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The Licensing Lookout: Building a path towards the future

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes on finding a ‘new normal’ and investigating licensing opportunities online.

As I am sure is the case for most of us in the licensing industry my ‘Lookout’ this week has been my desk and desktop. We are working in a very different way. I am a veteran of ‘working from home’ but this is a different kind of ‘working from home‘. I sense there is still a period of adjustment going on with new work timetables being drawn up, new kinds of meetings and probably a lot more downtime between meetings. And, of course, no water cooler moments.

I think we will all find a way of working and develop a new work-life model over the coming weeks.

I have used this week to catch up with licensees, talk with licensors and send business updates. I have sent out things like brand decks and brand updates. This has prompted conversations about new opportunities and specific requests such as design briefs. This gives me some encouragement that people are thinking about doing business.

There is clearly some anxiety out in the marketplace and there have already been discussions about deal terms. My view is that we are literally all in this together and we should be looking for ways of working together to resolve issues. Financially, licensing is a circular economy and it is important that there is recognition that all members of the community are going to be under financial pressure. It is easy to retreat to a ‘them and us’ mindset.

If you take the example of TV and film production companies – many of them are already under financial pressure as there has been a period of deflation in the TV acquisition market and many have looked to licensing as another revenue source. If licensing income is reduced this will have a detrimental effect on existing and new productions. In turn, if there is a downturn in new productions in a year or so licensees might be asking “where’s all the new stuff?” So I think it is time to talk and share your situation, but enter these discussions with a spirit of mutuality.

I also think that it might be worthwhile waiting a week or so more to see how things are shaping up before making definitive decisions. Others may view things differently but I guess that is the point, everyone’s business may have different needs and metrics. But I would re-emphasise every link in the licensing chain relies on an income.

Clearly the retail landscape has dramatically changed and this will, of course, impact on our industry. It is difficult to find things to celebrate in such dark times, but there are reports that some product categories are seeing sales holding up and in some cases increasing. These of course include food, while sales of products such as board games and jigsaw puzzles are reported to be increasing. Categories like computer gaming seem to be in high demand while consumers are watching more TV. The latter point may see certain properties coming to the fore later in the year, while some production companies may be able to offset declines in licensing revenues with increases in sales revenue from sales to content providers who are looking to acquire more content.

It is difficult to point to positive things against the backdrop of what we are all facing at the moment and I have felt reluctant to pick up the phone to talk about new business and when I have I am acutely aware people may have other things on their mind. That said my thoughts are that it is probably sensible and the ‘right thing’ to do to look to the future. We need to try to think ahead and be mindful of helping to kickstart the economy when the time is right. Our business can look quite trivial when viewed against the challenges we are all facing, but I think we are an adaptable and entrepreneurial industry that should be able to make a positive contribution to the economic recovery that the country will need. If we can we should try to think ahead and look to quarter 3 and quarter 4. While it might be difficult to think ahead, it is sensible to do so and forward planning may help fill some of the downtime in our collective schedules.

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As I mentioned my Lookout has essentially been my PC screen coupled with a once a day dog walking session. Being at home and working on my PC has reminded me that a number of licensing friendly companies have developed a skillset and specialism in online selling. They are specialists in the category and have built their businesses around an online model tapping into licensing to help drive growth. They may be facing challenges at the moment in terms of sourcing product, running their warehouses and handling deliveries. But it seems a number of them are still open for business which is encouragement for a small piece of optimism.

Companies like TruffleShuffle seem to be soldiering on and I am guessing its hard earned experience is helping it navigate through things at the moment. It is currently running a 20% off offer and same day dispatch. It has become expert at spotting emerging licences, tapping into pop culture hits and also spotting great new products. I have recently been working with it on an Aardman Collection. This has included an exclusive collection of t-shirts based on street artist Cheo’s Aardman design, while it has just launched a new collection of products from Half Moon Bay which include a very eyecatching Feathers McGraw water bottle.

TruffleShuffle has become very adapt at curating collections and nurturing relationships with brands. It looks to create an offer that has a certain amount of uniqueness about it in design or product terms.

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Another licensee/retailer hybrid that is still open for business is SuperSocks. Its site has a header proclaiming ‘Just a Heads Up – It’s Business As Usual Here’. SuperSocks is a relatively new company and certainly new to licensing. It offers a range of products including socks with the key component being that a consumer can have a photograph of their choice printed on the product such as socks or personalised cushions. The company runs a series of interconnected personalisation sites including Dogsy which is targeting dog owners looking for personalised products

Licensing wise the company has secured licences for Batman, Friends, Superman, Scooby-Doo, Tom & Jerry and Wallace & Gromit. Some strong licences. The company uses a range of digital marketing techniques including Instagram to promote its products and pinpont customers. High profile licences help it stand out and also help in targeting people as it can market to fan communities and also work with rights holders to build campaigns. It has also interwoven other forms of retail with its offer including pop-up retail at events such as Crufts and a specially developed store at Selfridges in Birmingham.

Obviously these kind of activations are off limits at the moment, but having a proactive social media campaign linked to online selling offers an opportunity to carry on selling. SuperSocks uses digital technology to complete its products which I imagine can be managed remotely which also helps in current circumstances. Personalisation is an area that will grow in popularity and is one that licensing can really play a role in.

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A longer standing licensee retailer is Moonpig. It is a heavyweight user of licensing and is now a regular feature in licensing programmes. Moonpig has a notice on the site at the moment about delays in delivery times due to increased demand. I am guessing its greeting cards ranges and associated gift products are proving popular at the moment as high street card shops have closed.

I am sure Moonpig is facing a lot of challenges in its business, but licensing wise it has worked hard at building ranges that are distinctive and have pushed on beyond character licensing to embrace other types of licenses. I have recently worked with it to develop a range with US artist Kendra Dandy. Her Bouffants & Brokenhearts range launched last week. I like the way it approaches design and listens to feedback around design issues.

I think direct selling businesses like Moonpig develop a good understanding of their customers and what they are looking for. They can track the buying journey and the motivation for purchasing. So they tap in well to occasions and work well with licensors to adapt designs to hold maximum appeal on occasions such as Valentine’s, Father’s and Mother’s Day. Licensors are getting better to tuning into these specific occasions with bespoke designs.

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Licensing and mail order have been a thing for a long time. Companies like The Bradford Exchange have been working with major licensors on a global basis for a long time. Their business has evolved from catalogue and off the page offers to embracing web selling and digital marketing. It is easy to overlook companies like The Bradford Exchange but it worth remembering their expertise in database management, customer insight and product sourcing are tailor made for licensing.

It is a case of trying to find a property and design that fits the business globally. In my own experience, it has been a great ‘home’ for The Spirit of Concorde brand and have developed watches, coins, prints, flight jackets and models. Products we may not have developed elsewhere. Like many licensees, it also features brands like Disney but it is attracted to brands with anniversaries and with specialist audiences. Its current front page offers include products featuring D Day, The First Moon Landing, Elvis Presley, Winnie the Pooh and The Jungle Book. A lesson here as an agent or licensor is to know your property and your audience. Companies like The Bradford Exchange can help you reach them.

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A final example of a hybrid licensee/retailer that has developed a strong licensing offer online is Signature Gifts. It specialises in personalised books often creating special edition gift books that can be personalised that are sold in gift formats such as slipcases. Signature Gifts sells directly to consumers but also works with other retailers to create ecommerce platforms for them focusing on selling personalised books.

It is a good example of a licensee that has a really good handle on the potential of a property and product. It has developed fan driven categories like football clubs and also tapped into specific opportunities such as a recently announced deal with Build-a-Bear. Other licences it carries include Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep, Peter Rabbit and The Snowman. I know from my own experience that it is very adept at re-purposing existing books and creating a new product from them.

As I mentioned, I must admit I find it tough at times to focus on business at the moment, but I do think as time goes on we will all get better at working from home and find a way of looking forward. Hopefully we can find a ‘new normal’ and build a path towards the future. It is a good moment to pick up the phone to talk to people to check in on them and their business. Maybe it is also time to investigate where there might be some licensing opportunities online. Take care.

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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