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The Licensing Lookout

‘Back to school has been a good event for licensing over the years’.

I went in search of a new notebook this week getting myself prepared for the forthcoming trade show season. I am still a traditionalist and like to make notes in meetings even in the hurly burly of the NEC. Some might argue that I should wait until next week to see if I could blag a free sample, but I like to do my bit for the UK retail economy. My retail visit reminded me of how many retailers focus on key events as footfall drivers – a prime focus at the moment is back to school.

Most retailers I saw had some sort of back to school call to action. Back to school has been a good event for licensing over the years with some obvious links between licensing and core categories like stationery. I think there is scope to build on this further and maybe there is scope for retailers to use licensing more during this event, for example in advertising. That said, my notebook search revealed a fair amount of activity this season.

My search for a notebook initially took me to a very well laid out WH Smith shop in Holborn. I am guessing this is one of its bigger stores and location wise a flagship one. It is in an office catchment area. So as you would expect there was a heavy emphasis on stationery, books, magazines, cards and confectionery.


Back to school was promoted in-store and in the windows, but the majority of product in the mix was generic non-licensed product linked to some well known brands.

However, there were a few licensed product highlights including a range of educational ‘skills’ workbooks from Scholastic featuring Star Wars, Marvel and Disney Princess characters. These were located in branded FSDUs and also within the educational book section in-store. I am sure the presence of characters helps encourage children to use the books, but clearly the books need to be well produced and effective – this is a category where the veneer of a popular licence will only get you so far.

There is a challenge and selection of publishing partner is a key to success in this scenario. Scholastic is a trusted publisher in the education and learning market. Surprisingly WH Smith didn’t seem to be overburdened with licensed ranges in the school stationery area, although there were FMCG brands such as Coca-Cola present in the pencil case category.


The WH Smith store featured licensing in a number of other product categories including greetings cards where I was pleased to see card ranges featuring brands such as Ladybird Books, Mrs Brown and Only Fools and Horses. Greetings cards seems to be a category that embraces and uses a broad church of licences. Classic TV properties like Only Fools and Horses seem particularly strong in the humour category.

Another noteworthy licensed range I saw was a gift pack combo of jigsaw and book featuring the Thunderbirds and Haynes licences – a good example of a growing trend whereby licensors are combining forces to create new ranges. Arguably creating opportunities that wouldn’t be available to them on a solus basis.


As an aside I took a quick look at the children’s comic and magazine section – this is a category really dominated by licensed characters and properties. A title like Beano which is based on original characters rather than licensed ones is a rare beast these days as are comics that don’t feature covermounts.

Looking at the volume of titles on shelf it is my impression that it must be tough to launch a new title and to achieve longevity in the market not least as the fixture is so busy. Makes Beano’s 79 years in the market even more impressive!


Ryman was promoting back to school in its windows using a range of licensed bags and backpacks as a key feature. It featured Minions, Pokémon and Marvel backpacks. The Marvel one was priced at £29.99 versus the others coming in at £7.99 and £8.99. I am guessing the Marvel one is targeted at further education students rather than primary years students. Even so £29.99 seems quite a high price to pay for a backpack, even one that features some attractive classic comic artwork.

Pricing is always a challenge in licensing. I didn’t step into the Ryman shop but did see that it was well stocked with licensed pencil cases. Ryman seems to be a retailer that is using licensing more often and in a focused way at key times of the year.


Paperchase is very selective in its use of licensing and against this background it was very encouraging to see it use a licensed range at the centre of its back to school offer. Window posters shouted out ‘You’re Never Too Cool for School’. It has created an ‘on trend’ range of Hello Kitty stationery including backpacks. It is quite a broad but well coordinated range using a very contemporary ‘sewn’ patch design style.

I would imagine this range and the way it is pitched would have a broad consumer appeal working at a range of ages. This will allow Paperchase to draw in new customers while not alienating its core customers – Hello Kitty is a character brand with heritage which should create cross generational appeal. It is a well chosen character in this context.

Further, it is a smart move by Sanrio as it should help kickstart Hello Kitty in the category and the range has been developed with a spread of price points as well which I imagine will encourage consumers to trial it and maybe trade up. It was certainly well presented display wise and a good example of how a coordinated licensed range can be used to promote a shop within a busy trading period and also in busy locations like shopping centres.

It is worth rights holders thinking about displays, marketing messages and campaign themes to help sell in licensing to retailers.


One other highlight for me this week was probably the brightest sweatshirt I have seen for a while – I spotted (it wasn’t difficult) a Minions sweat top in bright orange with yellow Minions, repeat print bananas and a bright yellow banana slogan printed on it. If the brief was shelf standout this delivered in full. Would certainly be a one horse race in the Brightest Piece of Licensed Apparel category come awards time!

After all the excitement of researching back to school at retail, I forgot to buy my notebook so I may well revert to Plan B and see if I can find a free sample at the NEC.

Maybe even an orange and yellow one to achieve ‘In Meeting Standout’…

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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