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The Licensing Lookout

‘Brand partnerships will become ever more important as the media mix changes’.

I was very pleased to read about the partnership between animated series The Deep and Sea Life Centres that was announced this week. I have followed the progress of The Deep for a while now as I was made aware of it by an industry friend in it’s very early days. I thought it was a series and concept that had good potential, not least because of its publishing heritage.

Based on a graphic novel series, The Deep has a real pedigree with great characters and story universe. A partnership of this kind is a really good example of the type of creative and commercial partnerships I expect to see more of in the licensing field as companies become more sensitive to the appropriateness of partnerships and, forgive the pun, delve a bit deeper into the scope of partnerships.


There is a natural link between these two partners which makes a great creative fit – consumers will see this development as a natural one and one that doesn’t look out of place. For Sea Life Centres, it is a way of leveraging the licensing power of a successful TV series but remaining focused on its core activities. From a brand development point of view it should help The Deep connect with consumers directly and grow the brand experience – it is a partnership that has potential to develop further.

I was tempted to say it is a partnership built on firm ground, but given the subject matter maybe better to say created on a solid sea bed. I think licensing has to become more focused in the way it forms partnerships – a scattergun approach is not right. It is arguably better to wait for a partnership that is the best possible fit creatively and editorially from a brand owner’s point of view and to enter into a partnership with a long-term mindset.

Partnerships will become ever more important as the media mix changes – in many respects live and experiential partners become media platforms. Being seen and being active in the right place is important for brands like The Deep.


Connected to this point, I visited Oxford this week and was impressed by the ‘official shop’ for the University of Oxford situated in the city centre. It seems to blend licensed products with directly sourced ‘own brand’ products well. Seeing the shop really brought home the point to me that in certain situations there is a real value in brand owners investing in their own retail outlets – in this case I got the impression that the ‘official shop’ was a real destination for visitors. Having a complete and comprehensive range seemed to appeal to visitors.

Based on the evidence of my visit, the shop (and city) attracts a lot of overseas visitors particularly it seems from China, Japan and the US. Selling product directly to visitors is obviously good business ‘on the day’ but transactions like this helps export the brand and to help reinforce it overseas. It is my understanding that the University of Oxford has a good business outside the UK – it is a good example of how UK heritage brands can build opportunities through licensing. Licensees offer expertise in their product category and provide good routes to market in the UK and beyond.

A brand owner that operates its own shops has to be mindful of managing their portfolio of products and giving licensees room to operate. Oxford seemed to be a competitive city in terms of University of Oxford souvenirs being sold in a number of retailers, so in a situation like this an official store has added weight and kudos. I imagine University of Oxford feels it is important to own part of the retail market in its own city, but also sees this as a great way of building its audience beyond the UK.


Apologies if I have mentioned it before, but if I could award a Licensing Lookout star for ‘great use of a licence’ I would definitely award one to Penguin Books and GCHQ for The GCHQ Puzzle Book – the book invites you to pit your wits against the people who cracked Enigma. Seems like a great idea for a puzzle book and quite a compelling proposition. Can see it working well as a gift purchase and as self purchase. Hopefully it comes with answers and solutions or it could rapidly become the most frustrating licensed product of the year.

I am guessing if this works we will see follow up publishing and maybe one or two other products. When viewing a deal from the outside it is always a bit difficult to understand all of the dynamics, but I guess in this case the motivation for GCHQ is to raise the public profile in a controlled way helping to build a connection with the general public – maybe it feels it is important that more people understand what it does.

Maybe it is part of a recruitment drive as well. I don’t expect to see a plethora of GCHQ products nor an official shop in the middle of Cheltenham, but you can imagine more books, perhaps a magazine, newspaper syndication and even partnerships with hotels or holiday companies – a GCHQ code breakers weekend for example.


On the subject of awarding stars, I would definitely give a gold star to the Pokémon Magazine this week – for best covermount. The latest issue features a Popplio Water Squirter. Really stands out on shelf and on the magazine – takes up half the cover. I would imagine for a Pokémon fan this was a must buy issue. In this case the covermount certainly does a great job of selling the magazine – hopefully the content matches the covermount. A keen challenge for licensed comic publishers is striking the right balance between quality of editorial content and quality/quantity of covermounts.

Licensed characters and comics are joined at the hip these days – some might say there is too much going on in the category – have a look at a comic fixture when you are next in store. That aside I think it is important both rights holders and publishers continue to do the best they can from a content point of view and don’t just rely on covermounts to sell the comics and magazines.

While a lot of licensing focuses on products on shelf, it is always worthwhile seeing what is going on in other distribution channels. Food and drink companies have become very adept at working with Quick Service Restaurants to develop limited edition products including desserts, drinks and snacks. I noticed that McDonald’s has teamed up with Cadbury’s to create a McFlurry product that features the iconic Cadbury’s Flake, while KFC has a Malteser flavoured Krushems milkshake product.


Companies like McDonald’s and KFC recognise that well established FMCG brands give them an opportunity to develop appealing products trading on flavours and tastes that are well established. Big brands like Flake and Maltesers are well known, have established consumer markets but are also good billboard copy – the restaurants can use the brands and the ‘limited edition’ products in their advertising, particularly outdoor and roadside advertising driving impulse purchase.

For the brand owners it is a great way of seeing their brand come alive in a new channel and provides a way for them to ‘live test’ new ideas and concepts. Cadbury’s has a strong business in chilled and frozen desserts. I would imagine activity like the partnership with McDonald’s gives them a good level of insight for their own NPD.

Other brands like Oreo recognise the potential that licensing into related areas gives them – I spotted an Oreo frozen cheesecake in Iceland last week. This kind of development widens the bandwidth of a brand. It creates new distribution opportunities and eating occasions for them. All of which help grow a brand’s value.


Finally, no street art this week but I was reassured to see that there is a life after screen success for popular characters – I spotted Brum at the Cotswold Motor Museum – the Home of Brum. Good to know Brum is safe and secure – a great concept and character – maybe it is time for a ‘Brumback’..?

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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