Why the spellbinding licensing power of Jacqueline Wilson is set to run and run

Samantha Loveday

By Samantha Loveday

June 22nd 2015 at 10:38AM
Why the spellbinding licensing power of Jacqueline Wilson is set to run and run

We talk to Start Licensing's Ian Downes about the plans going forward for the children's author's brands.

Firstly, can you tell me the history behind the brand?

Jacqueline Wilson is one of the UK's best known and loved children's authors. She has published over 100 books. Jacqueline's books have been successfully adapted for television and stage. The Story of Tracy Beaker brought Jacqueline's characters to the attention of the licensing community and Tracy Beaker was the first of Jacqueline's characters to enjoy success in licensing terms. Her books are best sellers and are eagerly awaited by her readers.

A key part of the brand is the strong and original visual identity associated with the brand based on the illustrations of Nick Sharratt. Nick and Jacqueline work very closely on the development of new books ensuring the cover and interior illustrations reflect the characters and storylines well. Jacqueline's books are popular with girls aged six to 12 with a passion for reading. Her readers enjoy the way Jacqueline develops her characters and storylines which are centred on 'real' issues and topics. Jacqueline's most recent books such as Hetty Feather are historically based with characters and stories from Victorian and Edwardian times. Jacqueline researches her books very carefully to ensure they reflect events accurately.

Jacqueline's best known characters include Tracy Beaker, Hetty Feather, the Illustrated Mum, Sapphire Battersea and Opal Plumstead. Television adaptations include Double Act, Girls in Love and Best Friends. Jacqueline was the Children's Laureate from 2005 to 2007; four of her books were in the top 100 in the Big Read poll in 2003 based on Britain's most popular books as voted by the public.

How did the brand perform over the past 12 months?

There have been some great high points during the past 12 months including the publication of Jacqueline's 100th book Opal Plumstead. This attracted very significant publicity and was also a great success at retail. Jacqueline and Nick also launched exhibitions of their work and lives - both of these exhibitions are still touring the country and give their fans a great opportunity to learn more about their lives, work and influences.

There has also been a number of new licensees signed - one particular highlight was the launch of a Jacqueline Wilson board game by Paul Lamond Games. This was launched at the London Toy Fair and was the culmination of a lot of development work. The game was developed with direct input by Jacqueline and Nick. It is a fun game which will really challenge readers and test their knowledge to the full. Paul Lamond  and their development team have done a great job with this product and it really reflects the brand well. This is the sort of product we are keen to champion and develop more of – Jacqueline and Nick's fans are really immersed in their world and love reading.

We also saw the ongoing success of the Hetty Feather stage show produced and presented by Novel Theatre. This is a really clever adaptation of Hetty Feather which manages to capture the spirit of the book very well. This has been further enhanced by the launch of the CBBC series Hetty Feather which started recently and is a live action drama series. There aren't many brands that have a book, stage show and TV show in the market at the same time - this really shows the core strengths of the brand. Jacqueline's popularity remains as high as ever and her book sales are strong. A visit to any book shop will show clearly the strength of the brand as there is always a great presence for the books and frequently there is dedicated space for Jacqueline Wilson books.

How many licensees does it have to date (in the UK and worldwide) and in which categories?

The licensing activity is focused on the UK market and at the moment there are around 15 licensees. These include DC Thomson who publish the Official Jacqueline Wilson magazine every month and have also published annuals; Top That Publishing who have a Friendship Bracelet Kit under the Best Friends branding  (which has been in the market continuously for seven years ); the Bazaar Group for Beanbags; Digital Giving for T Shirts in association with the National Literacy Trust; Calendars from Flame Tree Publishing; Decorative stickers from Fun Stickers; Posters from GBEye; iPhone App from P2 Games; Activity Kits from Parragon Books; board game from Paul Lamond Games; t-shirts from Spike Leisurewear; merchandise range with The Foundling Museum; Shrinkles from Wizard.

We have also had partnerships with brands such as Bagabook who produced a bespoke Tracy Beaker Bagabook and there is also a link with Book Tokens for a branded Jacqueline Wilson Book Token card. Often there are partnerships with organisations associated with Nick and Jacqueline including charities and museums. There are also two exhibitions associated with Nick and Jacqueline. The BBC and Random House both operate very good websites as well that feature the books and characters. As well as publishing the novels Random House also publish Diaries and Journals based on Nick and Jacqueline's work.

What are some of the best performing products?

DC Thomson's monthly magazine is a solid performer. It has been in the market for a while but remains as popular as ever. It successfully reflects the breadth of Nick and Jacqueline's work and characters whilst blending in activities, craft, interviews and competitions. It is a really original magazine developed with the fans in mind and has the benefit of Jacqueline and Nick's direct involvement. It is covermounted with high quality gifts and reflects the wider activity associated with the brand - for example showcasing new book releases.

One of the most popular gifts are mini books produced in association with Random House. Readership is around 260,000 readers per copy. Top That and Parragon have done very well with their kits which use characters and storylines as the inspiration for make and do type products. The Jacqueline Wilson fan seems to be very active and likes to get involved in creative projects - this is why the kits seem to work. Flametree's Calendar is in its fourth year which is a good indicator of the depth of support the brand has. We are hopeful that newer licensees such as Spike and Fun Stickers will perform well.

Are you looking to expand the consumer products programme further this year – for example into new categories or territories?

Yes. I think we are keen to build on the 'islands of products' we have in place - so for example we would like to see jigsaw puzzles joining the board game. We think there is great scope for more activity and craft kits - the Victorian theming of Hetty Feather opens up opportunities to blend history with crafting for example.

We think there is also scope for Christmas gifting: people know that a family member or friend is a fan so this presents a really good opportunity for gifting and we think this could be a good growth area. Another area to look at developing is personalised products. An area we feel that has been under exploited is dress up. With the growing success of events like World Book Day, we are hopeful there is room for a Jacqueline Wilson Dress Up Collection. Jacqueline is very keen on this and would be happy to help create activity sheets and notes to accompany dress up kits. Hetty Feather, Sapphire Battersea and Opal Plumstead seem like naturals for dress up.

The fact that the books are so well established in the book trade also presents opportunities - we think there is scope for more book related merchandise like bookplates, bookmarks and stationery sold in book shops and perhaps focussed collections of products. I think book stores present a great opportunity for licensing in general terms and of course for strong brands like Jacqueline Wilson specifically.

Do you have any special marketing initiatives or promotional activity planned for 2015?

The central core of Jacqueline Wilson and Nick Sharratt's activity are the books and book releases. Random House do a great job of making the book releases an 'event' and this a constant part of the programme. Ongoing support includes the fantastic Official Jacqueline Wilson website and there is good use made of social media as well. Jacqueline and Nick are also extremely proactive in their own right with both of them undertaking a significant amount of 'live' events such as book signings, talks, media interviews and in Nick's case art demonstrations.

As mentioned earlier both of them have exhibitions and these are a strong thread through the programme. Of course it can't be overlooked that Hetty Feather is now a prime time CBBC series and has a successful West End theatre show - this combination should ensure strong awareness throughout the year. The Official Jacqueline Wilson Magazine from DC Thomson is also a constant presence for the brand and the team there are keen to work with licensees. The magazine works hand in glove with Random House so there is a real sense of coordination and a focus around key activities.

What has the retail reaction been like to the brand?

I think it is increasingly difficult to be present in all retailers and from a licensing perspective it is difficult to gain traction when there is very strong competition. This has made us reflect and prioritise retailers and retail opportunities where the core brand is strongest. So retailers that sell books are a priority for us, but as we all know that isn't just book stores any more. With regular book releases coupled with a monthly magazine there is a regular compelling event for this brand. We hope to capitalise on that. We have also been able to look at some very specific retail opportunities such as merchandise alongside the theatre show and a specific range of products developed in association with The Foundling Museum that build on the storylines featured in Hetty Feather. Retailers like WH Smith have supported products such as Top That's Friendship Bracelet Kit for a long time.

What are some of the main challenges you've come up against? And how have you overcome them?

I think there are common challenges that all properties face now and certainly ones that are not in the Top 5 properties. First is the challenge of gaining attention and creating momentum. Second, being in competition with some of the biggest global brands at a local level is tough. Thirdly, a little bit of inertia from licensees - they are very much retail dependent these days but sometimes it would be nice to see a leap of faith and for licensees to consider properties that do not tick 'all the boxes' especially if they are ticking other relevant boxes. My point here is that maybe properties need to be viewed through different lenses sometimes and also a broader group of retail accounts should be considered.

So I guess our challenge is one of persuasion - we need to persuade people that there is a well defined audience for Jacqueline Wilson products and that there is a depth to the audience as well, We are looking to work more closely with Random House and I think we need to develop ways of dovetailing our efforts more with the publisher. I think we have also recognised that products like Paul Lamond's boardgame are the right direction for us as we can add value to this category with the content, the involvement of Jacqueline and Nick plus delivering an audience that is well disposed to this kind of product.

What would you most like to achieve with the brand in 2015?

I think we would like to gain more momentum for our campaign and develop a closer working relationship with Random House. I think the latter will help drive more success at retail. Specifically I hope the newer licensees such as Paul Lamond, Fun Stickers and Spike Leisurewear are still licensees in seven years time rather like Top That are. I think we are also keen to maintain our focus on relevant products and product development. I am also very keen to develop more craft and activity products, develop the dress up category and prioritise some more product that links well to the book heritage of the property.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I would also add that it is great to work for two such genuinely nice people as Nick and Jacqueline. They are very supportive of the licensing programme and are keen that their 'fans' are able to buy products that extend their enjoyment of the books and characters. They like to be involved in a positive way and are genuinely interested in licensing, developing good quality products and being part of the process. I think they are great assets to the licensing programme and this is a really good thing for us.

A good example recently was the very positive feedback Jacqueline gave us for Spike's t-shirt range - it is great to know that she takes such an enthusiastic interest in licensing ... even more so when you consider she is busily writing another bestseller.