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The Licensing Lookout: Comic timing

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes heads to Comic Con and unearths some licensing treats.

Another day, another dollar. This was one of my Grandad’s favourite expressions. Normally said as he left for work. In his twilight years I am not quite sure what work he did, but he seemed to spend a lot of time at racecourses. He seemed to enjoy finding that next dollar.

I have adopted this mantra but also adapted it for my world – for me it is now another day, another deal. Post BLE I seem to have been on a non stop train journey pursuing those deals. It is certainly more challenging getting that elusive signature on the dotted line these days. But I am pleased to say that deals are getting done but you have to take a longer term view on deal-making. I think we are all getting more accustomed to this and the fact that as agents/licensors we have to make things happen. In sales speak we have to find those compelling events which will turn promissory notes into confirmed deals.

So, against this backdrop it was a very welcome interlude to attend MCM Comic Con last week at ExCeL. For me, this is mixing business and pleasure. I have attended a fair few Comic Cons and they have grown in popularity in consumer and trade terms. It really is a fantastic celebration of pop culture and fandom. Licensing is a big part of this and it is great to see our industry at the centre of such a popular event. I go as I am a comic book fan, but also as there are business opportunities there.

I love the fact that as you are sitting on the Jubilee Line and the DLR you are joined by a host of characters making their way to ExCeL. Being London no one bats an eyelid at the fact they are sitting next to Captain America, a lycra-clad anime character and a Gandalf complete with staff (and Oyster card). London life!

One thing that strikes me about Comic Con is how much the attendees enjoy the event. It is great to see people enjoying being fans and pursuing their passions with such vigour.

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There is a lot to take in at the event, but here are a few observations I made:

For the fans: it really is a fan event and festival. A lot of the colour is provided by the fans not least as shown by the fabulous and imaginative costumes on show. The show brings together a range of different themes under one roof from comics to anime through to steampunk. Fans find what they want and curate their own show.

One change I have seen is a greater presence from ‘big brands’. This year Coca-Cola had a stand as did Chupa Chups while film companies were promoting new releases. Nothing against this, but I think it is important that the show organisers and exhibitors remember the fans and strike a balance which sees the show grow but also maintain its fan appeal.

Likewise from a licensing point of view it is important that rights owners create products that have fan appeal but that are also on brand and not abusing a fan’s loyalty.

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Licensing clearance: related to the latter point I noticed one on-site retailer selling licensed product at clearance prices. A reminder that sometimes franchises can be over licensed or licensed too soon. The fan world as represented by Comic Con is a great market for licensing, but it is one that needs to be nurtured and understood.

Connected to this there were a few examples of unauthorised licensed merchandise being sold by show vendors. While it is difficult to eliminate this entirely from an event like this, it is a timely reminder that in an age of online selling and direct selling it is vital that IP owners police their rights.

There are all kinds of reasons why this is the right thing to do but one important reason to do so is to help protect fans. I know in previous years at Comic Con that Trading Standards officers were in attendance and I am sure they were this year. Ignoring unlicensed lines, fakes and counterfeits is not good for the industry.

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The rise of Funko: I recently watched a Netflix movie about the Funko story. A great watch. Once again Funko was one of the big hits at Comic Con. Its booth was very busy and it was selling a big range of licensed products including a number of show specials. It seems to understand its consumers and develop a rapport with them.

Funko is a great example of a company creating a category and using licensing in a proactive way to grow that category. It is a company I reference a lot at the moment as a licensing success story and a great example of the power that licensing can deliver a start-up business.

In the Netflix film there is reference to an early deal Funko got for Betty Boop and the company acknowledged the trust King Features put in it. It was a reminder that sometimes it is worth giving new businesses a chance. They might hit a home run or, as in Funko’s case, they might win the World Series.

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Collectables come in all shapes and sizes: while Funko is the go to example for pop culture collectables, it was interesting to see other examples of collectable products on sale. The Koin Club was offering limited edition Marvel commemorative coins limited to 1,000 coins a day; Build-a-Bear was offering pre-stuffed bears across a range of brands such as Star Wars; and the Good Smile Company from Japan was promoting some super cute collectables featuring Harry Potter. I can see the Good Smile products proving very popular not least because of their cute styling.

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Dr Who makes an impression: with a well timed run, the BBC and Forbidden Planet combined to host a Dr Who retail space coupled with some photo opportunities such as a Tardis. This seemed to be a very good route to market for the BBC and its licensing partners with the added benefit of promoting the new series.

This is a good example of Comic Con being used in a positive and proactive way. I am sure the Dr Who fans in attendance welcomed the chance to shop a dedicated Dr Who shop and it enhanced their show experience. It was interesting to see how many film and TV companies recognise the showcase that Comic Con provides them and have got better at teeing up social media sharing opportunities.

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Photo opp city: Comic Con is awash with photo opportunities. In no particular order, I thought The Grinch snow globe photo opportunity, the Rick and Morty set and the Harry Potter LEGO throne were all star attractions. I am not photogenic enough to do them justice. So didn’t take up the opportunity. But attendees seem to love this aspect of the show.

Although one negative was that I didn’t see too many hash tag reminders around. Social media sharing is a natural for the event and offers great potential for brands promoting themselves at Comic Con. This could be deployed more overtly buy some brands.

Comics at Comic Con: it was good to see that comics are still featuring at Comic Con. There was a vibrant section full of comic artists selling their work and offering ‘show specials’ like comic style drawings of visitors. Publishers such as DC Comics were present promoting new lines and there was some really striking classic comic art on show. It is good to see comics and comic art still thriving in the context of this show – comics are an important launch point for lots of the most successful franchises and are a key ingredient in the ‘pop culture’ market. It was also good to see book publishers such as Bloomsbury exhibiting at Comic Con selling Harry Potter books including special editions and promoting its wider range.

All in all Comic Con was a great way to earn another dollar – I might be tempted to go in character next year and really get full value from the day. Suggestions for costumes welcome on a postcard.

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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