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We have to keep the faith… it’s this week’s Licensing Lookout

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes on why the value of licensing will still be recognised by retailers and strike a chord with consumers.

It certainly doesn’t feel a lot like Christmas mood wise at the moment, but retailers are gearing up for the festive season. Christmas ranges, promotions and catalogues are being launched daily. Although for some this is against a backdrop of job losses and financial shortfalls. It must be hard going working in retail at the moment. Retail is a challenging place at the best of times, but clearly there are even more challenges at the moment. Hopefully licensed products can help retailers to drive sales at the moment. We certainly know that licensed brands bring an audience and can motivate consumers.

Licensing is a business that relies on consumer spending and we have to take encouragement from the fact that retailers are still proactively gearing up for Christmas. In turn, we have to hope that consumers are starting to buy into Christmas. Companies are approaching their Christmas offers in different ways and I sense that for many retailers this Christmas, they will be hoping for a sales uplift to help them plug a gap revenue wise.

Against this challenging backdrop, I have noticed that there are some interesting things going on licensing wise.

TruffleShuffle's Christmas jumper line-up includes Rocky and The Beatles this year.
TruffleShuffle's Christmas jumper line-up includes Rocky and The Beatles this year.

I received an email update from online retailer TruffleShuffle this week. As well as working with it as a licensee, I am a customer of Truffleshuffle so am on the mailing list. It is a very proactive company in terms of digital marketing and engage with its customers regularly in an interesting way.

This week it has focused on a selection of Christmas sweaters and other Christmas lines. It is a great selection and includes a number of licensed brands that I was surprised to see in the line-up, but design and theme wise seem to work well in this product category.

TruffleShuffle’s Christmas sweater line-up includes some usual suspects such as Harry Potter and Star Wars, but it was nice to see some other brands featuring. TruffleShuffle was promoting sweaters featuring The Beatles and Rocky. It was also interesting to see innovation on brands like Harry Potter with light up jumpers. All of these rely on an artwork bank that suits the Christmas theme and a willingness by the rights holder to be featured in this space. Rights owners are being pressed for more thematic artwork these days to open up opportunities at retail, but it is also good to see companies like TruffleShuffle coming to the table with fresh ideas and giving retail space to some different brands.

Next has just issued its New Collections brochure. This is a chunky catalogue which is sent out to mail order customers. It works in conjunction with the stores and the online offering. Dated November 2020, it includes Christmas products. Flicking through the catalogue in an unscientific way two things struck me: one was that licensed products feature in a relatively low level way and within that the Disney stable is dominant.

The former point may be explained by the retailer’s desire not to rely on licensing and a feeling that licensing only suits certain parts of its offer. The second point is a reflection on Disney’s efficiency in selling in to retail coupled with its portfolio – it has built a formidable portfolio that ticks many boxes. For a retailer it is providing a one stop solution for licensing.

Next has some variety in its Christmas t-shirt selection for men.
Next has some variety in its Christmas t-shirt selection for men.

Next was also featuring Christmas sweaters: a number of these used classic Disney Christmas artwork. One message Next was pitching was Family Christmas. Within this theme it was offering sets of women’s, men’s and kid’s matching jumpers with design themes such as Mickey and Minnie Mouse backed up with Christmas/winter design themes. This theming stretched to other brands such as Star Wars as well. This sort of design theming may be quite labour intensive for Disney, but the investment is rewarded with retail placements. In the menswear section there was a bit of variety in the Christmas t-shirts with Guinness, Snoopy, Coca-Cola and Elf featuring. That said Star Wars, classic Disney and The Simpsons were also in the line-up.

In childrenswear, Disney featured strongly alongside a number of other licences including gaming brands such as Sonic and Mario.

Emma Willis models her own range in the latest Next catalogue.
Emma Willis models her own range in the latest Next catalogue.

Next also uses fashion brands to top up its offer – you can buy brands such as Barbour, Joules, Superdry and Ted Baker. These apparel offers are blended with other ranges, such as Ted Baker jewellery which I presume operate under licence.

In addition, Next taps into the celebrity brand market with an apparel collection presented by media personality Emma Willis. Emma features in the catalogue modelling her own range. Next also seems to have gone heavier on personalised products and also pet products, but without a licensing overlay.

Other featured brands that I spotted include Xbox, Minecraft and PlayStation on a page presented as Gifts for Gamers. LEGO also had a strong presence with a Harry Potter LEGO play-set offer running over two pages.

Friends was a licensing bright spot in this boxed and party games offer in Sainsbury's Godalming.
Friends was a licensing bright spot in this boxed and party games offer in Sainsbury's Godalming.

Given the extent of the Next catalogue I suppose it was a surprise that licensing didn’t appear to play a stronger hand. With this thought in mind I popped into Sainsbury’s in Godalming to check out its Christmas gifting aisles. I was there on a Sunday morning.

I was surprised that there wasn’t a lot of licensed ranges on offer in the aisle that I visited – again I have to caveat this by saying I may have missed parts of the store and displays. The only licensed brand I spotted in one section of the store which was focused on boxed and party games was Friends. The rest of the products on offer seemed to be non-licensed.

I was also surprised to see quite a few empty shelves in store – this may be due to stock changeovers, but it did make me wonder if there were any supply issues.

Love Actually featured in the nightwear offering in Sainsbury's.
Love Actually featured in the nightwear offering in Sainsbury's.

In other parts of the store there was a good licensing presence. I had a quick look in the toy area and saw a Peppa Pig branded pop up display delivered in by Character Options, while in the apparel section there were some great examples of licensing. Christmas wise, the My First Christmas theme featured strongly with Peter Rabbit being one of the brands featured. It was also interesting to see Love Actually featuring in the nightwear offering.

Another theme that I spotted was the use of flocking and soft fabrics on garments to create a cute finish in nightwear – a couple of examples caught my eye from Disney with Thumper and 101 Dalmatians products. Again, a reminder that a commitment to design is a crucial component in licensing and a great aid in achieving retail engagement. It was also noteworthy to see gaming characters to the fore in the kids apparel category with characters like Sonic the Hedgehog being prominent.

A Peppa Pig pop up display had been delivered in by Character Options.
A Peppa Pig pop up display had been delivered in by Character Options.

These are clearly tough times for us all. From a licensing perspective I think we have to keep the faith and believe that the value of licensing will be recognised by retailers and that licensed products will strike a chord with consumers. A commitment to fresh design, staying on trend and looking to innovate will all help. I also think this is a moment to build on your relationships and business networks. Let’s try to pick up the phone and chat to each other over the next few weeks.

I was encouraged by the Festival of Licensing and the way it brought people together. In fact this week I have had my first follow up meetings from the Festival. It has helped me create some momentum in my business. I hope to be able to carry this on over the next few weeks.

I hope to see some of you at The B&LLAs next week (Monday November 9) – this is another good opportunity for the industry to get together and talk. And wear a Christmas jumper if you want!

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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