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‘We don’t stifle innovation, we inspire it’

BLE’s Anna Knight on the ‘mutually respectful’ relationship between licensing and toys.

One down, three to go. With Hong Kong over, the 2018 toy fair season is well and truly underway. London takes place this week followed by Spielwarenmesse in Nuremberg at the end of January and New York in mid-Feb.

Toy Fair (the British one, that is) is 74 this year. If ever you needed proof the toy industry is going nowhere, there you have it. Not that we ever presumed it was going anywhere. As much as we’re constantly told that Generation Z are controlled by their phones, kids are still playing with toys. So much so, the UK industry grew by almost 7% in 2016, finally creeping over the £3.5 billion** mark for the first time after seemingly plateauing at £3.2 billion for what seemed like forever. On top of that, the British birth rate may be in decline, but the storks are still dropping 750,000*** new toy consumers on to this island each year so the chances of us running out of buyers any time soon are negligible.

When it comes to toys and licensing, the two industries have had a long-established relationship. It may not have started as a full-blown love affair. There were whispers that ‘they’ saw ‘us’ as a bit of a cocky newcomer, a second-rate cousin, that we were ‘stifling innovation’. But I think it’s fair to say, those feelings have generally blown over, and our relationship has matured to one of mutual respect. After all, we need and feed each other quite nicely.

In the last few years – peaking in 2015 – licensed sales were very much responsible for driving the growth of the toy market. While the toy industry’s value was creeping up slowly and steadily between 3% and 6% YOY, the licensed toy market rocketed by over 12% that year, representing 28% of all toy sales**.

Similarly, toys play an equally important role in licensing. Second only to apparel and with a global value of $35 billion, toys currently represent 13% of the licensing market. In the UK licensing industry, the toy category is currently valued at just under $3 billion*.

But, hold it there for a second. Let me drag you back to the comment about ‘stifling innovation’ and address that. It’s easy to see where that accusation comes from. Buying into a successful – or soon to be successful – movie, TV or book licence, can seem like the simple and safe option compared to investing in the creation of new IP, which could just as easily fail as it be the next big thing. And the brand guidelines that come with licences can often seem crazily restrictive when it comes to creativity, too.

But, let’s just consider for a moment, that 63,400** brand new toy lines were launched in the UK in 2016, up by over 3,000 on the previous year. And brand owners are seemingly falling over themselves for licensees and designers to be more creative and innovative with their IP. Toy and game design body Mojo Nation, for example, has held a series of workshops for brands recently including The Gruffalo and Rubik’s Cube to introduce them to new minds with new ideas and the talent to inject creativity into their IP, and they have welcomed them with open arms and been bowled over by their ingenuity.

And, if innovation in the toy industry really was being killed off by licensing – which I think we’ve established it hasn’t – how come Toy Fair’s exhibitors will launch thousands upon thousands of new toys and the media, retailers, licensees and licensors will, once again, flock to Olympia, Nuremberg and New York to find out what’s new?

I’ll be at London Toy Fair on Wednesday, by the way, do stop me and say hello.

* LIMA
** NPD/BTHA
*** ONS

Anna Knight is brand director for Brand Licensing Europe, which takes place from October 9-11 at London’s Olympia.

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