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The Licensing Lookout: Best of 2017

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes picks his highlights from the last 12 months.

In the spirit of BBC Sport Personality of the Year and all those other review shows, I thought I would offer my own review of the year. So this week I will be ‘Looking Back’ rather than ‘Looking Out’.

My aim with the Licensing Lookout has been to highlight interesting, noteworthy and original examples of licensing. Against this backdrop I think it has been a good year for innovation in licensing with some great examples of fresh thinking and new ideas.

One development I think that has been very positive is licensing being a force for good. Charities like Help for Heroes have helped shine a brighter light on the area as a new opportunity for licensees and retailers. However, it is not alone in the market. Garden accessories licensee Gardman has worked with the Royal British Legion and Marie Curie Cancer charity to create bird feeders based on the respective charities signature flowers. The Royal British Legion also caught the eye with a branded floral bouquet sold in Sainsbury’s during Remembrance week.

A standout example of charities and brands working together to create an innovative product was a limited edition version of Kiehl’s face cream featuring a design by actor Matthew McConnaghy. This was supported by window displays and in-store marketing. The product was being sold to raise funds for an Autism charity and probably equally importantly communicate key messages about their activities.


Licensing can do a lot to help charities and good causes. I think charity licensing holds great potential for growth – of course many heritage brands that ‘do good’ such as museums like the V&A and organisations like the RHS have been great trailblazers in this sector.

Charities maybe need to adapt their business model a little to utilise licensing more effectively, but licensing should be part of their communications armoury.


One of the activities I see regularly these days are ‘collabs’ links between IP owners and brands particularly fashion brands and designers. It seems to be a go to tactic for rights holders these days. Most are short-term partnerships and move through quickly. The impetus for them seems to be creating interest in a property and encouraging people to see it differently.

In this context a great example was the My Little Pony link with Moschino to create a fashion range. This was a top level collab built on an international basis. it seemed very effective and in parallel with Hasbro’s efforts in licensed apparel channels has helped create real momentum for My Little Pony as a fashion brand.

However, the outstanding achievement award for collabs this year goes to the partnership between white goods company SMEG and Dolce & Gabbana. Together they have created a range of chest fridges and freezers decorated with D&G designs. Genuinely different and eyecatching. I went into the SMEG showroom to see the full range and I am now talking about the brand.

Admittedly I haven’t bought one yet – I am not sure Worcester Park is ready for a D&G fridge yet but never say never. Maybe in 2018 we will see more collabs in different categories and not just clustered in the fashion area – I am sure some fashion buyers now see IP owners and collabs a little bit like London buses…


I also visited Comic Con at ExCeL this year. It was a great event and a timely reminder that there are opportunities for licensees to sell directly to fans at events like this, but also a reminder of the importance of fans to licensing.

Companies like Funko have recognised that there is commercial potential in servicing the fan community and developing product ranges for licensed properties that are not mass market but ones with a dedicated following. The barrier to some properties becoming successful is the uptake at retail. Events like Comic Con, advances in direct selling via web stores, the growing popularity of broadcasters such as Netflix and the potential offered by platforms like crowdfunding ones have broken this reliance on ‘conventional’ retail.

Licensees need to be more aware that properties can arrive from a number of sources and they also need to think about new routes to the consumer market.

Comic Con is a very public face of this trend – I also thought it stood out as an event that the fans were really enjoying. Comic Con seems to strike the right balance between commercialism and fan culture. I also expect to see more licensees and brand owners creating pop-up retail opportunities and developing links with non-traditional retail partnerships.


On the latter point it is great to see how garden centres have embraced licensing and licensed products. Garden centres offer good scope for licensed products across a range of products – some of which are obvious links to their core market like branded seed ranges through to more surprising opportunities in categories like food, composite gifting and books.

In my own experience we are looking forward to developing more business in this sector in 2018, not least on Shaun the Sheep in tandem with Primus which has created metal garden sculptures of Shaun the Sheep and Timmy.

Both products are two of my favourite developments of 2017 and even after 25 years in the business it is still a thrill to work with a new licensee and create some fun products that represent the character so well. Who wouldn’t want a nodding Shaun the Sheep in their garden!


Related to this, it is encouraging to see book retailers such as Waterstones and Foyles stocking more licensed products linked to publishing properties. They offer a focused retail approach and also the potential for a diverse mix of properties. Brands like Paddington, The Snowman and The Very Hungry Caterpillar seem to work well in this context.

A particular highlight for me is the way that retailers like Waterstones have merchandised the Moomins and recently linked licensed products to the release of a book being sold in aid of Save the Children. A positive use of a classic property.


Another licensed category that I have seen growth in this year include personalised products. Companies like Moonpig, Signature Gifts and PMC have used licences and licensing well. They have forged the use of new technology, digital marketing and licensing well.

Signature Gifts’ Ladybird Books range stands out, as does the launch this year of a personalised Beano Annual – timed to be launched side by side with the regular retail annual. A genuine first for Beano and a real opportunity for fans to trade up. I think licensing and personalisation are good companions and I expect to see more growth in this category.

Mentioning Beano reminds me you may run out of Christmas cracker jokes next week, so here is a classic Beano joke for you to use just in case:

I went to buy some camouflage trousers the other day… but I couldn’t find any. Boom boom!!

That was so good I thought I would tell you another one:

A three-legged dog walks into a saloon in the Wild West. He slides up to the bar and says: “I’m looking for the man who shot my Paw…”

Please contact me if you want some more Beano jokes.


Finally, many of you have mentioned that you have enjoyed seeing my photos of street art this year. With this in mind I thought I should choose a winning piece of ‘character based street art’ and the winner was a ‘collab’ of ‘collabs’ in street art terms. A piece of art I spotted in Nottingham that was a mash up of characters such as The Simpsons, Dennis the Menace, Harry Potter and Tintin.

A dream licence but a nightmare contract.

Happy Christmas.

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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