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The Licensing Lookout: Spring into action

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes sees his step count go sky high while visiting Spring Fair this week.

You are never too old to learn in licensing. I spent three days at Spring Fair in Birmingham this week. I reckon this was about the 27th year I have made the trip up to the NEC, yet I still managed to get lost between the halls.

I haven’t managed to learn an efficient way of navigating the NEC – not good for timekeeping but beneficial for my step count. I clocked up over 20,000 steps on the Monday.

Despite the show being smaller than it was 27 years ago and in fewer halls, it is still a large scale exhibition which is comprehensive in its product coverage. From pots to pens, ‘gifting’ seems to cover a lot of categories and licensing features regularly throughout the show.

Licensing has always been a feature of the show, indeed there have been licensing zones and lounges on occasion. While there is a logic to this it also reveals a real challenge in that licensing, licensees and licensed products do not all fit into one box. The spread and mix of licensing at the show reflects this.

As a broadbrush observation I thought there was less licensed products based on TV and film properties targeting children. There didn’t seem to be one standout property in the kids space. In previous years there has been one or two properties dominating. Maybe this is a reflection that in some cases licensees such as toy companies are better at securing more rights in a property so products are consolidated in the hands of one company. This probably also suits retailers and licensors.

It is easy to think licensing is all about toys and children’s products. A show like the Spring Fair reaffirms that licensing goes beyond this and that the landscape is changing a little.

I think there is also a move from licensees to search out licensing opportunities that offer them the chance to reach consumers in an efficient and targeted way. Often delivering products that fit into specific types of distribution.


A very good example of this was the fact that several licensees were featuring Frida Kahlo products. Collectively they made a strong impact.

I believe these ranges are inspired by a touring exhibition of the artist’s work which in turn has created heightened interest in her art. By working with three or four licensees in a focused way, good impact has been achieved. Further to this there are probably international distribution opportunities available to licensees.


With a show like Spring Fair it is difficult to draw firm conclusions on specific trends or movements even if you average 18,000 steps per day over your visit, but I thought it was worthwhile highlighting a handful of deals and products that caught my eye under the general banner of ‘smart’ licensing.

Classic characters can survive in the competitive gift collectables space if they are well managed in range terms and there is a commitment to design refreshment. A good example of this is JJ Vaillant‘s range of Betty Boop resin figurines. The range seems to be an evergreen which is testament to the enduring appeal of the character, but also the value in supporting a licensee in a category.

It is tempting to add new licensees in a category in lean years. However, ultimately these products compete for space. It can be more rewarding to take a long-term view and work in this way with licensees. Of course, it is important that a licensee reciprocates by investing in new designs, trade PR and communicates their plans.


Licensing based on well-known music bands seems to be growing and is creating significant opportunities. Bands like The Beatles have been well managed in licensing terms and have helped pave the way for other bands to shine in retail merchandise terms.

Companies like GB eye and Nemesis Now have identified opportunities with bands like Judas Priest and AC/DC. These bands have big followings and work well in online, specialist and seasonal retail terms.


A related point here is the emergence of products based on comics such as Judge Dredd and 2000 AD. Beer Buddies has created a wall mounted bottle opener featuring Judge Dredd. This recognises that IP can help companies reach market sectors in new ways and also help smaller companies engage with retailers that might have overlooked them before.

In a similar vein it is good to see licensees like Rubie’s capitalise on growing trends and retail opportunities such as Halloween. It has expanded its range to include accessories and homewares such as ‘candy’ dispensers and bowls. It helps in its case that it can share development costs with its US colleagues and, of course, pick up on trends from that market.


Licensees and licensors are getting better at matching design assets to specific products and gift giving opportunities. A good example of this is Signature Gifts’ Wallace & Gromit personalised cheese board and slate range.

Aardman has developed specific design assets for this type of product which has helped Signature Gifts develop a well targeted product which, in turn, can be marketed efficiently in digital marketing terms.


Charities are recognising that a diverse range of licensed products can enhance their reach and provide them with a new source of revenue.

One good example I spotted at the NEC was a range of room fragrance sachets from Heart of the Country featuring the iconic Royal British Legion poppy. A simple but well presented product that represents the charity well and allows consumers a chance to support a good cause in a fresh way.


FMCG brands are featuring more regularly in gift ranges. Posh Paws has developed a plush range with the Love Hearts brand, making good use of the iconic ‘Heart’ device and captions coupled with cute characters.


Meanwhile, 151 Products continues to enjoy success with brands such as Tango and Slush Puppie in categories like car air fresheners. Part of this ongoing success is a commitment by 151 Products to new pack formats. This keeps consumers and retailers interested.

With tougher times being faced at retail, it is good to see licensees thinking about how licensed products can be sold effectively with an emphasis on sales and neat retail friendly kits like counter top boxes. This encourages retailers to stock items and get full sales value from licensed properties. Good IP will engage consumers.


Aurora develops high quality plush and make a commitment to range development. Its range of Julia Donaldson character plush shows this well and within that it has designed some really effective sales kits which I am sure encourage retailers to stock more product and helps Aurora to recruit new accounts. Efficient and attractive displays can make a real impact.

Post NEC, my step count has steeply declined but I haven’t got lost. Maybe by Autumn Fair I will manage to work out how to get from Hall 5 to Hall 19 in a more timely fashion. My journey between the halls may have taken a bit longer than it should have, but at least I got to appreciate a full spectrum of licensed products.

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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