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The Licensing Lookout: Youthful opinions

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes sees licensing through the eyes of a work experience student this week.

I had some very welcome help looking out this week. I have been accompanied by 17 year old Saul, a work experience student, throughout the week. One immediate benefit has been that it has  saved me money as I haven’t been able to pop into the bookies. Unless Licensing Lad won the 3.30pm at Kempton in which case it cost me money!

It was really refreshing to see licensing through younger eyes and also to get some ‘youth’ insight. Hosting a work experience student is a small way of helping younger people and also showcasing the world of licensing as a potential career path. I would recommend it and have always found it a rewarding experience. I have also ‘volunteered’ in schools in a number of ways including offering careers advice, talking about comics and being a Governor. I would recommend volunteering like this to others – it is a great way of giving back but also staying in touch with a generation that are important to licensing.

We started the week with a retail tour along Oxford Street.

Our first port of call was The Disney Store. As it turned out Disney was to prove to be a recurring retail theme.

The Disney Store is – as you would expect – a well presented store with lots of retailtainment including a ‘glass’ Princess coach. Ideal for photo opportunities and social media sharing. The shop has friendly staff who know the store and products well. Product wise the shop seems to blend licensed products and store exclusives. In the latter category, a range of London-themed products reflect the fact that the shop is a tourist destination.

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A couple of highlights for me were the Funko Pop! vinyl wall – Funko has a comprehensive Disney range and has mined the archive well. An example of this is a Tron figurine. Saul didn’t recognise the character or film. I did. Clearly an age thing. But a reminder that there are some pop culture gems in Disney’s archive.

Funko is also showing a real commitment to retail display and product availability. This being a further example of its ‘wall of vinyl’ approach to retailing.

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A further highlight was Disney’s plush offer. It had a dedicated space in store for plush which included a broad range of characters under the banner ‘Who’s Your Favourite Character?’ with Dumbo cleverly placed in the ‘o’ of Your. The display allowed Disney to include a broad range of characters and, rather like the Funko range, explore the depth of the archive. The display encourages impulse purchase. It is also a clever way of testing the appeal of secondary characters.

To Disney’s credit, it also mixes traditional products well with contemporary products. A good example of the latter category was a range of Disney x Garmin activity trackers using characters like Minnie Mouse.

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We also visited Debenhams. Our focus here was much more on the branded apparel side of Debenhams’ business, but we spotted a number of Disney products in-store.

A really good example of brand licensing in Debenhams was a range of Caterpillar ‘CAT’ footwear including shoes and boots. The range was supported by showcards and wood effect displays which set off the product well.

In terms of me giving Saul an insight into the potential that licensing brings brand owners, the Cat footwear range was a great case study. From construction vehicles to footwear – seems quite a leap but when put into a brand context it makes sense. Of course, the CAT footwear range seems to be a big success and well established. I am guessing some consumers see it as a footwear brand rather than a construction vehicle brand.

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We popped into Uniqlo. A store group with its origins in Japan, Uniqlo is a store I like to visit as I like the way it uses licences and licensing. It seems to dip in but in a strategic way seeking designs and partnerships that resonate globally and offer a point of difference. Currently it is running a range of t-shirts featuring artists and artwork from the likes of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. I believe this is the second time it has worked with these artists. It is a great outlet for art licensing and refreshing to see some new designs on mass market t-shirts.

Of course, Disney was in-store as well – this time with a nice range of Mickey Mouse t-shirts using a pencil sketch illustration style. Using a design like this allows Uniqlo to tap into the pulling power of Disney, but also deliver an original design treatment.

We also visited Foot Locker. A licensing highlight here was the ground floor ‘shop in shop’ dedicated to the NBA. The shop was well stocked with team wear such as vests and caps, but was all set in a space that resembled a basketball court. A very effective way of bringing a sports brand alive in-store. Foot Locker was also carrying some very interesting ‘collab’ apparel ranges. One highlight was a ‘collab’ between Pepsi Cola and PUMA. The way it used the iconic Pepsi logo in a repeat pattern was very effective.

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We also popped into another footwear specialist, Schuh. It was actually some Disney backpacks that caught our eye here. A ‘collab’ with footwear brand VANS included backpacks for Minnie and Mickey Mouse. The design was distinctive and stood out, but also had the potential to appeal across age groups. It was a functional item made cute and fashionable. The Minnie backpack included an ‘add on’ bow.

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A quick visit to Top Man confirmed how important music is now to the fast fashion apparel market – in the case of Top Man it was featuring artists like Snoop Dog, Eminem, Ice Cube and the Notorious Big. From chatting to Saul, it is clear that music and music brands appeal to teenagers but in some cases they are not aware of the history of the band or the artiste – it seems design appeal is important. I guess for the music merchandising companies selling items like t-shirts is a way of connecting a new generation to roster artistes. I was also interested to see Top Shop selling items such as stationery and greetings cards plus hosting food concessions. I guess they want to keep customers in-store and cross sell to them.

Our final retail call was Primark and I was able to show Saul the dedicated Harry Potter ‘shop in shop’ concept which seems to go from strength to strength. Harry Potter seems to be a property that works across generations and has ‘tourist’ appeal which makes it attractive to Primark in the context of its Oxford Street store. Warner Bros. seems to have also invested in fresh and new design work. A retailer like Primark is design hungry and it is important to be able to match its needs with a regular flow of topical designwork.

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Saul made an interesting observation while we were in Primark. He explained that as a 17 year old he is quite careful about what licensed apparel he buys and wears. In terms of character licensing he is wary of wearing a t-shirt that might feature a character that features on younger age garments, but wouldn’t be so concerned about the same character featuring on items such as socks, boxers or sleepwear. This is also partly influenced by peer pressure. It is an interesting observation and one I have heard before – there is clearly a ‘teen age’ where younger consumers switch off from ‘outdoor character apparel’ but, as other parts of Primark show, they also switch back on in t-shirt terms. There were lots of adult t-shirts featuring character brands, FMCG brands, music brands and gaming brands. Of course, Disney looms large in Primark. The retailer also sells lots of non-apparel products and work the ‘pick up’ item opportunity well with items like lip balms and hand sanitiser to the fore.

I have found it helpful to have a younger set of eyes helping me look out this week and also joining me in meetings. Two of the meetings that I have had this week which Saul attended have been connected to online and social media activity. Saul was able to give me some great insight into these worlds based on his daily media consumption. Very helpful, but also a reminder that as an industry we have to be mindful of ‘new’ opportunities and emerging platforms.

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We also visited the fascinating Museum of Brands in Notting Hill. The Museum is a showcase on ‘packaging and products’ told through a timeline of products, adverts and memorabilia. It was fascinating to see how some products and brands have evolved over time and how brand identities have developed over the years.

It was also nice for me to be able show Saul some products I had actually been involved in licensing – for example a range of Zig & Zag products (Google them) … but not so nice when you realise they were in the market at least ten years before your ‘work experience’ student was born…

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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