The Licensing Lookout: Changing seasons

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes picks his highlights from Autumn Fair.

If there was a licensing dinner party at the moment there is no doubt that retail would be a hot topic of conversation. I am sure ‘tough’, ‘challenging’ and ‘uncertain’ would be three of the words peppering the conversation.

So against this background it was good to see Sainsbury’s launching a loyalty-based promotion this week. It is working with LEGO on a trading card collection. Consumers can pick up LEGO character cards and a collector album linked to in-store spend. The promotion is being well supported in-store with counter top boxes, FSDUs and posters. It is pleasing to see a retailer trying something different to engender loyalty and not burying its head in the sand.

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Further to this it is good from a licensing perspective to see that it has chosen to tap into a licensed brand to create its promotion. LEGO is clearly a well established and trusted brand that works well in a family marketing context. Hopefully it works for Sainsbury’s and encourages other retailers to consider this sort of promotional scheme.

My contribution to the dinner party chat would be to think about retail in the round and not to be totally focused on the traditional high street and grocers. These are obviously core parts of the retail map, but there are other points of interest on it. I spotted one this week in Windsor town centre. Firstly, and encouragingly, the town centre was very busy. People seemed to be spending. The shop that caught my eye was in fact a gallery – Castle Fine Art. I believe it is a chain with a number of city centre outlets. It specialises in wall art prints and canvases. It has embraced licensing and in the Windsor shop the window featured large scale canvases of classic Marvel comic covers. The cover stars were the Incredible Hulk, Thor and Star Wars.

This is a great indicator of the growing popularity of comic art and the growth in interest in wall art. From a licensing point of view, retail outlets like Castle Fine Art are a cause for optimism and show that licensed products can have a role to play in new retail markets and also play a role in new trends. Here the trends include a revival of interest in comic art and changes in interior decorating as more consumers living in apartment style dwellings. Supersized canvases suit these new types of dwellings.

I took a whistlestop tour to Autumn Fair on Monday. This was day two of the show and traditionally a busy day for it. While my feeling was that visitor numbers were down, it was encouraging to hear more than one exhibitor say they had taken orders and that in some cases they had come from sectors such as garden centres and independents. Hopefully this translates to decent order books for exhibitors who have backed the show.

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There was a healthy presence for licensing and licensed products in the show. A few highlights for me included:

Confirmation that personalisation is a growing market and opportunity for licensing. Licensee Signature Gifts has mined publishing and classic characters well in this category. It used Autumn Fair to launch a number of new products including classic Beano annuals tapping into the Beano’s archive, plus a new range of Shaun the Sheep products including an Advent Calender that counts down 24 Sheeps ‘Til Christmas.

How heritage licensing is finding a regular place in the licensing mix. Museums and galleries present fresh opportunities for licensees as they deliver a focused consumer audience, credibility in certain market sectors and in a retail context a ready made market as the museums are keen to buy into licensed ranges for their own shops. A good example of a museum branded range was Smart Fox’s range of Imperial War Museum construction kits including the likes of HMS Belfast.

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Seeing long established licensees such as Danilo recognising that it has to move on NPD and design wise to add value to traditional categories such as greetings cards. A good example of this was its L.O.L Surprise greeting cards which included add on items like hair clips. Danilo has also recognised that humour can be added to classic properties like Ladybird Books and Subbuteo. A clever use of IP that has appeal to an older consumer audience.

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How licensing can help companies achieve stand out in a cluttered product category. One busy product category was that of novelty lights and signage – things like light boxes and popular words or acronyms spelled out in lights. In this context it is difficult for suppliers to create a point of difference. Ginger Snap was offering a range of illuminated London Underground signs including the iconic roundel and specific stations. Waterloo stood out for me being a Waterloo boy.

I think this is a really good example of a well chosen licence making a difference in a competitive category. The London Underground product really caught the eye in the exhibition hall as it was displayed on a London Underground map.

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Paladone is a company which has used licensing to help achieve growth and increase its international reach. It has developed a carefully curated licensed portfolio over recent years with an emphasise on emerging trends such as licences based on computer gaming properties.

However, it has also recognised a well chosen licence only gets you so far and that it is important to be proactive in NPD terms. A good example of this was its new SEGA Smartphone Controller. The SEGA Saturn shaped controller allows consumers to play games on their smartphone in a convenient way ‘on the go’. The product includes a number of free games. This seems to be a clever product that is tapping into a consumer trend and is packaged in a format that is very giftable. It is also a product that should hold broad readability appeal encompassing a variety of retailers including specialists and online sellers.

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It was also good to see different types of properties being used by licensees and also some thought being given to the buying occasion.

All too often it is easy for licensee and licensor to take a low hanging fruit approach to design. In tough times it is probably more important than ever to be more focused on the end consumer and why they will buy a licensed product.

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Wild and Wolf’s use of Happy Jackson is a good example, with products teamed with specific catchphrases that fit the product. For example ‘Wake Up Make Up Smile’ for a make up bag. Another well thought out range was Temerity Jones’ Frida Kahlo range. I imagine this range was inspired by the V&A’s exhibition of Frida’s work and is a good example of how things like museum exhibitions can inspire licensing activity. It is worthwhile licensees casting their acquisition net a little wider at times.

Finally, and not strictly a licensing observation, but I was intrigued to know that Mask-arade’s most popular mask at the moment is a Meghan Markle one. Rather reassuringly, Prince Harry is the second best seller. That said I didn’t see the Royal couple during my visit to Windsor. Not even a fake version…

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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