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The Licensing Lookout: Toy stories

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes finds licensing being used in new ways at Toy Fair.

A sizeable contingent from the UK licensing industry descended on Olympia this week for the Toy Fair.

The Toy Fair has always had a strong connection to the licensing industry and is seen as a good networking event within licensing. Of course, the two sectors are intertwined with toy companies being frequent users of licensing and from time to time toy rights firing up licensing programmes. There has been some chat that toy companies are using licensing a little less at the moment – it is difficult to give an accurate view on this, but anecdotally my feeling based on my three days at Olympia was that there was a bit less licensed product on offer, but that in certain categories of licensing there was a little bit more – for example products based on publishing properties.

One explanation for this slight decline could be that the bigger toy licensees are getting better at using licensed rights to the full. They take on a multi product approach to licensing which means that there are fewer opportunities for other toy companies to pick up secondary rights. Another suggestion I heard was that there is pushback on royalties. This is not necessarily linked to the principle of paying royalties rather the scale of them. I guess also there is a fad and fashion in the use and selection of licences.

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That said licensing did loom large over Olympia. One of the hot properties of the moment is Fortnite and this was showcased on a large banner above the hall. A very visual reminder that licensing and the toy industry are still closely related despite some shift in the relationship. L.O.L. Surprise is a contemporary example of a toy brand that has crossed over into the wider licensing market and is now seen as a ‘hot property’. The toy sector is and I think will always be a good source of new IP for licensing but also other industries such as TV and film.

The Toy Fair is one of those shows that quite naturally is heavily reported and commented on within the trade press and the wider media. For example I noticed a positive piece on the toy industry and Toy Fair in the Metro newspaper. This is good for toys and helpful for licensing. This is one aspect of the toy industry that we can sometimes undervalue. Toys are household items and make an impact in the wider consumer market. Good PR for licensing and licensed properties is very welcome. The Show Dailies distributed like clockwork each morning at the show and the industry awards that take part during the show are also great publicity platforms for the toy industry.

I confined my looking out to trying to see licensing being used in new and progressive ways … or just fun ways. One of the pleasures of the Toy Fair is that it is at heart a fun industry and it is nice to try some of the toys. I am always drawn to the stands that allow you to pick up and play or ones with presenters. As people said to me more than once at Olympia, I am just a big kid at heart!

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Fiesta Crafts launched a range of Roald Dahl products a couple of years ago I believe. I think this was its first venture into licensing. This seems to have worked well as it was launching a new licensed range at Olympia featuring the successful Oi! book series. The books by Jim Field and Kes Gray have been a real success in the book market. They have a very original and distinct styling. The books feature bold illustrations and bright colours giving them a strong visual identity. Good attributes for licensing.

Fiesta Crafts has launched Magnetic Activity sets covering Rhymes, Phonics and Creative Writing. The author and illustrator have worked with Fiesta to create the products which has been a great help I am sure and, of course, would help make the products even more ‘on brand’.  The books are clearly popular but they are also books that resonate with retail buyers. Fiesta Crafts mentioned that a lot of buyers instantly recognised the characters as their own children had read the books. This of course helps enormously with the sell-in. Well chosen licences from the book market can be good choices particularly for bookshops, independent retailers and department stores.

Paul Lamond Games has also picked up on this theme with a selection of book-related licences featuring on their stand including Oi! It seems very committed to this path with the products appearing under a banner declaring Paul Lamond as the place ‘Where Great Books Become Great Games’. Other brands featured include Horrible Histories, David Walliams and Roald Dahl. Book based brands and characters have a good track record in licensing, but do require some fresh thinking and I think, as Fiesta Crafts has shown, seem to work best when NPD really reflects the DNA of the books, stories and characters.

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In a similar vein I noticed that Bandai has partnered with National Geographic to create a range of activity toys. The range includes a Dino Fossil Dig Kit and a Dino Fossil Learning Guide. The National Geographic brand creates a point of difference and adds authority. It helps create a new story for Bandai and gives it a strong card to play in a proven category. The product seems to have been created in a very collaborative way with input from National Geographic. This will help with the sell-in. 27 % of the proceeds from the product sales goes to the National Geographic Society for conservation and research projects. This adds a feel good factor to purchasing. You can imagine this appealing to retailers, but also working well with consumers and possibly helping Bandai reach some new channels that wouldn’t have previously stocked its lines.

One of my favourite toys when I was growing up was Scalextric, which is now part of the Hornby Hobbies family of brands. I always like to see what Scalextric are doing and check out the latest NPD. I was interested to note that it has launched a whole raft of new products featuring licences across the family of brands which includes Hornby and Corgi as well as Scalextric. On the Scalextric side the highlight for me was the launch of a Wacky Races Scalextric track – I am sure this will prove to be popular among people like myself as it fuses two great brands in a fun and appropriate way. Hopefully it will also inspire new consumers to try Scalextric. It should generate good publicity and will open up new accounts. I imagine the Wacky Races angle will appeal to online sellers plus retailers like MenKind which are looking to offer a diverse but relevant range of products majoring on new items that have cross-generational appeal.

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The toy world is one that embraces new technology and product categories. Toys now come in all shapes and sizes – it used to be that you had to avoid the remote controlled toys being demonstrated in the aisles, now you have to look up to swerve the flying toys! It is encouraging to see that toy companies are looking to embrace new technologies and find a way of making good toys with these technologies. There is also a good awareness of lifestyle changes and influences from other industries. A product that represented this thinking well was Tonies.

Tonies are speaker boxes that are integrated with licensed character figurines and other non-licensed figures. Licensed characters it is using include The Gruffalo and The Snowman. The mini figures are mounted magnetically on the speaker box which are very stylishly finished and presented. The speaker units are covered in soft fabric so are very tactile. The characters come with their own audio content. In addition, users can upload their own content. It is a great way of re-purposing content such as audiobooks and brings characters alive in a new way. The product was launched in Germany and appears to be a great success. It is a great example of how licensing can feature in new products and should be alive to these kind of opportunities but it is worth noting that content is king with this product.

Rather like Oi! and Fiesta Crafts, a lot of thought has gone into selecting the right characters that bring an audience but also have appropriate content as well.

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Funko is a great example of a company that has used licensing well and is alive to new opportunities as new types of licensing gain traction. For example, its stand had a really good range of Fortnite Pop! vinyls. It was impressive to see that it had this range up and running with such a broad selection.

I noticed it has also adapted the standard figurines to reflect the individuality of particular characters and franchises. Game of Thrones being a great example of this. I also like the way it has developed a Pop! range that features music acts like Queen. This is a further example of how music is becoming an important part of the licensing mix. Having a range of Queen products available around the release of the Bohemian Rhapsody film was well timed.

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It was also good to see how toy companies can adapt long-standing toy franchises and match them up with appropriate licences. A great example of this was Character Options using the WWE wrestling and wrestlers in combination with the Stretch Armstrong product. Matching wrestlers with this product seems a very appropriate match up and a smart move.

Wrestling has a strong role-play and active play element – Stretch Armstrong matches these values well. Smart thinking and a good use of a licence – it literally stretches the WWE brand into more categories.

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In a similar vein I thought a range of LEGO brand storage items, such as Storage Heads, using Lego mini figures were really strong ideas. I also think it is great to see how companies such as Casdon, Wilton Bradley and Theo Klein translate brands into children’s role-play items. One item that caught my eye in particular was a Bosch-branded work station complete with a full range of ‘toy’ tools on the Theo Klein stand.

Finally, I was very impressed by the comprehensive nature of one of the ranges featured on the Funrise stand – Rainbow Butterfly Unicorn Kitty. I think this would win The Belt and Braces Award. It certainly covers most of the bases!

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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