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The Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes visits PG Live and discovers a raft of new innovation in the greeting cards sector.

I took my business cards to the home of greeting cards this week. I attended PG Live – another trade show for me and one that describes itself as ‘a dazzling celebration of the greeting card industry’.

Greeting cards and licensing have always been close companions: greeting cards companies use a range of licences to create products, while a number of successful licensing programmes have started from the sector – Forever Friends and Me To You being two prime examples.

PG Live had over 280 exhibitors. Difficult to be scientific but I estimate no more than 30 or 40 featured licensed products or ranges. In itself this might represent an opportunity for licensing and licensed rights.

Even if my estimates are rather like a 2015 election pollster’s, there is certainly an opportunity for more licensing in the sector.

I think a barrier to entry is that some card companies want to build up their own IP and retain creative control, while others are nervous of the licensing process. The greeting card world is also one which features a strong creative spirit and understandably those creatives take pride in their own creativity preferring to focus on this rather than renting someone else’s. The show encourages exhibitors who are interested in licensing out their brands to flag this up with a Licensing Friendly sign on their stands and show guide entry.

As noted earlier, many card ranges and designs can have further life beyond the category through licensing. It is not unusual to see card designs featuring in categories such as calendars, ceramics and stationery. It is probably tougher than ever to start a licensing programme from scratch, but a successful card range should have some potential in related product areas and from a retailer’s perspective it makes sense to build ranges in store.

Licensing highlights at the show for me included:


Hype Associates’ range of licences includes Peter Rabbit, Morph, Beano, Mr Men and Elmer. It has developed a very strong and distinct product offering focused on classic licences and has developed a distinctive house style. It tends to focus on distribution into locations such as independents, bookstores, museums and galleries. It knows its customers well and they trust Hype’s approach to licensing.

It is good to see how Hype evolves its ranges though – it uses some clever design twists: a good example being an Elmer card with repeat designs of elephants interspersed with a bright image of Elmer on a button badge. It uses button badges well – to add value to cards and also as PR tools to spread the word about the designs.

It also embraces new characters and designs – we have worked with Hype for over 15 years on Beano and it has updated the designs three or four times – not as often as other categories or types of cards, but it updates at the right time when the customers seem ready for a change. Hype used PG Live to launch a new range of Beano cards which seemed well received.


Danilo is well known for its licensed cards and calendars. It used PG Live to reveal some new ranges such as cards featuring David Walliams book characters. It hasn’t stood still design wise either. It is good to see a well established licensee developing and trying new designs with its licences.

It had a range of cards called Selfies featuring characters from the portfolio in ‘selfie’ style. This helps keep characters contemporary and is a reminder that good licences also need good design ideas. Being committed to new design ideas allows licensed characters to compete side by side with innovation from non-licensed cards.

One key takeaway for me from PG Live was that greeting cards companies are creative and innovative: licensed card companies need to match this creativity to ensure cards are on trend at retail.

Danilo continues to offer a great range of humour based cards sourced from TV, film and comedy legends. This is a reminder that there is a market for different types of licences and that humour is a key seller in cards. Only Fools and Horses is a great example of this – I am not sure how old the show is now but Danilo continues to develop best selling cards from the programme – humour sells.


People often ask me if I spotted the ‘next big thing’. As my bookmaker would testify I am not that great a picking winners, but one property that seems to have a ‘PGBuzz’ about it at the moment in the preschool sector is PJ Masks.

It featured on Gemma International’s stand – it gave it a prominent display and really signposted it well. Some retailers are afraid of featuring licensed ranges in store for a variety of reasons, but I think that in a category like preschool a well chosen licence offer can be a positive feature in store.

Returning to the point about design – licensed card companies recognise that different retailers need different design treatments. With this in mind they create different design offers and rights holders are more sympathetic to this. It is no longer take this design or leave it. It is worth chatting to licensed card companies like Gemma about licensing and how it might be able to work with you at retail.


Licensors Smiley and Sanrio chose to take stands at PG Live to showcase Smileyworld and Mr Men Little Miss. Quite a bold move by both of them, but also one that shows that rights holders are recognising that they need to find new ways of presenting their brands and recruiting new partners. I think more agents and licensors will need to look at opportunities like this to engage with business sectors in a focused way and to disrupt the norm. Times are tough and I think marketing IP on a sector by sector basis might be a way of developing deeper engagement. It is also a way of supporting licensees and retailers.

Sanrio also used PG Live as an opportunity to unveil the relaunch of Roger Hargreaves’ Timbuctoo. A stand alone and independent brand, it has been a little bit overshadowed by the outstanding success of Mr Men Little Miss. Sanrio has worked on readying Timbuctoo for the market and sees potential for it in publishing, gifts, greetings and personalisation. It looked bright, colourful and fresh – it is certainly a property worth watching and launching at PG Live ensured it got a degree of focus in a less cluttered market in licensing terms.

It was also good to see Really Wild Cards using the Royal Mail licence. It has licensed the Royal Mail’s Songbird stamps and coupled these with its archive of songbird songs to create an interesting product line of cards. It has allowed it to leverage the Royal Mail brand, the iconic stamp design and make use of the sound archive in an efficient way. It has allowed it to diversify in a controlled way.

This is a reminder that licensing can come from a range of sources – other good examples of this at PG Live included GO Stationery using artwork such as Matt Sewell’s Birds and Museums & Galleries featuring products featuring the likes of Matthew Williamson and the V&A. Returning to my earlier point – there are lots of ways and sources of licences that card companies could consider for licensing. Licensing is not just about children’s properties, TV or film – maybe some card companies need to give licensing a second glance – it might enhance their offer and portfolios.


Outside of PG Live, I was interested to see Disney’s partnership with retailer Cath Kidston continue. It has just launched a collection based on 101 Dalmatians – it is featured on a broad range of products and in window displays.

From the retailer’s point of view I guess it gives it a point of difference from competitors, creates consumer interest and by working with Disney it can plan ahead picking from a portfolio of classic properties that are relatively safe bets. This helps in forward planning.

For Disney it is a very credible partner outside of mass retail. It can build a business offer with Cath Kidston that might be difficult to deliver in other retail channels. It is also a great showcase for new design work and should create a trickledown effect into other channels.

Another plus point from attending PG Live was that I have no excuse not to send more cards now – the show bag had some great ‘free’ cards in it: they are now in my drawer and ready to be used.

PG Live – the problem solving trade show!

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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