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The Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes finds a shining licensing beacon in Foyles on a trip to Birmingham.

Business took me to Birmingham this week and gave me a chance to visit the Grand Central shopping mall again. It is part of the New Street station complex. There is a clear trend to turn railway stations into retail destinations. Grand Central has a healthy mix of well known retailers, restaurants and brand-based stores.

I had a quick look round between meetings and one impression I took away was that a lot of retailers seem to be in the midst of some big sales – many had 50% off sales on. Maybe this is normal summer business, but my feeling was that this was retailers trying to push excess stock through in a flat market. In some cases three or four shops next to each other all had big posters in windows communicating their sales message. Grand Central is a high concept location and not one you would expect to see lots of discount selling in.

Of course, licensing and licensed products were caught up in this activity – one lowlight being Clinton’s selling a lot of Disney product off at 50% off. This is probably part of the general sales movement on the retailer’s part, but I also felt in the case of Clinton’s there was maybe an excess of Disney product in store – there were five or six different design offerings. Some using the same characters and brands. Perhaps this is a case of putting your all your licensing eggs in one basket?

However it wasn’t all doom and gloom in Brum. Grand Central features a Foyles store. Foyles is, of course, best known as a bookseller but it is a bookseller that hasn’t stood still and has fully embraced the opportunity to sell other products to book buyers. The logic being if you are a fan of a book series, character or franchise you are likely to be in the market for other well-chosen products. Either self-purchased or gift purchases.

Foyles featured licensing in a number of interesting ways:


There was a good selection of plush toys linked to book characters or popular licensed characters that feature in books. The product was ranged together and made a strong visual impression.

Characters included Moomin, Shaun the Sheep and Paddington. Foyles also had a well-stocked and presented children’s section which also included a lot of licensed product.


Foyles capitalised on the 20th anniversary of the first Harry Potter book by offering a range of Harry Potter products covering gifts and stationery. Again, well presented in store on a dedicated table with branded header cards to draw attention to the range in-store. A good use of a well marketed book anniversary.


The retailer also had a well-stocked graphic novel section which included a number of TV and film ties, plus a good selection of original titles. It is good to see a mainstream book retailer supporting the graphic novel category.

I think it is an area that offers more licensing opportunities – both in terms of generating new IP and products, but also linking licensed products to existing graphic novel series. Another dimension is creating special edition products for graphic novel fans.

A good example of this in Foyles was a special edition of the Aliens graphic novel from Dark Horse. There is always a balance between pushing a fan’s loyalty too far, but well-crafted products like this Aliens one hold strong appeal to fans. It is a great way to mark and celebrate fandom.


A final example of licensing working well in Foyles was a range of Matt Sewell’s Birds gift products from Gift Republic selling alongside Matt’s books. This is a good example of the book and licensing product working well together to help a retailer build a range and create a stand out identity in-store.


Outside of my trip to Birmingham a few other things caught my eye this week.

The Minions are very busy at the moment with lots of new promotions and products linked to the forthcoming movie. I noticed Unilever has launched a Minions push up ice cream product. Judging by the packaging this is a pan-European licence which fits into Unilever’s business model and distribution.

It is using an established product format and it is an opportunistic piece of licensing tapping into the film uplift. It is probably easier for it to develop a standalone product than adapt pre-existing products with a promotional overlay.


A Mr Men Little Miss promotion in Subway also caught my eye. Subway has run a lot of promotions before majoring on Disney properties. This seems to be a bit of a new direction for it. I guess it appeals as the property appeals to both genders and is a popular classic with in-built collectability.

The premium offer is for 32 character keepers and transfers. Clearly with 32 premiums to collect this is a reasonably long-term promotion, which I guess for Subway is attractive as it doesn’t have to chop and change the offer. The door posters are very bright and colourful – using the characters well. This should help create consumer interest.


Finally, I chuckled a little when I saw a licensed moneybox in Clinton’s described as a Pot of Dreams.

It reminded me of my days at Copyright Promotions. We worked in an open plan office so often listened to our colleagues calls. On this occasion one of our sales team was having a sales call on speakerphone.

She told the licensee on the end of the phone that this particular opportunity was a good one and that she was “really confident about this property and she was selling a dream”. The licensee immediately replied “that’s all well and good but do you offer refunds if it turns into a f***ing nightmare?”

To her credit she closed the deal the next day. The pot of licensing dreams.

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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