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The Licensing Lookout: Cake, cards & celebrations

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes has been marking a birthday this week with some licensed spots.

Following on from my foray into fast fashion last week I found myself appreciating apparel again this week. As The Kinks once said I am becoming a Dedicated Follower of Fashion. Hope it starts to show in my choice of outfits.

Sainsburys’ clothing brand Tu has demonstrated a clear commitment in recent times to featuring licensed brands sourced from the publishing sector. The Gruffalo has been a leading character in this strategy. It was a smart move. Publishing-based properties fit well with its consumers, the characters are not overexposed and the properties have good scope for design innovation. The Gruffalo range has been noteworthy for attention to detail in terms of embellishments on garments and use of text from the books. With the growing success of events like World Book Day backing publishing properties makes even more sense.


Currently Tu is featuring The Gruffalo – good to see that it is sticking with the character – long-term licensing works. It keeps the character fresh with new designs. Other featured characters include Elmer and The Very Hungry Caterpillar with product for babies and toddlers.

Tu has also given a lot of space to Usborne’s picture storybook series That’s Not My… The range has an end cap with product developed by licensee Paul Dennicci. Featured books and designs include My Monkey, My Tractor and My Dinosaur. Like The Gruffalo, the product features text from the books making the range authentic and from the publisher’s point of view a great showcase for the books. The range is bright, colourful and contemporary. It should attract consumer attention. Design wise it will probably appeal to consumers who don’t know the books. It is a well presented range. It will be interesting to see if it has the staying power of The Gruffalo.

Tu/Sainsbury’s should be applauded for creating ranges that give it a clear identity and for developing a category of licensing so well. In my store books and clothing are in different locations – maybe one extra development for Sainsbury’s would be to bring some of the books into the apparel aisles maybe in FSDUs. I could see this working as a cross selling opportunity. Likewise it will be interesting to see if book retailers are watching this trend and think about selling apparel like this. I know some sell items like t-shirts and tote bags already with book themes, but maybe there is scope for a little more for them.


Once my fashion watch was complete I strolled over to the celebration cake aisle. This is a food category that leans heavily on licensing, but is also one that has evolved in design and NPD terms. When I first started in licensing cakes tended to feature simple designs with a character plaque placed on a standard cake. While there are still basic character cakes available, the majority of celebration cakes are now more elaborate and sophisticated. The cake suppliers have also moved beyond character and are using food brands to create cakes.

Two brands that have eye-catching celebration cakes are Maltesers and M&Ms. It makes sense to tap into confectionery brands. The cakes are presented as party cakes for sharing. They are styled in a very sophisticated way and seem to be on trend in bakery terms. To steal a Bake Off phrase they are ‘showstoppers’. It was my birthday this week but rather sadly I didn’t buy a cake – a missed opportunity!


In the character category the stand out cake was a Jurassic Park one – it had a 3D look to it and really caught the eye on shelf. Celebration cakes are a great example of a licensing category that has evolved and the licensees have invested in NPD. This has helped keep the category alive and acted as insulation from generic celebration cakes. Licensed celebration cakes are great examples of licensing being used to retain value in a category.

As a quick aside as I mentioned it was my birthday this week. Most of my birthday greetings arrived via Facebook rather than as physical cards. I got about 12 cards (okay it was exactly 12 – we all count them don’t we?) and only one was a licensed one. This was a card featuring a book cover, Warne’s Happy Book for Boys from the Bodleian Library. Books work for all ages it seems.

I have noticed that Danilo and other card companies now feature age cards for ages up to 80 or 90, but my birthday experience suggests that maybe there is a market for licensed birthday cards that appeal to or are relevant to older consumers (53 year old ones to be precise).


Outside of my supermarket visit I managed to visit Polesden Lacey this week. This is a National Trust site. I popped into the shop and spotted a range of National Trust Hunter boots. The boots were available in adult and children’s sizes and featured a distinctive National Trust pattern of oak leaves. I thought this was a really good and logical partnership.

For Hunter, being featured in National Trust shops is great placement and a good way of reaching ‘right minded’ consumers at the right time. I am not sure if this partnership extends beyond National Trust shops, but I think it would have good potential – even more so if overlaid with a promotional mechanic such as free entry to a National Trust property with purchase or a mini book featuring walks at National Trust properties.

Rather like Tu’s book-based apparel, this is a good example of how licensing can create a promotional platform for a rights owner and create new ways of reaching consumers.


I spent a really enjoyable afternoon at the Daily Telegraph’s Gin Experience at The Hurlingham Club this week. This was a reminder of how media brands use live events to extend their brands and the value of media brands in the experiential sector. There was a vast array of gins on offer and I am sure some brands will emerge from the pack that may have a life outside of gin.

Speakeasy Ice Cream was also at the show. It has created a range of alcoholic ice creams under licence featuring a number of brands including Ableforth’s Bathtub Gin and Conker Cold Brew Coffee Liqueur. I have followed Speakeasy’s journey from the start and it is a good example of how carefully selected licences can help a start up business grow and create an identity in a crowded market. Speakeasy’s products are now available at retail, but it is clear that experiential marketing is a good way of connecting with consumers.


Finally, and remaining with alcohol, I saw a cheeky use of IP this week. A London pub was offering ‘Rum Weasley’ cocktails: sailor jerry spiced rum, fresh lime, mint and Fentiman’s Ginger Beer.

I didn’t try it, but it sounds nice – I guess you know you have arrived as a character when people are mixing tribute cocktails in your honour…

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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