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The Licensing Lookout: A tale of two trade shows

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes visits Top Drawer and the EAG show this week.

It was a tale of two trade shows for me this week.

I visited two very contrasting shows – Top Drawer and the EAG Show.

The former serves the gift and housewares sectors, while the latter covers the amusement and leisure industries.

Top Drawer is at Olympia and is one of the most relaxing shows to visit – nicely laid out, well presented stands, lots of white surfaces and calming music. Given the nature of the industry it is no surprise that EAG which is set in the cavernous halls of ExCeL is loud, bright, colourful and delivers a sensory overload.

Very different shows but both very relevant to licensing and a reminder that licensing has a role to play in a diverse range of industries. While the application of licensing can vary enormously, the common bond is that a well chosen licence can make a product distinctive and achieve standout. With or without bells and whistles.

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One of the themes of Top Drawer for me was seeing companies choosing licences carefully and strategically. Generally Top Drawer isn’t a show that features much mainstream licensing. Licensed ranges on offer most often feature less common licences.

A good and noteworthy example of this was Bliss Home’s ceramics range developed with Cornish chef Rick Stein. The range includes plates, bowls and mugs featuring designs created by students from the University of Falmouth. The designs celebrate many of Cornwall’s beautiful coves and use a brilliant blue colour-way. It is a really striking range.

The link with the University is a positive one, giving young designers an opportunity to work with a commercial partner early in their careers and Rick Stein has used his fame well to help this happen while shining a light on Cornwall. Bliss has ended up with a really original range that has a firm foundation and delivers a genuinely exclusive offer to retailers.

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Long-term licensee Peter Black, which is best known for working directly with retailers on pre-agreed ranges, has taken a fresh approach to its business and is now adding a more broad approach to its product offerings. It is creating ranges for the wider market rather than solely developing direct to retail ones. While doing this it has recognised that licences used in this style of business need to be fresh, original and filling a gap.

A great example of this is the range of giftware based on the Spear & Jackson brand. A well-known and trusted brand of gardening tools, Spear & Jackson has credibility with consumers and an established retail presence. It hasn’t been overexposed in licensing terms. Peter Black has created a good range that is on trend in design terms, but also uses the brand well. It should be a natural for retailers such as garden centres. Peter Black should be applauded for trying to do something new.

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I have always thought the Pantone brand has been generally well used in licensing terms with some very stylish products developed befitting the status of the brand. So it was good to see how the latest ‘colour of the year’ 18-3838 Ultra Violet was presented. The range on offer included mugs and drinks flasks. Simple products but ones that have a lot of appeal for gifting and also fits well into interior design trends.

Pantone being active in licensing makes a lot of sense and also shows that licensing brands can be sourced from a variety of places, but to be deployed successfully care needs to be taken with product development and the choice of products added to a range. Licensees such as Copenhagen Design has recognised the international appeal and potential for Pantone, coupled with the fact that it is a brand that can sit in a broad mix of retail outlets – from art supply shops through to high-end department stores.

From the calm of Top Drawer I went to the storm of the EAG Show. This is not a complaint – the products on show at EAG are meant to be attention grabbers. Colour, sound and lights are an essential part of product development in this category. It is a big scale business and has a real international dimension. I felt like a big kid at times as most games are on free play so it is like being given the keys to your own arcade!

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The international dimension of this sector and the reach of brands was brought home to me by one product in particular, which was a NBA branded basketball hoop shooter game. This is a popular product format in arcades and parks. The NBA branding on the machine and the balls adds authenticity to it and is well timed as NBA grows in popularity through wider broadcasting deals and the growth in games played outside the US. This sort of deal should resonate with other sports authorities and provide some inspiration to them.

I have long admired the innovative way Kiddie Rides (Northern Leisure) uses licensing in the coin-operated ride-on category. These are the sort of rides you see outside supermarkets and in shopping malls. Popular characters are naturals for this sector but have to be well chosen to have longevity but also creative relevance. Factors like sound and music also come into play.

Kiddie Rides has used licences like Peppa Pig and PAW Patrol very well. I noticed it had a Peppa Pig ride-on that seems to combine a mini game and challenge element to it. It is described as an Interactive Play-set. It has sourced this from an Italian manufacturer – I guess a deal driven by the desire to secure the ‘best in class’ in terms of technology available. This is a category where products can be out in the market for some time so it requires fresh thinking to create new product that engages with consumers and encourages repeat usage. Licensing has a lot to offer the category and it is good to see Kiddie Rides using the opportunity so well.

For the record I declined the offer to ride on one of these… I am really too much of a Big Kid for that!

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As mentioned, this is a big scale business and one practical example of that was a supersized Pac Man gaming machine. The giant screen creates great theatre in an arcade and you can imagine it being a very popular attraction. This is a really good example of how the sector is using brands in a forward thinking way and harnessing new technology to display the brands to full effect.

It was also good to see plush suppliers like PMS, Huggables and Bandai NAMCO tap into licences such as Street Fighter, the RSPCA and Early Man to create product ranges that are bespoke for the leisure sector.

I also loved seeing a plethora of pinball machines at the show. While I am no Tommy, I do love pinball machines and it was great to see the some of the products on show not least because of their use of characters such as Batman and the beautiful illustration styles deployed.

Pinballs have a lot more features now which allow manufacturers to fully exploit a licence visually, musically and in sound terms. Although it was nice to see some classic machines on show as well. I understand that retro and vintage machines are becoming increasingly popular.

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I achieved a career highlight this week – I went to see Bananaman the Musical. This was a fun show with comic book humour and a tongue in cheek style to the fore. It reflected the spirit of the comic and cartoon storylines well and was light hearted. It has been well received with good reviews and is a further example of how licensing can play a role in theatre and live events.

My highlight was getting winked at by Bananaman – I was in a front row seat and as he rushed past me I am sure I caught his eye.

That really was a Big Kid moment… although on reflection he might have had dust in his eye though.

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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