jackson lunch box with an elastic ribbon to close it is a good example. A new format for a classic product combined with a bespoke design – in this case a slogan related to food and lunch: the lunch box reads: ‘Salad, Nuts & Fruit’ with a line through it, followed by ‘Crisps, cake and chocolate’.

I bet Jackson is very Happy at the moment.

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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