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“We’ve created great stories with products and brands that add something to the world” chats to Jalil Rahman, director of licensing and brand partnerships at Liberty, ahead of his panel session at BLE next month on how purpose breeds success.

How does Liberty fit into the licensing ecosystem?

Liberty has been around just under 150 years. Prior to me joining the company it really hadn’t engaged in licensing, rather in co-creative partnerships with the likes of Acne Studios using Liberty fabric.

In 2016, I got a phone call from a head-hunter who told me there was an English classic brand. that had new ownership and was planning to do something new. I asked who it was, and when he said Liberty, my response was – and forgive my language – “I want that f**king job!”.

I was told the new owner wanted to kickstart Liberty as a global brand but didn’t know how to do it, so, I presented my plan to the chairman twice, and once more to the managing director. I got the job, but the chairman said to me, ‘I don’t know if you’re a golden boy or full of BS, but we’ll soon find out.’ I get that, they hadn’t done licensing before and were worried I would bastardise the brand and dilute its equity. And of course, that’s not the world of licensing as we know it.

My first step was to terminate deals. One licensing partner in particular was manufacturing single use paper cups. How does that fit with being sustainable and minimising our carbon footprint? That product doesn’t have a reason for existing, so the partnership was terminated.

One of our first deals was a project with a reusable bottle company, whose mission is to remove single use plastic and make people more aware about minimising carbon footprint. We signed a three-year partnership and did a launch project with Starbucks. We sold 300,000 bottles in six weeks.

That result validated to the chairman that licensing can work for Liberty; that we can use this rich history of Liberty’s print design and its archive of 55,000 prints in a modern way and retain brand protection, and also connect to culture and communities.

A lot of what you’ve said already ties back to the panel at BLE, which is about how to achieve success through purpose. I love that idea of not making products that have no reason to exist and that’s the essence of purpose, isn’t it?

Exactly. What’s interesting is everybody asks why I’m doing what I’m doing. I haven’t been hired to bring in revenue. Because if I was, I could get deals with everybody. I’m a curator. I find deals that fulfil the criteria that I’ve set and balances the result between strong brand awareness and enhanced reputation, and  commercial return.

I could bring in a deal that isn’t worth a lot of money but tells a great story about how our brand is evolving; one that connects new communities and audiences. Thanks to great management, I’ve been able to succeed in a space that was originally not just rejected, but completely ignored. We’ve been able to create great stories with products and brands that add something to the world.

So, what kind of deals have you done over the last five years?

One of my favourites is with Faber & Faber. They are one of the last remaining independent UK publishing houses. This was never going to be a million-pound earner but that was never the point. Our deal is to create bespoke prints that connect to the author’s literature. We also apply a Liberty fabric base onto the book giving customers a tactile experience.

We are an English institution. We’ve been around since 1875. And it’s important to connect back to other institutions that are specialists in what they do. I’ve enjoyed every minute of our time working with them to create very beautiful products that tell our story and celebrate the work of the author.

I’m very proud of our summer campaign with Puma that allowed us to tell a really rich story about women in sports and celebrate women performers.

My third favourite was a project we did with Microsoft in 2019. Microsoft was founded in 1975. We were founded in 1875. So, there’s 100-year gap between us. When they were moving into Regent Street to open their flagship UK store, we connected, and our artists created a series of five or six bespoke prints that adorn the Surface range of laptops and PCs. They were then auctioned off for charity and all of the money went to local charities in the neighbourhood.

If we talk about the licensing industry specifically, what do you think are the biggest challenges it’s facing? Is it sustainability?

Yeah, for sure. We ask ourselves are we creating products that have meaning behind them, are we doing enough? It’s not a bad thing to create plush toys or plastic toys, but at least question your supply chain and make sure you are working with the right partners, using modern materials, producing minimal waste, and so on. Everybody can contribute in a small way, whether it’s making sure your factory, or your partners, are adhering to certain guidelines or you’re creating products that have purpose and meaning.

How do you remain competitive and stay ahead of trends?

Our history. I tell colleagues we are only custodians of the Liberty business, and what we’re doing now is to allow future colleagues to continue the artistic movement that’s meant to create great products and allow loads of people to experience it.

I hope to keep the Liberty business and the Liberty brands respected and admired in the world of the wider product world. I owe it to our past colleagues to protect the Liberty brand and create great products.

Why are you looking forward to speaking at BLE?

Because it’s always nice to be in a room where people don’t hate licensing and are actually respectful of what we do because I’m constantly trying to say to people. ‘Listen, this is not going to ruin our brand, we’re not going to undo 150 years of goodwill by doing this. It’s a great product and it’s a great project.’ So yeah, I’m so looking forward to being in a room with like-minded people who actually realise the power of licensing and who create magic in their own respective world.

Brand Licensing Europe runs from 20-22 September at London’s ExCeL. Visitor registration is open and can be completed via this link.

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