Start Licensing’s Ian Downes reports back on some of his licensing highlights from an “enjoyable and productive” Toy Fair 2023 at London’s Olympia.
Last week I spent a very enjoyable and productive three days at the London Toy Fair. Some people query why I spend three days at the Toy Fair, but I always think it is worthwhile not least for the chats you have in the aisles with people.
The licensing and toy roads often intersect and shows like the Toy Fair really emphasise this. Rights flow from one to the other. My Toy Fair schedule is a mix of catch ups with existing licensees – particularly important when new lines are being launched – plus meetings to re-connect with old contacts and, of course, there is a value in seeing what new trends are emerging. There is also scope to meet new people and new companies.
I think overall this year’s Toy Fair was a vibrant one and exhibitors should be applauded for the quality of their stands. This was a really good showcase for the toy industry. As a visitor it is difficult to gauge success for exhibitors, but anecdotally companies I talked to were very positive and had met with a good range of retail buyers. The show can also generate PR coverage and create new marketing partnerships. My only quibble was that there are still a few stands that are closed ones and quite difficult to get onto. I appreciate some things are confidential and need to be carefully curated, but I do think we are in an age now where openness and accessibility are to be encouraged – certain lines can be kept off limits if needed but I think some companies are missing out on potential opportunities not least in areas like social media. It is always like spending five minutes on the gallery level looking down into stands I didn’t go on trying to spot what I missed – might pack my binoculars next year!
I noticed that Funko was proclaiming the message that ‘Everyone is a Fan of Something’ on the side of its stand. Fan lead toys and games were definitely part of the Toy Fair mix this year and not unexpectedly Funko is in the vanguard of fan culture. I always enjoy visiting the stand as I find it fascinating to see the direction of travel it is taking and seeing the themes it is embracing. One particular highlight was a Ted Lasso board game. This football-related series has become a big hit. It is broadcast on Apple TV and is a good example of how ‘hits’ are emerging from different platforms.
Licensing teams at companies like Funko have to have a very broad view on the market and where opportunities might emerge from. I understand Ted Lasso will also be getting Pop vinyl figures as well. Funko hasn’t stood still in product development terms either. It introduced a new alliteration of the Pop figures with the Bitty range – a smaller more micro scale figurine. One drive for this move seems to be creating new ways of collecting and displaying figurines. This range was attracting a lot of interest on the Funko stand and will be one that will lean heavily on licensed properties.
The product mix in toy and game retail is changing as well in part as more fan and pop culture properties make an impact. In response to this companies like Abysse which markets products such as collectible figurines, prints and posters was exhibiting at Toy Fair. The Toy Fair is a great opportunity for it to build the reach in the toy retail market and also helps build relationships with more specialist retailers. Abysse’s product mix also shows how genres like anime and manga are gaining traction. Like many companies Abysse has also recognised that it needs to find ways to make it easier for retailers to display and sell their products – with this in mind their stand included branded FSDUs.
Other companies like Playmobil have embraced the manga, anime and comic genres underpinning the fact that these sorts of properties are now more mainstream ones. Playmobil had a Naruto Shippuden range and was also showcasing a new range of Asterix figurines. It was also interesting to see companies like Warhammer exhibiting at the show. Again reinforcing the strength of brands like this in the toy category and a further reminder that successful IP can emerge in different ways.
Click Distribution is a company which has always had a strong handle on collectables, crazes and pop culture. It is good to see it going from strength to strength which underpins how this category is growing. A big part of its collectables business is centred around football and specifically Panini. Click was showcasing Panini’s ranges including the Premier League 2023 collection – seemingly these collections are continuing to grow in popularity and repeat purchase products like these offer retailers great opportunities to build a rapport with customers. They also display well in-store.
Football was definitely a theme that ran throughout the Toy Fair with a range of companies dipping into the football pool to create ranges. These include companies like FOCO which is a go to supplier for a lot of football related merchandise through to Funko which has a range of footballers in the POP collections. It was also interesting to see that women’s football was part of the mix reinforcing the growing profile for women’s football. I noticed that Winning Moves had Top Trumps and Monopoly products featuring the England Lionesses team. Indeed it featured these on the side of the stand giving them more prominence.
In all industries new companies are always welcome not least to help things grow and kickstart new thinking. With this thought in mind it was good to see relatively new company ToyTopic seemingly thriving at the show.
It is a young company which is using licensing to help build the business and is a great example to point to in regards to the potential of licensing to help businesses grow.
From my own perspective, it is always satisfying to help companies develop and licensing to their product mix.
At Toy Fair this year licensee Paper Engine launched its range of Aardman Build Your Own card construction kits. I cold called Paper Engine around 15 months ago and it was really pleasing to see it launch the range at the Toy Fair. Items in the range include Wallace & Gromit’s Rocket plus The Wrong Trousers – full marks to Paper Engine for its wonderful stand and for adding some fun theatre to proceedings. It used a pair of The Wrong Trousers to create an on-stand photo opportunity. This worked really well for it, attracting interest and engagement. It is good to see a new to licensing company really embracing the opportunity and also not being afraid to have fun at the show.
One of Paper Engine’s products was picked as one of the Toy Fair Hero Toys. This is a great initiative by the show organisers and a great way of shining a light on products. From a personal perspective it was good to see Big Potato Games’ Obey The Clay game in this list as well – this innovative game uses Aardman and their portfolio of characters in a really fun and ‘on brand’ way.
A couple of categories of toys that seem to use licensing very well are role-play and ride-ons. Companies like Klein feature a broad range of brands under licence to create really authentic role-play ranges. Brands in the range include Bosch, Weber, Miele and Braun. Ranges like this are really noteworthy examples of licensing and are maybe overlooked at times in regards to case studies for licensing.
It was also interesting to see how companies like Wilton Bradley are using automotive licences to develop high-end products in the ride-in category. It is working with brands like BMW, Range Rover, Land Rover and Mercedes-Benz to create high spec ride in products. It has used licensing well and created products that are embraced by high-end brands. Again a good case study to point to in terms of the potential licensing offers manufacturers and brands.
It was also good to see my client Nadiya Hussain’s Bake Me A Story cooking and baking kits prominently displayed on the Wilton Bradley stand. This range is now entering its fourth year. It is a great example of how role-play as a category can embrace different ideas and styles plus the fact that licensing can be a long-term proposition. Sometimes we can all be guilty of looking for instant hits and returns from licensing, but there is a lot to be said for licensing becoming a long-term component of a licensee’s portfolio.
Returning to vehicles and how ride ons are using licensing. It was interesting to see Razor featuring an off road ride on bike the SX350 McGrath developed under licence from supercross rider Jeremy McGrath who is apparently the ‘winningest’ rider of all time in motocross. The bike, suitable for 13+, was an authentic representation of McGrath’s bike and a really good example of taking an authentic approach to NPD in licensing. This product was also a good example of a company like Razor seeking out a licensing opportunity that creates a real point of difference and one that really resonates with consumers in the category.
I would also give a shout out to TV personality Stephen Mulhern. I spotted him on the Asmodee stand promoting the board game of his hit TV show Catchphrase. In itself a reminder that TV game shows can be a great starting point for licensed product ranges especially boardgames. Also well done to Asmodee for getting Stephen along to Toy Fair to help promote the product.
Having visitors like Stephen at the show adds interest, fun and engagement. It is worth making the effort. But also saying what I saw I think Stephen has another career ahead of him if he needs it – as a toy seller – I eavesdropped on him explaining Catchphrase the programme and game to a couple of visitors who weren’t familiar with it. He did it expertly with enthusiasm and clarity. A great example of a brand ambassador in action.
I think Toy Fair 23 was a good show overall and one that seemed to be received positively. It was certainly a good showcase for licensing and a reminder that licensing can be used in lots of different ways. Indeed different types of brands can be used if carefully curated. I actually got a further reminder of this when buying my lunch from Olympia’s Plant Food Kitchen. Not sure if this café is a permanent feature or just for Veganuary, but it is a welcome addition to the food choices at Olympia. Furthermore I was able to buy a Quorn sandwich – I am pretty sure this was a licensed sandwich and a really great example of brand licensing in action. That said as my lunch companion commented it was maybe time to switch off from looking out for licensing and just enjoy what was an excellent sandwich!
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.