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The Licensing Lookout: Not just any retailer…

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes finds out how M&S handles licensed brands this week.

I popped into the Marks & Spencer Home store in Kingston this week, out of curiosity rather than with a purchase in mind: a curiosity sparked by licensing times past. M&S has always been a player in the licensing market and I remember when I first started in licensing there was effectively two licensing programmes for major properties: one for the general market and the other for M&S only.

It had a pool of suppliers which picked up licences on its behalf. I think things have moved on since then but M&S is still using licensing, however based on my visit to the Home store it has dialled things down. Kingston has two M&S branches on the main shopping street – hopefully a sign that it is feeling positive and optimistic.

Bespoke versions of Paddington plush was available in-store.
Bespoke versions of Paddington plush was available in-store.

The Home store does what it says on the tin with a heavy focus on homewares from cushions to candles while it also stocks a range of babywear, kidswear and toys. It is within the latter category that I spotted the majority of licensing activity. In the toy category, it was carrying bespoke versions of Peter Rabbit and Paddington plush. These were branded with M&S logos on the products emphasising a degree of exclusivity.

Likewise there was a range of Thomas the Tank Engine toy products including a puzzle in a carry case that was a bespoke item. I presume M&S still works through a selected band of suppliers which work with rights holders and seem to be able to develop products with exclusive designs or formats. This helps the retailer achieve a point of difference.

Licensing was also present in the children’s bedding category with licences such as Spider-Man, Pokémon, Star Wars and LEGO. Again it seems like exclusive designs have been used. It was interesting to see Pokémon in the mix. Obviously well timed to coincide with the Pokémon film, but also a further indication that gaming properties are now very much in the mainstream.

Because the shop is a large format one, there is scope to go large on display and in the bedding section there was a room set featuring Dumbo. Another example that display and licensing make good bedfellows.

Babywear collections featuring Peter Rabbit were a licensed highlight in the children's apparel department.
Babywear collections featuring Peter Rabbit were a licensed highlight in the children's apparel department.

The children’s apparel department featured a certain amount of licensing, but not as much as I remember in previous years. A licensing heavy category was babywear where there were two very charming collections featuring Peter Rabbit and Dumbo. Both ranges featured an illustrative style with pastel colours which created a classic feel. Product design and quality looked good. I imagine that products like these appeal across the generations in M&S, making them effective as gift purchases as well as direct purchase by parents.

Another range that stood out was a range of Mickey Mouse apparel for younger boys. The artwork used was based on a beach and surfing theme with a classic styling. It was very effective and had been applied well across a range that include sun protection swimsuits.

A wall of cushions would have benefited from some licensed designs, Ian noted.
A wall of cushions would have benefited from some licensed designs, Ian noted.

In the wider store in terms of homewares, furnishing, bedding and soft furnishing I was surprised to see so little licensing. I understand licensing is not for all and I may have missed a few things, but I thought there were some categories that carefully selected licences could enhance M&S’ offer in this area. For example, it had a wall of cushions which I thought could benefit from some licensed designs; likewise thinking about the success of furniture companies like DFS there could be scope for designer collections in furniture and perhaps in areas like ceramics.

From a licensing history perspective M&S is part of the UK market’s history so I hope that licensing continues to play a part in the product mix. It is always good to see its take on licensing – it does manage to offer something different in design and format terms.

The Robinsons ice pops stood out well on shelf in Iceland.
The Robinsons ice pops stood out well on shelf in Iceland.

I also popped into my local Iceland store this week. I was hoping that I would spot one of my own products and thankfully I did. Rose Marketing has launched a range of Robinsons Squash freeze at home ice pops. These were developed last year in preparation for this summer so it was nice to see them on shelf and nicer still on a sunny day. We spent a lot of time on the pack design and it was good to see this worked well. The product looked great on shelf and stood out on a busy fixture. A reminder that it is worth ‘getting it right’ and focusing on packaging.

It is easy to get into style guide blindness and leave the guide to do the work. It is a good idea to take a step back and even pop into store to visualise product on shelf and think about where it will be positioned. Licensed products have to compete with established brands and with brand licences it is important to let the brand sell the product.

It was also nice to see a customer buy the product while I was in the shop. And it wasn’t my mum!

The Immersive Wolf of Wall Street is an example of IP being developed creatively in the live sector.
The Immersive Wolf of Wall Street is an example of IP being developed creatively in the live sector.

Finally I spotted a poster for The Immersive Wolf of Wall Street. It is a live event coming to London this autumn. It is a further example of how IP is being developed creatively in the live sector. I think this is in response to the trend for consumers to seek out unique experiences building on things like Secret Cinema.

That said it did occur to me this might be an elaborate scam. However, after I tweeted my concerns I was reassured that this was indeed a genuine event and indeed one I may even get along to. I can hum a good tune. Not sure about getting on board a yacht though!

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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