The Licensing Lookout: Fresh thinking

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes finds that licensing is playing a role in an increasingly diverse set of product areas.

I always find it refreshing when I spot something that I haven’t seen or read about before – and this week I spotted what I thought was a bit of fresh thinking in licensed apparel.

I visited my local Tesco Superstore in New Malden to check out the latest displays for Britvic’s brands such as Robinson’s and Fruit Shoot. Pleased to say these were looking strong and great visibility on shelf – Robinson’s is running a promotion linked to its Wimbledon tennis sponsorship.

The Nerf apparel range had a prominent space in Tesco and showed great attention to detail.
The Nerf apparel range had a prominent space in Tesco and showed great attention to detail.

Anyway returning to the refreshing licensing rather than refreshment. I spotted a great range of childrenswear featuring the toy and game brand Nerf. Nerf is owned by Hasbro and seems to be a toy brand on the up. Nerf is an active play brand which Hasbro seems to have grown through wider distribution, product innovation and clever marketing. Licensing toy brands can be tough sometimes and it is hard to get traction at times. In this case the product range uses the Nerf brand logo, contemporary design styling and I think it uses ‘activewear’ fabrics. I am guessing Hasbro, the retailer and the licensee – Smith & Brooks – have treated Nerf a little like a sportswear brand rather than a toy or character brand. The range had prominent space and showed a great attention to detail – each item included an add-on where the user could store their Nerf darts. A clever bit of innovation and an effective way of making the product relevant to the core brand’s play pattern.

I haven’t seen this range before so assume it is a new launch and it is encouraging to see retailers give brands like this an opportunity. It is good to see a different brand being used in this category. This particular Tesco store dedicates a lot of space to apparel and is a big part of the shop’s product mix. The downside of this is that it is located on the first floor and is away from most other product categories. So in this case Nerf toys weren’t located nearby – it would have been good to see the apparel merchandised with some Nerf toys. But that aside I thought this was a very interesting development.

The resurgence of the Polaroid now sees it feature in the fast fashion aisle.
The resurgence of the Polaroid now sees it feature in the fast fashion aisle.

As mentioned, the apparel department has a lot of space dedicated to it in this store and so it’s able to support quite a wide range of products across adult and childrenswear. In the spirit of spotting ‘new to me’ products it was interesting to see the iconic photography brand Polaroid featuring on an adult t-shirt. Polaroid as a brand has had a resurgence of sorts as the camera and technology are being used again. This has I guess helped drive it into the fast fashion aisles.

My visit also confirmed again that music and music acts are an increasingly significant part of the adult apparel sector in licensing terms. Tesco was carrying band t-shirts featuring Queen, KISS and Pink Floyd. Bands such as these are now established as classic band brands and are boosted by activities such as films, publishing releases and exhibitions. I would imagine there are a number of Elton John t-shirts on the conveyor belt to retail inspired by the success of the film Rocketman. Music is definitely a key feature of licensed apparel now.

Likewise, in childrenswear, it is now a surprise to see a retailer not including a gaming brand in their offer so well established is gaming as a licensing genre. Tesco was no exception – I spotted children’s t-shirts featuring Fortnite, Minecraft and PlayStation. Again, this category is now a core part of the licensing landscape. That said it will have to play by the established rules and one of the key challenges around gaming brands is knowing when to launch them into licensing and identifying when they have reached the tipping point. It will also be interesting to see the longevity of some of the newer gaming brands. Although it is worth remembering the staying power of gaming characters like Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog.

Of course, apparel is a stalwart category for licensing. It is interesting to see how licensing is being applied in some less traditional categories. I stumbled into the men’s haircare department in Boots this week. Literally took a wrong turn and then the product caught my eye. As those of you who know me will be aware I don’t really have much reason to be in the hair product aisle, but I stopped and had a good look around.

A big brand in the category is Toni & Guy. I am not sure this is strictly a licence as I believe the brand in terms of hair care and styling products is now owned by Unilever, but I think it is a brand that has set a standard and inspired others in the category.

Toni & Guy has a strong heritage in hairdressing and styling which inspired the retail product range. As always the core brand that launches a licensing or brand extension programme needs to be solid and well established. There is undoubtedly more competition in the sector as it has evolved and demand has grown. Ranges now include products for beard care. Again although I am a fully paid up member of the beard brigade I haven’t been tempted to buy any beard oil, yet!

A couple of brands on shelf next to Toni & Guy included Fish. Fish’s origins go back to a hairdressing salon based in Soho which was open in 1987. Initially I thought the Fish range was a licensed range but on closer inspection I think it is a brand extension developed by the owners – the owner is a company which seems to have acquired a number of brands that it develops in the personal care market. While this is not licensing, I think it is an interesting trend – companies which acquire lifestyle brands and build them through extensions built on the brand heritage and then blend the activity further with selected licensing deals. We see this a lot in the food category as well. It makes life as a Licensing Lookout a bit tricky sometimes.

Celebrity hairstylist John Frieda has a comprehensive range of haircare products.
Celebrity hairstylist John Frieda has a comprehensive range of haircare products.

The other brand that I took note of in the category was a range of John Frieda-branded products. John Frieda is a celebrity hairstylist who had a significant media profile and became a go-to person on TV and in the press. Thinking ahead to future quiz nights, I believe he was once married to Lulu. The John Frieda range I spotted in Boots was a licensed one I believe. I think the John Frieda haircare brand was sold to a third party some years ago and they operate it under licence in certain territories.

I did say being a Licensing Lookout can get complicated. Please feel free to put me right if I have got this wrong. I guess what my little excursion into the haircare aisle shows is that licensing and/or brand extension is playing a role in an increasingly diverse set of product areas. Furthermore, the way licensing is being used is changing as well. There are a lot of brands that are being developed and then blended with licensing to help them grow with owners turning to licensing in categories they want to dial up.

Toy Story 4 movie tie-in books featured on an endcap in WH Smiths.
Toy Story 4 movie tie-in books featured on an endcap in WH Smiths.

While in Boots I noticed a FSDU for Boots’ Soltan Suncare products for children linked to Toy Story 4. The promotional link was a free Toy Story water bottle with purchase. I believe Soltan has linked to movies before and, of course, a summer ‘blockbuster’ is a great vehicle for suncare products.

Toy Story 4 is definitely coming alive at retail as I also spotted a Toy Story 4 endcap in WH Smiths selling a range of movie tie-in books including sticker and activity books. These were being offered under a 3 for 2 offer. While this is at first glance a strong offer I actually think that sometimes this is deployed to early in the lifecycle of a licensed brand. Toy Story 4 is released on Friday, June 21 – given its heritage, the following it has and the general quality of the franchise, I think this might have been a time to keep your retail powder dry. But, of course, retailers are looking for a sales boost and a popular film is a good brand to leverage in this context, but I actually think we are sometimes missing the point about the pulling power of strong licences.

Are these imposter brands or extensions of the 'real' brands?
Are these imposter brands or extensions of the 'real' brands?

Finally, I am always amused by the way some manufacturers try to mimic well known brands and produce ‘look a like’ products. Generally these are in low tech or low spec product sectors and, ultimately, they tend to disappear quickly. This week I saw a pair of inflatable beer bottles – a novelty gift item. Anyhow these two bottles were labelled ‘Hinecken’ and ‘Budveiser’.

While I think these are imposter brands, I have started to doubt myself. Maybe these are brand extensions of the ‘real’ brands and I missed the point. More likely, they are the inflatable bottle equivalent of magazines that are emblazoned 100% Unofficial. In any case Hinecken in particular put a smile on my face.

I look forward to reading the thoughts of the Loosening Lookout sometime. What’s in a name..!

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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