The Licensing Lookout: Museum musings

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at how museums and galleries are using licensed brands.

I must have been sub-consciously influenced by half-term past over the last week as I found myself visiting a lot of museums and galleries.

My Museum Tour took in the Museum of Brands, The National Football Museum, The Design Museum and Somerset House. They all had a connection with licensing and in general terms my visits reminded me that licensing ‘live’ is a trend that appears to be in growth and one that should be a cause for optimism in the industry.

The Museum of Brands celebrates licensing almost by accident. It tells the story of products, packaging and branding through a curated timeline of real products. The timeline is peppered with examples of licensed products – from early samples of Disney products to a whole display cabinet of 3D bubble baths. The latter product – which started with character identified toppers and ended up with full figurine bottles – was cutting edge in its time and seen as very progressive. With a contemporary view it does look a little dated now, but is a reminder that licensed design can’t stand still and also it needs to reflect wider market trends. This includes how products are made and issues such as packaging.

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Somerset House is hosting an exhibition which celebrates the work and life of Charles Schulz. The exhibition is called Good Grief, Charlie Brown! It was full of original artwork which conveyed the timeless charm and humour of Schulz’s characters. It was good to learn more about the artist’s influences and see some of his possessions – one standout item was his Pitcher’s Mitt.

The exhibition included examples of merchandise such as a lovely gallery of what are now ‘vintage’ sweatshirts. There was also a series of lightbox desks with a range of characters and art illuminated. This was to encourage children in particular to have a go at drawing and tracing the characters. It was a popular feature and a reminder that hands-on features are often needed in exhibitions if you hope to appeal to children and families.

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A really good aspect of the exhibition was a film of Schulz drawing Snoopy – it looks easy when you are the original creator! This was a great feature and again a timely reminder that audio-visual content is useful in this context, but also good to have to ensure a legacy like Schulz’s is preserved.

I actually met Charles Schulz and saw him in action drawing Snoopy at an international agents meeting in Arizona. A great memory for me and it wad nice to ‘meet’ him again in this comprehensive exhibition. It was topped off by a well presented gift shop which had some really nice products including framed artwork.

This exhibition is part of a move in the market for themed exhibitions, plays, concerts and festivals featuring well known IP. It has certainly become a furrow worth ploughing for rights holders.

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This week I noticed cult TV series The Twilight Zone has been developed as a West End play. While in my own working world, Aardman has announced two ‘live events’ recently to help mark the 30th anniversary of Wallace & Gromit this year. One is a musical tour – Wallace & Gromit’s Musical Marvels – which couples a live orchestra playing the film soundtracks with film screenings, and the other is Cheese Fest – a celebration of all things cheese which naturally Wallace & Gromit are appearing in. Both these examples use the brand heritage and storylines well.

To succeed in this space the product has to be good and the content rich. Live licensing is certainly growing in popularity, but it is imperative that quality controls are put in place to ensure a good consumer experience.

A week or so ago an unofficial Fortnite event was reported on in the press as consumers felt badly let down. It was clearly an unlicensed event and of poor quality. To be fair Fortnite’s owners took immediate legal action and had future shows stopped. Well done to them and a good example of proactive brand protection. But also a warning of how these kind of events can go wrong. A proper strategy for and close management of the sector is required. For example, Aardman has a dedicated live events team to manage this sector.

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The Design Museum is definitely worth a visit, not least for its excellent shop which features some really original products including some great examples of licensing such as a Miffy lamp. One of the Museum exhibits caught my eye as it was a Disney garment. I thought to myself Disney does get everywhere, but on closer inspection I realised that the top was from a Vivienne Westwood collection launched in the 1970s – let’s just say the Mickey and Minnie image featured was not an officially approved style guide one!

Finally, I was handed a leaflet at Clapham Junction station this week. It was to publicise a Where’s Wally? Charity Fun Run in aid of the National Literacy Trust. It was nice to be considered a contender! But more importantly it was a further example of how licensing can come alive in the event space. I haven’t signed up… yet…

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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