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The Licensing Lookout: On the cards

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at how the card business uses licences at PG Live.

I spent a very worthwhile two days at PG Live this week. The show was celebrating its 10th anniversary which is a measure of the its popularity and commercial success. It is always a bit of a dilemma whether to leave your desk to visit a trade show, but in the case of PG Live it is easier to make the decision to call. It is a very focused show that benefits from its two-day format in that there is always a busy feel and flow to it. The focused nature of it and the compact nature of the Business Design Centre in Islington give the show a good flow and it is arguably a model for the future trade show. I should acknowledge that the publishers of are involved in PG Live which in part explains why PG Live is licensing aware.

From a licensing point of view there is a good contingent of licensing friendly companies in attendance and there is a welcoming approach to licensing conversations. This is not always the case at trade shows.

Indeed many exhibitors are badged Licensing Friendly, emphasising they are keen to talk about licensing out their designs. Licensing has been a route to market many card companies have used to amplify their card brands and card brands have been a good source of successful licensing campaigns.

As a consequence of this, and because of the presence of a number of greetings card licensees, other companies who use licences attend the show which gives it an added value to people like me. In the first hour I was there I bumped into representatives from a leading jigsaw company and a toiletries company. There must be a greeting cards caption in there somewhere. These licensees were at the show to source new designs for ranges and to gauge what was happening card-wise from a general licensing perspective.

Greetings cards are often a good bellweather for a licensing programme – it is worth noting that the greeting cards sector is one that embraces a varied range of licences and is not simply focused on children’s entertainment licensing. For example card companies source a lot of licensing content from the heritage sector.


Leading greetings card licensee Gemma International chose PG Live to launch its new venture, Studio by Gemma. This new approach to design and content was partly driven by a desire to broaden distribution I understand and to take advantage of the fact that a range of retailers are now taking cards, for example bookshops.

I think this also reflects a slight shift generally among licensees. More licensees are liking beyond mainstream entertainment brands and are considering other types and styles of property including classic character brands and non-entertainment brands. In Studio by Gemma’s case, it has managed to set a new design well and has developed some very attractive ranges with properties such as Moomins and Mr Men taking a more art-based approach to these characters.

It has also recognised the potential in the heritage sector and had a broad range of cards developed in association with the Natural History Museum covering subjects such as dinosaurs and birds using imagery including archive material. My conclusion was that Studio by Gemma had definitely set a new tone and style which should allow the company to engage with new retailers and stretch their distribution further. It is encouraging to see a stalwart of licensing prepared to try something new and explore a new way of working.


In a similar vein I have been very impressed by long-term licensee Danilo’s commitment to fresh thinking and innovation in NPD terms. It is easy to settle into a creative rut and produce to a formula. Danilo has railed against this and seems determined to extract full value from a licence by adding some bespoke creative thinking to its ranges.

A couple of examples were a very clever WWE card that opened out to become a championship belt and a gift bag that is part of the new Volkswagen car range – in this case the bag was shaped like a VW Camper. Simple but very effective ideas and good examples of how a licence can add value to a product range if used wisely in design terms. Danilo has also developed a good line in humour and retro cards with brands such as Action Man, Ladybird Books and Subbuteo – again recognition that there are new sales opportunities out there and that consumer dynamics are shifting in terms of licensing appeal.

Danilo also showed that it has its finger on the racing consumer pulse by launching a range of Love Island cards at PG Live. I understand Love Island was watched by over three million viewers when it launched on Monday. The highest audience ever for ITV 2 I believe. Will be interesting see if all those lovers of love will become card buyers, but well played to Danilo for spotting the potential in the series and being prepared to explore different styles of licensing.


I was also encouraged to see Hallmark at the show. It had taken a few stands at the show to showcase different cards and styles including licensing. The licensing lead stand had the slogan Licences You Love. It is great to see an industry giant publically acknowledging licensing and, from an industry point of view, it is good to see that licensing is important to global companies such as Hallmark.

I am guessing one benefit of licensing to companies of the size and scale of Hallmark is that it gives them a calling card at retail and helps from a design perspective particularly in regards to being close to pop culture trends.


In my own business I was delighted to see Pigment featuring Kendra Dandy’s Bouffants and Brokenhearts brand. It has been good to see a publisher like Pigment really embrace a non- mainstream brand and nurture it so well. It has reminded me that one of the skill sets in licensing is to be a good matchmaker fitting brand to licensee well and then, when the match has been made, being prepared to let a licensee apply their knowledge to developing the license.

A well chosen licensee should be a category expert and sometimes it is important to let them show it. Pigment has created a great range and is now looking at some new lines. We also made it into the spinner programme – an opportunity to broaden distribution but also a reminder that it is important to think about how products are sold and to acknowledge that some retailers have lots of call on their shop space so solutions like spinners are important.


PG Live is also a show that attracts exhibitors from product areas beyond cards. Companies have started to recognise that card friendly retailers are also interested in related non-card products.

I think this is why Paper Projects was at the show for the first time. It specialises in decorative sticker sets and the vast majority of its range is based on licences. It is easy to imagine card shops stocking the product, not least as some of the sticker sets are easily put into a card envelope to create an extra little gift. Paper Projects has also recognised the value of display solutions like spinners in creating additional sales opportunities. It is trading on and encouraging impulse purchase. Paper Projects has also not stood still format wise and now has a number of innovative gift set formats which allow it to trade at higher price points and broaden retail distribution. A good example of this was a Mr Men gift set that is a pop up play-set format.

All in all two days well spent for me with the bonus that Islington has some great independent shops, an antiques market and easy access to a canal side walk… all good ways of taking a break from a busy show. My one regret was missing out on the free lunch at PG Live!


Outside of the show I collected a new ‘card’ for my Character Street Art collection this week – Pink Panther spotted in Waterloo. Only 93 left to complete the set!

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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