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Licensing lookout from Start Licensing’s Ian Downes

Countdown starts for BLE as licensing expert shares PG Live takeaways


It may only be June but the countdown for the Brand Licensing Europe trade show has already begun and, although the show is still over three months away, there’s plenty to think about for the greetings industry.

At this year’s trade show, where there will be celebrations for the 25th anniversary of BLE, more than 150 exhibitors from across the licensing industry are already signed up for the 24-26 September event.

And Ian Downes, founder of licensing agency Start Licensing, has been making the connection between BLE and last week’s PG Live as licensing is a key part of the greeting card world.

Above: Ian Downes took a lot from his visit to PG Live
Above: Ian Downes took a lot from his visit to PG Live

“I studied the shops very carefully on my walk from Angel tube station to the Business Design Centre last week, the venue for Progressive Greetings Live trade show – the signature show for the UK greeting cards industry.

“My short walk reinforced the point of how widespread and varied the distribution of greeting cards is. Just on this five-minute stroll I saw seven or eight shops that sold cards. These ranged from specialists like Scribbler through to charity shops like Oxfam. On the one hand I imagine this level of retail engagement is very welcome by card companies, but on the other hand it creates issues around distribution, pricing, market positioning and design.

“Licensing plays a fulsome part in the greeting cards market with lots of card publishers featuring licensed designs on their cards, while a number of card brands have found success in the licensing market. The licensing-in side of the card market is in itself quite diverse with a mix of rights featuring, including those licensed directly by artists through to globally-recognised brands like Disney.

Above: BLE and PG Live have a big licensing connection
Above: BLE and PG Live have a big licensing connection

“The business of greeting cards varies in scale, design and business model. It’s a specialist business which has its own quirks and intricacies, but is one that in overall terms is a licensing-friendly one.

“PG Live presents the industry and the players within it in a very focused way. Shows being more focused seems to be a recurring theme these days – it seems to be the way forward, with exhibitors and visitors appreciating the fact that shows are being carefully curated. This optimises exhibitors’ and visitors’ time.

“From my perspective it was a good show to visit and the exhibitors I spoke to seemed very positive about things. Clearly, we’re in challenging times but there did seem to be business being done at the show.

“As an aside, I do think exhibitors at trade shows sometimes miss a trick by not offering more show deals to encourage retailers to place orders at the show. I noticed Rainbow Designs had a well-communicated show offer on its stand – I’m sure other exhibitors did as well.

Above: The ticket system is much prized by retailers and exhibitors
Above: The ticket system is much prized by retailers and exhibitors

The organisers also run a Golden, Silver and Sunshine Ticket scheme which gives retailers featured in The Retas Awards an opportunity to use the tickets to buy product from exhibitors. I saw a number of exhibitors proudly displaying the tickets they’d received from buyers.

“I think there’s a lot to be said for making the most of being an exhibitor at a trade exhibition and show offers is one way of creating further engagement – I’m now starting to think of what offer I can create for Brand Licensing Europe where Start Licensing is an exhibitor!

“Back to the show floor – licensing and greeting cards are close companions and this was certainly emphasised at PG Live this year.

BLE Countdown pic 5“I saw on LinkedIn that Danilo’s md Daniel Prince was full of praise for the show and it was good to see the company there. It’s a card and calendar publisher which has used licensing to build its portfolio and I imagine for many retail buyers is a go to company for licensed ranges.

“It’s worth noting that it hasn’t stood still in regards to the product development and formats featured in its ranges. It is always good to see licensees progressing things from a design and format perspective.

“Danilo (right) has also built up ranges in different areas of licensing, reflecting the changes from where successful licensing opportunities emerge. A good example is its work with football clubs and national football teams. It was showcasing a range of cards featuring the likes of England, Chelsea, and Manchester United.

“I’m sure the clubs and national federations like working with Danilo to develop a range of official cards as this helps them deliver authentic products for fans. I often see football-themed cards that feature unofficial art and artwork based on real players. I realise there are challenges and costs around player rights, but I think most fans would want to buy an official product – Danilo has made good use of the available assets and its football range is a great example of how new categories in licensing can be nurtured with careful management.

BLE Countdown pic 6

“Another good example of the nurturing approach to licensing and a licensed brand could be found on Cardology‘s stand (left). One of the licensed brands it works with is Battersea Dogs & Cats Home – the range includes pop-up cards, Christmas cards and everyday cards. It’s a licence the publisher has held for some time and is an example of how ranges can grow over time. It’s good to see licensees buying into the concept of developing ranges and investing in bespoke design.

“Cardology has developed pop-up cards which add a new dynamic to a range and make good use of the licence. The licence is also a great example of how charity brands are gaining a foothold in the licensing market as they’ve recognised licensing is a new fundraising platform and also a way of connecting with the public – licensed products can also be a great way of getting a core message across from a charity. Of course, it helps in the case of Battersea that it features on an ITV series!

“I think to succeed in licensing, charities have to find an angle that allows them to compete with other brands in the market and then package that up for licensees to be able to use creatively – the publisher’s Battersea card range is a good example of how licensed products and licensing can help tell a charity’s story.

“It was also interesting to hear from Cardology’s co-founder David Falkner about his role in the Greeting Card Association’s #cardmitment campaign which is lobbying the government around issues connected to Royal Mail and an ongoing review by industry regulator Ofcom of postal services.

“It is a reminder that licensing is connected with a range of industries dealing with issues that impact them far beyond retail listings. Perhaps sometimes we need to reflect on ways that licensing plc can get involved in issues like this which will have an impact on an important licensing category.

“Sticking with charities, there were several examples of card ranges and greetings companies which have created collections in association with charities or with the intention of helping charities.

BLE Countdown pic 7“Brilliantly Brave (right) was one that caught my eye in particular. It has created a range of cards that are bright, colourful and contemporary – the strapline reads ‘transforming well-wishes into wellbeing one card, one course, one life at a time’ and is using profits from the sale of the cards to fund wellbeing and mental health initiatives in the community.

“It’s good to see this sort of initiative being undertaken by card publishers and is also interesting to note that Brilliantly Brave has ambitions in licensing. I can definitely see the designs translating well to licensed products. This underpins the fact that card designs and ranges can jump across from greetings to other product categories.

“Greeting card retailers come in all shapes and sizes now with, of course, a crossover into areas like gifting, so it was no surprise to see the likes of Rainbow Designs (below left) exhibiting at PG Live, showcasing ranges like the Paddington plush toys.

BLE Countdown pic 8

“Retailers are keen to build ranges across categories these days and by being at the show Rainbow Designs had the chance to tap into that trend. It was also interesting to see Rainbow Designs showcase branded fsdus which I’ve seen being used in retail at the moment as retailers look to maximise space and, in this context, licensing can score well delivering some in-store theatre in a simple but effective way. Rainbow Design’s Paddington fsdu would certainly have high impact in retail.

“It was also interesting to see how companies have built product ranges around cards. Coach House Publishing mixes licensed and non-licensed lines and was exhibiting a range that included cards, notebooks, jigsaw puzzles and construction kits with designs focusing on sports, cars, trains and hobbies.

BLE Countdown pic 9“It has licences with the likes of Brooklands Museum and the London Transport Museum, and tops these up with deals with artists – a recent new release is a range based on the iconic Bluebird car and boat where it has worked with illustrator Mick Hill.

“Coach House works with a range of retailers including specialist outlets such as museum shops – a supplier that can deliver in a readymade range of products is an attractive proposition here.

“Another example is Hype Cards (below left) – it has a broad range of licences in its portfolio including Aardman, The Beano and Snoopy acrossranges including standard cards, mini-cards, giftwrap and button badges.

“Hype has developed compact counter-top selling boxes for the badges which take up little space and give retailers a readymade impulse sales opportunity – some shops are tight for space and welcome clever solutions to help them sell more.

BLE Countdown pic 10“Hype’s Paula Ford explained she’d attended a business seminar a while ago where designer Sebastian Conran was the headline speaker, and she recalled him advising manufacturers and retailers to think about consumers’ itchy wallet, meaning when in a shop consumers are often keen to buy or add to their main purchase. Button badges sold at till points are a perfect cure for itchy wallet syndrome!

Carousel Calendars has also expanded its product offering to include notebooks, in part to create more international opportunities and bolster the product offer for retailers. Of course, it also helps the company be in the market beyond the calendar season, and licensing is playing its role in this expansion with licensed ranges like New York Botanical Garden, Kilted Yoga and Bree Merryn.

“It was also interesting to note that Carousel’s product included a call out to the fact that it had been nominated for a Best Sustainable Product in the Licensing Awards, with a further reference to Products Of Change. It’s good to see a licensee embracing and using their nomination to call out their credentials.

BLE Countdown pic 11

“Carousel (right) is also very direct about its efforts in regard to being an environmentally responsible company, providing details of its commitments and actions in this area in its catalogue, as well as explaining how it’s making reductions in its use of plastic. Good to see and to read but also, I’m sure, something Carousel finds helpful in its retail pitches.

“All in all from my perspective a very worthwhile show, not least as it gave me an opportunity to see a lot of product and take note of how some companies are adding to their product capabilities.

“When I first started in licensing, licensees were generally single-product companies but this is clearly not the case now. Likewise, I think companies are more inclined to look for sales opportunities beyond their traditional core area, not least as the shape of retail is changing. Licensees, agents and rights holders have to be more flexible and maybe less traditional in their thinking.

BLE Countdown pic 12“To emphasise how new opportunities can emerge in a category like greeting cards, I called into a WHSmith (left) after PG Live and noticed it was promoting Thank You Teacher cards next to the self-checkout area. This is a small example of how new occasions and opportunities are emerging.

“Licensing needs to be market savvy and alert to new opportunities. Shows like PG Live help with this by keeping us in touch with the market, with trends and, most importantly, people.

“Also, actions speak louder than words sometimes – since PG Live less than a week ago I have written and sent three greeting cards!”

Ian Downes runs Start Licensing, an independent brand licensing agency. His X handle is @startlicensing and on Instagram he is @iandownesphotos.

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