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The Licensing Lookout: New Year Resolution

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes on why the new year brings with it new licensing opportunities.

New Year is, of course, the time to make resolutions – but rather than make licensing resolutions I thought I might make a few observations and suggestions for 2019. This is driven in the main by the rather unwelcome news that HMV has entered administration.

HMV has been a big supporter of licensing and licensed products over recent years. It had focused in part on pop culture, taking in products such as Pop Vinyls, t-shirts and books. In itself this seemed like a good direction of travel, albeit one that others are taking. Pop culture is definitely an area of strength for licensing and one that will continue to flourish – think of the popularity of events like Comic Con and the overall success of Funko.

Interestingly, Game seems to back pop culture hits especially those derived from the gaming sector. Fortnite is one of the brands currently featured in-store with a dedicated bay. Game also seems to be embracing the notion of a shopping ‘experience’ – my local branch in Kingston has a gaming area with demo units on free play mode.

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Hopefully there will be a workable solution found for HMV and it will be able to carry on in some shape or form. It is easy to forget about the staff impacted by retail closures – it must be a worrying time for shop staff as they await news on HMV’s future and for retail workers in general.

Clearly retail is a vital cog in the licensing wheel, so it has to be a concern for the industry as a whole when a significant player encounters problems. News of the HMV kind also becomes mainstream news provoking debate in the media about the ‘future of the high street’ in general terms which in itself is not always helpful.

My Lookout horizon altered over Christmas as I decamped to North Norfolk. This meant I had the chance to visit some new towns and retailers. Sheringham on a rainy day in December is a particular kind of opportunity. It is easy to get despondent about the market, but I think from a licensing point of view we have to remind ourselves that good licences can make a difference at retail and still hold a strong appeal to consumers. That said I think we do need to think differently and embrace fresh opportunities. Don’t change direction, but maybe use some different routes. With this in mind I have made a few observations from my Christmas break that I think give us cause for optimism or at least licensing food for thought.

I noticed that ITV and two of its commercial partners were promoting a couple of experiential products. This Morning Live is scheduled to take place at the NEC in May, while consumers can visit The Emmerdale Studio Experience in Leeds and also visit the village set. Both of these are good examples of how licensing can tap into the trend for experiences and are good reminders that licensed brands can deliver a specific consumer audience in an efficient way. When used correctly, licensing is a well targeted marketing technique. We maybe need to work a bit harder at communicating the consumer profile associated with specific brands a bit better.

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Another good example of a well defined brand being used smartly in the live space is Peaky Blinders. Anna Viola from ITV highlighted a pop event associated with the programme to me that was running over Christmas and, as previously reported, brewer Sadler’s has developed a range of Peaky Blinders beers. Different types of brands can take us on different licensing journeys, but it is vital to understand the consumer appeal of brands and pitch the licensing programme accordingly.

Related to this, it is interesting to see how retailers such as WH Smith are looking to create a point of difference that is relevant to them, their consumers and is sustainable over the long-term. Its book club – which is presented by Richard and Judy – has been running for a while. The TV stars select books which WH Smith promotes well in-store – the Club is a legacy of Richard and Judy’s TV show. This is an enterprising partnership that is a good fit for WH Smith and is a great example of how different types of partnerships can be developed.

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My visit to WH Smith also reminded me that it is important that we think about retail displays and how licences are presented. A simple but effective example caught my eye in the ever busy comics section. Comics publishers and WH Smith have created off shelf display units which are deployed by some brands. I presume there is a cost for these, but as the Hatchimals example I saw shows they do make a difference.

Obviously this style of display cannot be used for all titles in the section and there is also room for improvement in the overall display of comics, but this simple example is a reminder that the best licences and products can fall at the last hurdle if they aren’t displayed effectively.

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I also caught sight of the craft magazine section. I saw classic character Spot featuring on Knit magazine. The magazine was offering an exclusive Spot the Dog knitting pattern. To me this is a good example of developing opportunities in specialist markets and fitting a brand into the market in an appropriate way.

I think it is a good moment for all of us in licensing to take off our blinkers and look at the market in a broader way. While this deal is unlikely to be a big money spinner, what it has done has opened up a new channel and created a foundation stone for other activity. Sometimes it is worth investing time in nurturing new categories.

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I think there is also a lot to be said for putting the right products in the right places. I noticed swimwear company Zoggs has increased its retail space in my local leisure centre with some great displays which include a full range of DC Comics swimwear and accessories.

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While on my week away in Norfolk, I noticed that fashion brand Joules had a small retail unit sited adjacent to Holkham Beach badged ‘Joules by the Sea’ – making sure that its product was accessible to a consumer audience it sees a good fit with.

Licensed brands really offer potential for this type of targeted placement and ‘pinpoint’ retailing. With well though through retail displays, in-store ‘entertainment’ and social media promotion, I think licensing has a great opportunity to help retailers deliver footfall and in-store traffic. This can work at all levels of retail and is maybe something that the licensing industry should keep dialling up.

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Heritage licensing and properties are also worth more than a second glance. By their nature properties like the V&A have longevity and credibility. Working with the heritage sector should open up a raft of new opportunities including scope for international business. I visited Sandringham on my Norfolk trip and the Sandringham gift shop certainly does a good job of merchandising the Queen and the Royal Family!

So while the HMV news wasn’t a great start to the retail year, I think there is cause for optimism for licensing – particularly if the industry remembers that good IP brings a consumer audience with it and has an ‘in built’ value that can be leverage at retail. I think we need to remain committed to bringing in new companies and sectors on the licensee side. I think it is also worth recognising that the independent retail sector can be a worthwhile retail network for licensing.

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On my rainy day in Sheringham there were a couple of retail brightspots for a Licensing Lookout. One was a gift store that had a working display of Puckator’s Solar Pals which featured a number of licensed characters including Wallace & Gromit – a simple but highly effective retail display (imagine how animated those Solar Pals get on a really sunny day), while an independent gift retailer had a really well presented window display featuring some lovely Tintin products. Tintin is a good example of a classic property that isn’t ‘mainstream’ but with the right placement, promotion and product development is one with real commercial appeal.

I am looking forward to another year of Looking Out and also another year of walking. I have decided to ‘walk’ the London bridges for charity later this year – I guess that is a resolution of sorts!

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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