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The Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes takes a trip down the Toy Fair aisles this week.

Like many of my colleagues in the licensing industry I have been in the Olympia bubble this week attending the London Toy Fair. With this in mind it might be better to call the column the Licensing Lookin this week – most of my reflections are based on what I saw and heard at Olympia.

My view was that there was less licensing on show at the show, but I think this is always a case of perspective and reflects your current activities. My sense is that the bigger toy companies such as Vivid, Bandai and Character Group are as committed to licensing and clearly licensed ranges are a big part of their activities, but they are looking for properties that can work on a multi product basis. It may be as these companies have become ever more licensing savvy they are hoovering up more rights under a master toy agreement and, as such, there are less opportunities for companies looking for secondary rights to big properties. The exception being in specialist categories like wheeled toys.

Also as I remarked to a couple of industry colleagues lots of licensing aeroplanes are taking off and the radar screens are busier than ever, but with apologies to residents of Twickenham and Teddington there aren’t any new licensing runways being built – supply is outstripping demand particularly in market sectors like pre-school. I think my colleagues understood my point but they did say this was possibly my Eric Cantona trawler moment.

One property that seemed that seemed to be a frequent flyers at the show was Finding Dory – although ironically on at least one stand it was hard to find as it was in a closed showroom. I understand commercial confidentiality, but I have always found this approach odd at a trade show.

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Despite my half full view of the show from a licensing perspective, I was pleased to note a couple of encouraging licensing trends and some innovative use of licences.

I liked Milly & Flynn’s use of the Beatrix Potter Peter Rabbit licence, with a particular highlight being their reproduction of the very first Peter Rabbit board game which has been developed this year to capitalise on the 150th anniversary of Beatrix Potter’s birth. I thought this was a great way to mark the anniversary and a good use of a classic licence.

Milly & Flynn had also developed a range of Peppa Pig wooden toys – the quality of these was good and they successfully brought new life to a very successful licence. I could imagine retail buyers warming to these products as a good opportunity to offer a new perspective on a modern classic and to use licensing in a traditional toy category. Milly & Flynn were one of a number of licensees who are using publishing based properties to create product ranges such as games, jigsaw puzzles and plush toys. In their case they had Hairy Maclary, Spot and Dear Zoo products.

From my own direct experience I was also delighted to see what a good job Paul Lamond Games had done with the Jacqueline Wilson licence, adding three jigsaw puzzles to their board games. Licensees have recognised that publishing based licences offer longevity in the market, create opportunities to merchandise product alongside books and also develop products that aren’t mass marketed and, therefore, holding appeal to independent retailers, bookstores and garden centres.

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Whilst on the Paul Lamond stand I was also able to see their Subbuteo range. I think it is very impressive how they have repositioned this classic brand and how they have leveraged football club licences like Arsenal to deliver Subbuteo to a new audience whilst respecting its heritage – for example retaining the signature green brand colourway on packaging. This is a good example of how a heritage brand can be used in the contemporary market and the value of brands like Subbuteo for cross generational audiences. It is also a good case study of investing in a licensed brand over a long-term period and sticking with it – Subbuteo has featured on the Paul Lamond stand for a few years now.

I am also impressed with the success and growth of Underground Toys. I remember selling their publicity shy MD Andy his first licence some 15 years or so ago – this was a Power Rangers licence grouping together a mixed bag of US products for UK distribution. Since then Underground Toys have really embraced licensing in a focused way concentrating on collectables, special editions and novelty lines using film, cult TV, sci fi and comic based licences.

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Whilst they are a specialist company with their well developed eye for NPD  and spotting trends, it would be wrong to pigeonhole them as a niche supplier – they have succeeded in using licensing and licensed ranges in an original way for example their tie with Funko around Pop vinyl collectable figurines.

These products are now available in mainstream retailers – great for the licensor and for licensing in general. I am pleased to say that they will be running Asterix and Obelix figurines soon in this range. For us this will allow a new group of consumers to access Asterix and for both companies it will open up new distribution using each other’s strengths.

Their Toy Fair stand was full of interesting product with one highlight being their range of Star Wars housewares and ceramics – a new departure for them but an opportunity to bring their licensing expertise into play in a sector that has been licensing lite, but one that has a lot of potential. Their Star Wars teapots looked particularly good. But I can imagine a lot of interesting barbecues this summer and a number of wedding lists featuring Star Wars kitchenware on them this year.

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Once I escaped Olympia, I also have a chance to do a bit of Looking Out this week – I thought the Batman apparel range in H&M was a great use of the iconic brand device and offered something new design wise.

The range looked good grouped together and was a further example of the need in the apparel market to be on trend and indeed create trends. A company like H&M has to work with pan European licences, but seems to be able to use them well and create a design palette that holds international appeal.

I am off to find some new runways now…

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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