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Licensing lookout: Playing your cards right

Ian Downes of Start Licensing was looking about at PG Live


Licensing is now big business on the greeting card front and it was very much part of this year’s just-finished PG Live show.

Here Ian Downes, something of a licensing guru with many years of experience who now runs independent licensing agency Start Licensing, talks about what he found during his very productive visit to the Business Design Centre this week…

Above: Ian Downes on stage at the recent Gift Awards, where Start Licensing was a sponsor
Above: Ian Downes on stage at the recent Gift Awards, where Start Licensing was a sponsor

“Greetings! Though I’m a South Londoner, I do have a soft spot for this part of London and always welcome a reason to visit. PG Live is now well established in the greeting cards industry and provides a focused forum for the sector.

Licensing PG Live Pic 3“It’s a very welcoming show – indeed, there are greeters on the doors bedecked in greeting cards who usher you in. I was thrilled to spot that our client Kendra Dandy’s Bouffants & Broken Hearts cards from UK Greetings featured on one of the outfits (pictured left). A fun and effective way of showcasing some of the exhibitors’ cards.

“The show is very visitor friendly and busts the myth that there is no such thing as a free lunch – because there is at PG Live! It’s a nice touch, helping to create a networking friendly show environment as visitors and exhibitors catch up over lunch.

“Licensing featured throughout the show and, of course, greeting cards is one of those sectors where licensing rights flow both ways. There are quite a few examples of greeting cards brands spawning successful licensing programmes – three great examples being Forever Friends from Hallmark, UKG’s Boofle and Carte Blanche’s Me To You, which all featured at the show.

“Here is my PG Live Five – five things that I spotted that I thought were noteworthy… there were undoubtedly more but six doesn’t rhyme with live as well as five!

Licensing PG Live Pic 4Origamo used PG Live as the launch pad for its Van Gogh Collection (pictured right). The Van Gogh Museum celebrates its 50th birthday in 2023. As part of the anniversary celebrations the Van Gogh Museum has designed an exclusive piece of art featuring Vincent’s Flowers. The artwork brings together Vincent’s flowers into one design and Origamo has taken this artwork and created a three-dimensional paper bouquet card.

“It has developed a number of other cards to create a Van Gogh Museum Collection which features iconic paintings like Sunflowers and uses a number of printing techniques – for example, kirigami which is a variation of origami where the paper is cut as well as folded.

“It’s a great collection and was really well presented on Origamo’s stand. I was also impressed by the way ceo Furio Ceciliato presented the range – he was clearly delighted to be working with the Van Gogh Museum and really proud of the range his company had developed. It’s definitely a range that’s bringing something new to the sector and making good use of the licence.

Licensing PG Live Pic 5“There seems to be more innovation in the card sector at the moment with interesting formats like pop-ups featuring on a number of stands, and Cardology is another good example of a company combining licensing and pop-ups well, with a licensed portfolio that includes Harry Potter and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

“UK Greetings also had some noteworthy pop-up cards (pictured left) as part of its Disney 100th anniversary range featuring brands such as Star Wars and Marvel – as an aside UKG’s Disney 100 range was really strong and showcased the breadth of Disney’s characters well.

Licensing PG Live Pic 6“It was also good to see licensing stalwart Hype at PG Live. It has built a strong business by developing licensed cards coupled with a distinctive handwriting design-wise. It uses well-chosen character art with bright and bold colours to create distinctive cards that give traditional and non-traditional card retailers a way of building ranges of cards.

“The cards feature brands such as Wallace & Gromit, Snoopy and Miffy (pictured right), and it has broadened the offer to include gift wrap and button badges. The latter are presented in counter-top boxes which work well at till points.

“Hype has a good formula and works with licences it can build up a long-term relationship with. In turn, it’s also a licensed supplier that retailers trust to offer licensed cards that are classic, but also deliver in the pop culture space. They’re very versatile cards. I think Hype is a good example of how licensing can work in a competitive sector, particularly when combined with a distinctive and consistent design style.

Licensing PG Live Pic 7“Another strong player in the licensing category in the card world is, of course, Danilo. It’s good to see how it’s diversifying its offer with some new ranges and styles including publishing brands, but also how it has developed its portfolio to reflect new retail opportunities.

“A good example of this is its commitment to football and the range of cards it has developed which feature clubs such as Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea (pictured left). I’m sure the club shops buy into these ranges, but a wider pool of retailers are tapping into this market as football – particularly Premier League – has such a significant consumer following.

“Developing football-related cards I’m sure brings challenges in terms of distribution, but Danilo has positioned itself well as a go to supplier. It’s also applied design lessons from the character licensing experience to develop a range that reflects contemporary design trends and needs. This has moved the category on and, going back to club shops, means they can stock a broader range of cards and designs than perhaps they could previously.

Licensing PG Live Pic 8“As the Van Gogh range shows, heritage licensing is increasingly part of the greeting cards marketplace. A leading player in this market is Museums & Galleries which was showcasing a relatively new range featuring the Tate brand and a range of artwork sourced from the Tate’s collection (pictured right).

“Heritage brands are certainly more tuned into licensing – a challenge for the rights owners in the category is the increased competition within it and also a design challenge in how they can work with their licensees to deliver a distinctive offer. I think Museums & Galleries and the Tate have succeeded in delivering a card range that offers something new to the market.

Licensing PG Live Pic 9“PG Live also showcased how card companies are using a broad range of licences to create ranges they can roll out retail wise across a broad range of retail accounts. A great example of this is Abacus Cards’ range of cards inspired by the BBC programmes Countryfile, Springwatch and Gardeners’ World (pictured left). These cards also highlight the fact that cards are sold in a variety of locations and outlets these days, including garden centres.

“Recent trips to local garden centres such as Squires and Hilliers have highlighted how significant the greeting cards offer is in this retail sector and, in this context, Abacus has a range of cards that’s tailor made for the market. That said, cards like the BBC Countryfile collection which include photography of popular dog breeds will work in a range of shops. The programme branding really helps set the range aside from competitive ranges.

Licensing PG Live Pic 10“Finally, for my PG Live Five, I’ll highlight the new card range from designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen launched at the show by the Great British Card Company (pictured right). The range was, as you might expect, sumptuous and flamboyant but also well-crafted in card terms – Laurence and GBBC have managed to capture his creativity effectively in the card format.

“To his credit Laurence also visited the show to help the launch and to meet buyers. I think this really adds to the authenticity of the partnership and shows his commitment to it. I know from my own experience of working with Great British Bake Off winner Nadiya Hussain how important it is when working with personality brands that they’re fully involved in their products and hands on.

“Consumers are getting better at seeing through things and asking ‘why’. I can see the Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen card collection growing and I’m sure LLB used his trip to PG Live as a fact-finding one as well, identifying new themes and occasions for future design work.

“I think if I was sending PG Live a card it would be one saying Well Done in big letters – the organisers delivered a fun show but, more importantly, they also delivered a show with real focus and one that provided an effective showcase for a vibrant market.

“It was encouraging to see so many examples of licensing at the show and also very good to see card publishers using licensing in such progressive ways.

Top: UKG’s Boofle is a great example of licensing working both ways with greeting cards

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