Penguin UK's Susan Bolsover on 150 years of Beatrix Potter

Robert Hutchins

By Robert Hutchins

September 9th 2015 at 4:02PM
UPDATED September 11th 2015 at 2:10PM
Penguin UK's Susan Bolsover on 150 years of Beatrix Potter

Since Peter Rabbit first braved the carrot patch of Mr. McGregor in 1902, the world of Beatrix Potter has been delighting fans the world over. Penguin's head of licensing, Susan Bolsover, talks about the success of the heritage brand.

Can you give me a history of the Beatrix Potter brand and its successes?

Beatrix Potter’s now infamous Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902 by Frederick Warne & Co.  Beatrix went on to write and illustrate a total of twenty-three “little Tales”, all published by Warne.  The Tale of Peter Rabbit was an immediate success and Beatrix soon realised the potential for an associated merchandise programme. 

She designed and created the first Peter Rabbit doll herself in 1903 then registered it immediately at the patent office, making Peter Rabbit the world’s oldest licensed literary character.  This was the very start of Beatrix Potter’s pioneering licensing career. 

Beatrix went on to explore other merchandise options including board games, tea sets and bedroom slippers and remained intrinsically involved in product development.  She felt passionately that all merchandise should remain faithful to her original book illustrations and be of the highest quality.

By the 1940s, international companies were introducing their own ranges; two current licensees Wedgwood and Royal Doulton, date from that period.

Today, Peter Rabbit and other Beatrix Potter™ characters feature on thousands of different products all over the world. Together with global licensing agency, Silvergate Media, Penguin Ventures (a part of Penguin Random House Children’s) is committed to protecting and growing the Peter Rabbit™ brand, ensuring that it continues to reflect the quality and timeless charm of Beatrix Potter’s classic Original Peter Rabbit Books™.

The World of Beatrix Potter™, is now one of the world’s longest running and largest international literature-based licensing programmes. Peter Rabbit has appeared in books and on licensed product in more than 110 countries throughout the world.

The World of Beatrix Potter™ licensed property enjoys more than 200 licensees worldwide today.

What is the demographic for the property and who are you targeting with the licensing programme?

From a merchandising point of view it's probably her most famous creation, Peter Rabbit, that has the most enduring appeal and product-wise we target everybody from infants to adults; parents, grandparents and gift givers looking for that special newborn gift all the way through to adult fans and collectors.

For the anniversary however, we want to amplify those lesser-known facets of Beatrix Potter including her work as a conservationist, botanist, businesswoman and licensing pioneer as well as celebrating her accomplishments as a storyteller and artist.

How many licensees do you have on board for Beatrix Potter and in what categories?

Globally we have over 200 licensees covering a plethora of categories such as nursery toys, apparel (nursery and adult), ceramics, silverware, handbags and tea to name a few – we also have one of the world’s biggest promotions with the Bank of Mitsubishi in Japan.

What are some of the most popular licensing categories and what would you like to see the Beatrix Potter brand move in to?

The “my first” collection by Rainbow Designs is incredibly popular as are the classic plush ranges by GUND and the wooden toy collection by Orange Tree Toys. We also have incredibly successful partnerships with retailers in the US such as Pottery Barn.

In Japan (our biggest territory), the brand is very adult- focused with consumer promotions, ceramics and clothing the most popular categories . We’d love to see the brand on more trend focused product for adults following the launch of our ceramics collections with Stow Green and our clothing range with Uniqlo. 

We also want to look for exciting new direct-to-retail partnerships worldwide.  Silvergate’s collaboration with Baby Gap has set the benchmark for that.

What do you look for in a licensing partner and how do you pick your licensees?

We have always wanted to maintain the integrity of the brand so we always look for best- in- class licensing partners who can create beautiful products that tell a story.

What are the main challenges with managing the Beatrix Potter brand?

As with any heritage property that has become a global proposition it's about continuing to keep the brand fresh, relevant and resonating with contemporary audiences while not losing those core brand values.

Given the scope of her life and work there's always a story to tell in a new and interesting way. What's so apparent in digging into Beatrix Potter's life and work for this anniversary is just how many of the challenges she faced as a woman are still so relevant today - it very much feels as if she was a woman ahead of her time.

What is the secret to maintaining the success of Beatrix Potter and its heritage?

To always remain relevant. Along with Silvergate we have worked hard to ensure creatively her vision and the look and feel of her legacy in a licensing context are fresh and contemporary.

How different is your approach to the Beatrix Potter property compared to other brands in your portfolio?

From a Silvergate perspective…We want to make sure that the Beatrix Potter portfolio appeals to new parents as well as grandparents whilst staying true to it’s origins.

As the images Beatrix created are so iconic we have been able to create several very different style guides that capture the essence of the brand but appeal to a wide variety of retailers and consumers.  

What has changed the most about the licensing industry over Beatrix Potter’s history and how has this impacted the brand?

In some respects very little. She certainly knew her way around a licensing deal (she was a tough negotiator) and did all of her own product development.

She was very knowledgable about the companies she worked with and the manufacturers who made products using her characters. Media driven brands as we know them dominate now of course and Beatrix certainly had her opportunity to be part of that, although famously she turned down Disney adapting Peter Rabbit into an animation.

What’s next for the Beatrix Potter property?

Peter Rabbit is still hugely central to the Beatrix brand and her legacy, but her other works - including her flora and fauna studies are increasingly popular and are certainly used in product design. 

Throughout 2016 we will be making a series of exciting announcements around publishing, new products and partnerships, which we look forward to sharing with you in due course. 

However, Beatrix herself will remain the focus throughout all of our plans next year, this is a chance to let her shine and be recognised for the amazing woman - ahead of her time - that she truly was.