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The Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes reports back on some of the best of Las Vegas this week.

There is no debate, Las Vegas is a big place. Everything seems bigger here: the buildings, the betting, the burgers. Even the people… I say that as I spotted basketball legend Shaquille O’ Neill promoting his licensing programme. He is a big man. I wonder if prospective licensees have the courage to say ‘no deal’ to his face? I think that’s one meeting follow up that will be done by email. Thanks Shaquille, nice to meet you but we have decided not to proceed at this time.

In the context of Licensing Expo it is easy to feel that the big are getting bigger. The global entertainment companies seem to dominate the show on initial inspection. The size and scale of their stands is immense. Stands such as Mattel, Hasbro and Dreamworks are impressive and show great imagination. The big companies also seem to dominate meeting schedules with high powered launches and presentations. One such event was rumoured to have had 1,400 attendees.

You get a sense when a big event is on, as licensees rush en masse down aisles and about an hour later rush back clutching their latest goodie bag. This exodus can sometimes make the show feel less busy. But equally the big events can create a big buzz which is good for the show. Having the likes of Justin Timberlake involved in a presentation is a positive for the industry as a whole as it should help with wider engagement and recognition of the business of licensing.

Sadly I missed Justin and had to make do with the Trolls roundabout on one of the stands. Great piece of display, but not Justin.


A concern that the over arching presence of the big studio raises for me speaking as an independent agent is that this may be a further turn in the trend for retail to be dominated by fewer brands. I think this is certainly the case in core categories such as toys and apparel. I think there is a lot to be admired by how the big companies present their properties, sell them and market them, but I would urge some caution to licensees. They may need to guard against over reliance on fewer supply points for licences.

One theme that was mentioned to me on more than one occasion was the emergence of franchise licences – companies launching film properties with a roll out plan based on multiple movies scheduled over an extended time period. This may have advantages from a planning point of view, but it may also have risks, particularly if the franchise doesn’t fully engage consumer interest and it could also have a negative impact on creativity.

For licensees who are in the franchise programme as the chosen licensee for a category, it is probably reassuring, but for those outside it could make life difficult if retailers decide to support these longer term franchises with no space for other properties. This may need some licensees to consider other types of licences and other routes to market.

Against this backdrop I decided to look out for signs that there is a licensing life beyond ‘the big ones’. The show embraces all forms of licensing with brand, sports, art, publishing and personality licensing all having a strong presence.


Shaquille appeared on a stand for a company that represented other iconic sports personalities including Muhammed Ali. This type of licensing – let’s call it legends licensing – seems more popular and advanced in the US, but is a category of rights that probably holds more potential in the UK. This type of licence would also lend itself to long-term planning and product development.

I noticed that a number of iconic brands such as Lamborghini and Pierre Cardin also had their own stands. These are good examples of brands that offer a point of difference to movie franchises and offer licensees the opportunity to build long-term programmes in a planned way.

I hope that some of the UK licensees have had time to consider these kind of properties and perhaps look to build licensing portfolios that don’t rely solely on one type of licence.

It was interesting to see that the NFL former players association has a strong presence in the show – an indication of the growing importance of sports in the licensing mix, but also a sign of the maturity of rights management as commercially there is more potential in former players acting collectively rather than individually. Maybe other sports will look to emulate this.


I was encouraged by some of the innovation shown and a bold approach to design. One highlight was a range of apparel featuring My Little Pony. Colour ways and design were on trend and I think Hasbro would have succeeded in making licensees think differently about a property in the context of fashion.

Licensors have to work harder on design to grab retailer’s attention and in turn engage consumers, but judging by the displays here I think licensing is really embracing new thinking in design terms, is focused on trend watching and evermore aware of the need to deliver design offerings that stand comparison to non-licensed products. Just using a licence is no longer good enough. There has to be a commitment to design and a willingness to refresh.

There were some great examples of FMCG, food and drink licensing on show. Two great ranges stood out on the Beanstalk stand with Guinness and TGI Fridays. Guinness is a licensing programme that trades on the unique position the brand occupies and its distinct flavour.

I suspect one reason for Guinness to develop food products is to broaden the opportunity to taste the brand, widen distribution and to engage with consumers on key occasions. One of the products featured was a Guinness branded and flavoured Christmas pudding. Tapping into a great family occasion and the trend in desserts to add flavour twists to old favourites. I think the Guinness programme is a great case study for the sector.


There were also some intriguing products to be seen. One that surprised me was a Sex Pistols branded bag which uses the band logo and repeat print of the Queen envoi get memories of their infamous version of God Save the Queen. I am guessing when Sid and Johnny set out on their riotous  journey than hadn’t imagined a licensed clutch bag in their plans. I didn’t notice if it had any safety pins in it…

Another trend I see emerging in licensing is for higher end exclusive limited edition products. I think this is a recognition that some consumers are looking for more bespoke products and that some consumers who are in broad terms fans now have more disposable income.

A good example of this was a very high spec custom Monopoly table on the Hasbro stand. I believe it was a collaboration with a jewellery brand and was part of a limited edition of 2,000. Not sure of the price point, but I suspect it was relatively high but it was a very attractive product.


I was also reminded of how long I have been in licensing and how brands can survive in and through licensing. SEGA were celebrating Sonic’s 25th anniversary. I was involved in the licensing launch of Sonic .. which included innovations such as Fantasonic based on the Fanta brand with limited edition cans and Blue ketchup. Innovation isn’t such a new thing after all.

Finally as you wander to and fro the show it is difficult not to explore the casino floor. A point of interest here is how many of the slot machines feature licensed properties – I am guessing these deals are not necessarily financial driven ones but are perhaps based on the desire to be seen. I may be wrong and there may be a fee or revenue share involved in the machines.

Some of the machines and artwork are stunning and some of the choices are surprising. One I thought bizarre was a machine featuring TV presenter Ellen. My favourite was a Batman and Robin one featuring classic TV artwork. It looked great.

A challenge for the BBC would be to get an Only Fools and Horses one installed featuring Del Boy and Rodney as Batman and Robin alongside it. That would be worth coming back for. This time next year we will be millionaires Rodney. In Vegas, the dream might come true.

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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