• Jennifer Marks

Character Studies

Licensing attempts to keep pace with retail disruption

ClassicClassic and contemporary. Design Works International’s new Studio NYC collection.
The licensing business is moving in several directions simultaneously. There’s a growing interest in vintage brands and nostalgic looks – but at the same time social media is opening avenues for independent artists with unique points of view.

Bigger brands – especially entertainment-driven properties – increasingly turn to direct exclusives with major retailers. At the same time, smaller retailers who hadn’t played in the licensed space before are looking for new labels to freshen their assortments.

“The climate is changing on a daily basis,” said Nancy Fire, co-founder and creative director of Design Works International. “Companies that you wouldn’t think of taking on brands are now interested in them.”

Global sales of licensed products and services rose a 4.4% in 2016 to $262.9 billion, according to the 2017 LIMA Annual Global Licensing Industry Survey. North America remains the largest market, with the U.S. and Canada accounting for 57.9% of the global total, up slightly from 57.7% last year. The Southeast Asia/PAC region was the fastest growing area worldwide, with 6.8% year-on-year growth; it now accounts for 3.4% of global licensing revenue.

Sales of licensed home décor products grew 8.2% globally last year, while the fastest growing categories were infant and pet products.

Still, the licensing industry is as impacted by the changes shaking retail as all other categories, said Martin Brochstein, svp of industry relations and information for the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association (LIMA).

“Any question in licensing can be answered with the words: ‘It depends,’” he noted. “It depends on the distribution channel, the exclusivity, the competitive landscape, how hot the property is. It’s all over the place – seriously.”

Springs Creative handles a number of of-the-moment properties, but it’s also seeing an evolution in design within evergreen properties like Disney characters.

DisneyClassic and contemporary. Product from Springs Creative’s Disney collection.
“You can have a core look – everyone does princesses – but the trends are getting more fashions forward,” said Julia Pelowski, Springs Creative’s senior licensing coordinator. “The design is more stylized. There’s a more subtle take on the properties” – an aesthetic she described as appealing to a Pottery Barn sensibility.

Fire concurred. “Everything is becoming a lifestyle. So even if you’re doing Mickey Mouse, it’s branded in paisley.”

More broadly, she sees two primary tends in licensing, “almost polar opposites.”

On the one hand, the steady churn of celebrity brands such from television luminaries including Ellen DeGeneres, Kelly Ripa and Rachael Ray. They’re emblematic of celebrities who actively promote their licensed products across their media channels.

On the other is the branding of online personalities. “They’re the influencers now. They have pop-ups in home, food and other areas,” said Fire, whose company recently launched its own branded fabrics under the Studio NYC label.

While new designers are leading from Instagram and YouTube, nostalgic properties are also enjoying a rebirth, according to Spring Creative’s Pelowski. Nickelodeon’s relaunch last year of shows from the 1990s resulted in good sell-throughs for related licensed properties, she said.

“The old cartoons now resonate not only with older consumers, but younger ones as well,” she added. “Retro looks are also performing well with My Little Pony and Ninja Turtles.”

With so much in the offing, LIMA’s Brochstein joked the association could host a three-day seminar on the subject “What is a brand?”

His answer: “An expectation of performance. It has to have a distinct point of view.” Then, quoting the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definite of smut, he added: “I know it when I see it.”

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