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The Licensing Lookout

From LEGO stairs to super hero art – here’s what’s caught the eye of Start Licensing’s Ian Downes this week.

When I first started working in licensing I found an unexpected problem. If I bought anything as a gift that had a TV or film character on it or near it my friends would look at me strangely, take a moment and then say thanks often through gritted teeth. I realised that they thought I got everything for nothing because I worked in that ‘licensing industry’.

Likewise I was always reluctant to buy anything for my house that was remotely licensed at the risk of being known as the ‘king of the freebies’. As time has gone on I have got over this barrier but it is easy to get complacent about products when you have ready access to so many good ones. So I have always tried to have a ‘I would buy one of those’ tests as my benchmark of excellence in licensing.

This week I saw a product that was a ‘I would buy one of those’ ones. The excellent Retro to Go website drew my attention to a set of LEGO staircase stickers being sold via – these decal stickers allow you to turn your staircase into LEGO bricks. Visually it looks stunning and it is a very innovative example of licensing. I imagine for young LEGO fans it would be a dream bit of home décor and I am sure there will be a few older fans buying this product.

Alas I don’t think I will be able to persuade Mrs Downes to give up the carpet yet! I am not sure who the licensee is, but am fairly confident it is an officially licensed product.


I think there is also much to be admired about how the Haynes Manual’s licensing programme has been managed and has evolved over time. It is an example of a licensing programme that has refreshed design to keep consumers interested, created some effective partnerships with other brands such as Star Wars and also looked at some new categories for licensing.

A good example of the latter point is a range of added value jigsaw puzzles developed by Demand Media. I spotted these initially at the Spring Fair. A ‘Haynes meets Thunderbirds’ puzzle caught my eye in particular. The product format will open up retailing opportunities for both brands in sectors like garden centres, bookshops, catalogues, online and department stores.

The combination of a puzzle and a book is a good one and should work well with consumers.


I have also been impressed by how Underground Toys have managed to develop a Collector and Fan market around Pop! vinyl figurines in the UK. This kind of product is generally being bought by (young) adults and features in the likes of comic shops and HMV, but also in mainstream toy and book retail. Underground Toys have done a great job in cultivating this market and encouraging collectability.

I think this is a growth area for licensing – the age bandwidth for licensed products is expanding I think and the 20-something market holds a lot of potential for licensed products. Underground Toys have also recently launched a Die Cast Metal range. These have just become available in the UK market and can be purchased in retailers such as Toys R Us, Argos and Smyths. The range that is currently out in market is Batman v Superman, which consists of a 4” Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and a Batmobile.

They have looked at what has worked in the US and introduced this to the UK, being mindful of the potential to tap into the collector pound. That said product that is targeted at collectors and fans has to be on point and be respectful of the property; licensees have to respect fans and build a rapport.

Licensees like Underground Toys have recognised this and have used licensing as a route into the fan and collector world but backed this up with clever NPD, good marketing and involvement in fan events.


The strength of licensing and its reach was reinforced to me when I was reading The Times this week and I spotted a display ad for Specsavers featuring The Gruffalo. It was promoting an offer for two free pairs of spectacles for children. The Gruffalo artwork used was charming and really stood out in the paper.

I am sure it would have made most readers stop to read the ad and register Specsavers’ offer. The quality of the illustration work was particularly effective in a busy newspaper. It is encouraging to see companies like Specsavers being so confident in a character that they choose to use it in such a high profile ad campaign.

This sort of activity should be good for the industry as a whole and is maybe a case study to point to in regards to the potential that licensing can offer marketers.


As we approach the Easter break it would be remiss of me not to have revisited the Easter Egg aisle. As mentioned before licensing is present on shelf but is increasingly under pressure from ‘big brands’ in the confectionery sector. Companies like Nestle and Cadbury’s have recognised the power of their brands in this space and their potential to create great composite gifts. It is a tough battle for licensees to fight.

However, it seems a way forward for licensing is for licensees to add value to their Easter Egg offers and develop packs that offer other products such as toys and books based on popular licences. I think Beacon Confectionery have done this really well with their My First JCB Easter egg. Neatly packed using JCB’s signature brand colours, the egg comes co-packed with a JCB toy. It is a very appealing product and the product gets JCB into the gifting sector. It is also a lever for JCB to pull to cement its position in the toy space.

Finally, I would recommend a visit to Waterloo’s Leake Street. The tunnels have become a home and hub for street art. The street has become a visitor attraction. This week I saw that one artist had featured Spider-Man, Thor and Captain America on their work.

While this is not licensing, it was a reminder of how characters cross over into pop culture and how licensed characters play a role in it.

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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