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The Licensing Lookout: Best of the year

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes picks his ‘looking out’ highlights from 2018.

A recent pub chat turned to a vote on the top three Christmas presents you received as a child. My top three were: my Commando bike, I particularly liked the gears housed in the handlebars; my PuckMaster tabletop ice hockey game complete with Swedish adverts on the ice rink walls (not sure how that arrived in 1970s Waterloo); and my Hot Wheels race track – literally hours of fun only interrupted by having to replace overstretched rubber bands.

However a very honourable mention went to the annuals I used to get. Back in the day these were the ‘best of’ your favourite comics all bound up in a bumper hardback book. I was a big Tiger and Scorcher fan so loved getting the annual which featured classic characters like Hot Shot Hamish, Skid Solo and Lag’s Eleven. The latter was the story of a prison football team and in 1970s Waterloo I always thought I recognised a few of the players!

So in the spirit of the annual I thought I would publish the Best of The Licensing Lookout and pick some of my highlights from a year of retail visits and licensing events:

Sticking with comics it was a shame that my association with The Beano came to an end this year. On and off I had worked with The Beano for nearly 20 years but licensing life moves on. I was particularly pleased this year to bring a number of deals to the table to help celebrate Beano’s 80th anniversary including a stamp issue from the Isle of Man Post Office, medallions from The Westminster Collection and art prints from Art & Hue. A particular highpoint though was developing a deal with pop artist Horace Panter. Horace developed an art collection which provided a new take on comic characters like Lord Snooty and Dennis the Menace. This was exciting enough, but it was also a great pleasure for me to work with Horace who is also the bass player with one of my favourite bands, The Specials.

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Happily I am still involved in the world of comics. I have been working with Rebellion, the owners of 2000 AD, Judge Dredd, Misty and Roy of the Rovers. It was very exciting to be involved in the re-launch of Roy of the Rovers – a true comic legend. The reaction to new Roy has been very positive and it is great to see that he is proving popular with a new generation of fans. Mind you, who doesn’t like a free scoring striker?

A further bonus for me is that I have been able to review old copies of Tiger and Scorcher as part of my brand research. The characters and stories are still as good as they were in the 70s and 80s!

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2018 has also been a good year for live events and experiential licensing. Two real highlights for me were the BBC Good Food Show at the NEC and the Country Living Christmas Fair at the Business Design Centre in Islington. Both events were based around successful magazines and mixed trade stands with live events, interviews and demonstrations. They represent a direction of travel for licensing that could be rewarding in future years. Consumers seem to want more hands on experiences and licensing can play a part in that. There have also been some great examples of licensed content being used in theme parks, stage shows and in museums. I experienced some of these things directly myself including a visit to Blackpool Pleasure Beach to ride the Wallace & Gromit Thrill-o-Matic ride – a great example of how IP has been brought alive in a theme park. It is coupled with a themed Wallace & Gromit shop.

Blackpool Pleasure Beach also has a dedicated Nickelodeon area which showcases a range of its brands and seems to be refreshed regularly with new IP. Stage shows such as the Horrible Histories stage show are good examples of how IP can be used well by theatre producers. It was also interesting to see science magazine New Scientist successfully launch a consumer show this year.

I also visited ComicCon at ExCeL. It was really good to see how popular Funko’s products were at the event. It had a dedicated stand which was really busy. Funko is a great example of licensing working and helping a company grow. Indeed, licensing has helped create a whole new category of products and a new band of collectors.

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One specific highlight of the BBC Good Food Show was seeing our client Nadiya Hussain interviewed on stage and also carrying out a cooking demonstration – both to packed audiences. This was a further confirmation to me of the potential for ‘live licensing’ but it was also great to hear Nadiya talk about her recently launched homewares range from BlissHome. The range which Nadiya has designed herself has initially launched online via her own webshop.

This is a good example of how licensing and retail plans are changing. We have to be open to launching licensing programmes in new ways these days – I expect to see more examples of licensees using e-commerce, pop-up shops and events to sell products. Not abandoning conventional routes to market and partnerships, but adding new routes to market to help stimulate retail momentum.

The reaction to Nadiya’s range has been terrific and we expect to see it roll out further in 2019. It is good to be involved in a range that has actually been designed by the personality involved and it has an authentic feel to it. I think this is again something licensing needs to be aware of in 2019 – making sure products are developed that reflect brands well and where possible add value to the ‘fan experience’.

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There have also been an increasing batch of ‘collabs’ this year. This is where licensed brands join forces with other brands or more commonly designers to create limited edition products with fresh designs and styles featuring well known IP. Often these are in the fashion category.

I believe one reason for these ‘collabs’ is a desire to stimulate fresh thinking around a brand and in some cases connecting afresh with a new audience or retail sector. Some of these ‘collabs’ have a further dimension including charity partnerships.

I was very impressed by the initiative promoted by Tesco’s clothing brand F&F in association with the England football team. F&F created an England football t-shirt in association with mental health charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably). The t-shirts featured a Cross of St George design coupled with the hashtag #markyourman  – a clever aspect of the design is that there are two designs that work together if you #markyourman – each t-shirt sold benefitted CALM with £1 going to the charity.

The shared design reinforcing the point that you can share your feelings with your friends, relatives or colleagues. ‘Collabs’ are not confined to fashion with examples in categories like food, drink and home furnishings.

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It was interesting to see licensing making an impact in areas like home furnishings. A great example being DFS‘ use of brands such as Joules, House Beautiful and French Connection to create ranges of sofas. This is a good example of how different styles of licences can make an impact in new retail sectors.

Likewise I was very impressed by how Specsavers has used licensing this year, primarily using lifestyle brands and personalities to create eyewear ranges. A good example being a range featuring Kylie Minogue and another featuring Will.i.am.

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As we approach Christmas, a business sector that seems to be flourishing is one that leans heavily on a range of licences, composite food gifting. Most retailers dedicate space to these products with combinations of food, drink, ceramics, glassware and other items matched up to make giftsets. There are expert licensees in the category such as Scoop Designs, Beams and Kimm & Miller. It is a time of year where brands such as Costa Coffee come to the fore and shine in retail. It is encouraging to see how well developed licensing ranges can make an impact in this category and a further confirmation that well chosen and well designed licensed ranges can make a real difference in a busy market.

While food and drink brands feature heavily in the sector, character brands are also used. We developed a Wallace & Gromit Middle Aged Spread chutney this year, while the National Gallery has developed a very successful food gifting line featuring artwork from its collection.

It is been encouraging to see how well heritage brands such as the V&A and the RHS have done this year. They seem to know their audiences very well, work closely with their licensees and develop licensing campaigns in the right way. I think heritage licensing has great growth potential, but is also a good case study of how licensors nurture relationships and use bespoke design work to deliver opportunities in different market sectors.

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It has also been a good year for street art – it is always good to see how street artists are influenced by pop culture characters and I love seeing street art versions of well-known characters. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but there is certainly some creative talent out there. A new form of ‘collab’! It is worth taking a look at street art – you might find some new ideas or designers. Waterloo’s Leake Street Arches are a good place to start in London, as is the area around Brick Lane in East London.

There is no doubt it has been a tough year in licensing, but I do think we can take encouragement from the way licensing has made an impact in some new business sectors, how it seems to be getting more widely recognised and I also think retailers see that licensing can be a retail gamechanger. It is important that we continue to explore new sectors for licensing and develop new uses for IP as well. But we should also make sure that products are developed as well as they possibly can be and are a ‘good experience’ fore consumers. Licensing can create a point of difference and make a difference. We shouldn’t sell ourselves short.

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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