BLE 2019: Exploring the special relationship between toys and licensing

It’s a well established fact that the UK licensing industry is the second largest in the world, and the biggest in the Europe, with a value of $14.58bn in 2018, according to the latest figures from the global licensing industry body, Licensing International.

That itself is a growth of 3.9 per cent on the year prior, highlighting that when it comes to retail, brands continue to carry a weight behind them that bear a credence in the mind of the consumer – it’s true, a well placed IP can still successfully wrestle the cash out of the shoppers hand, even when we’re in the midst of some mighty changes at retail level.

But we can’t pretend that the relationship between toys and licensing is as rosy as it once was. It’s well-known that the bond between the two is a special one, of course. Toys account for 13 per cent – $36 billion – of the global licensing industry, for instance.

Talk to those in the character and entertainment licensing sector, and you’ll quickly learn that toys sits firmly among the key sectors that any children’s brand with a hope of success at retail, is looking to get in to. Licensing and toys has always been closely connected. It’s also true, however, that that relationship has suffered somewhat of a knock in the last three to four years.

Anna Knight, event director, Brand Licensing Europe

According to Anna Knight, VP of Global Licensing Group, and event director of Brand Licensing Europe, this momentary breakdown in the normal status quo, has “become a pressing issue for both industries.”

Looking for a reason for this decline in licensed toy sales over the past three or four years, our focus can fall on the usual suspects. The closure of Toys R Us signalled a sweep of change across not only the toy retail space – that saw sales figures at big name retailers in Denmark and France stall somewhat, as much as they did for Toys R Us in the UK and US – kickstarting what has been a gloomy period for the UK high street.

Underpinning it all, though, is the matter that consumer tastes just haven’t been catered to. The franchise era we all belong to at the moment has spurred some wonderful innovation in licensing, we’ve witnessed ‘universes’ carved out of some magnificent entertainment brands. Juxtaposing that, however, is the fact that over the course of the past four years, we’ve witnessed just as many licenses fall flat and underperform at retail, as those that have succeeded.

It was a veiled admission of over-saturation – for instance – that Disney and Lucasfilm issued when it stated it would be ‘taking a break from the Star Wars cinematic universe,’ following the conclusion of the current trilogy this year, giving the IP ‘time to breathe.’

“On top of this, we’ve had a run of trend-driven categories emerge of late that fuelled sales of products not linked to a brand. Look at the unicorn fad, the collectables space, and the change in approach of the major toy company to its own toy IP,” says Knight.

During a panel session at this year’s Toy and Game Design Conference, curated by Mojo Nation, experts from Fundamentally Children, Spin Master and John Lewis dissected the current relationship between toy design, marketing, and retail in a discussion titled State of Play.

Among the panellists was Spin Master’s director of inventor relations David Winter, who stated that so much today, ‘toymakers are looking for the next billion dollar franchise.’

“We’re rivalling the film industry, and toys are becoming franchises themselves, with not just multiple ranges around a brand, but with content and films, too,” he explained.

Spin Master is a prime example. Just this month it landed both broadcast and streaming partners for its new animated series Hatchimals:Adventures in Hatchtopia, based on its best-selling Hatchimals toy line. Meanwhile, PAW Patrol continues to be one of toy retail’s biggest IP success stories.

“This is what toy companies are hoping to find when they sit down with a designer today,” Winter continued. “The bar of how well-developed your ideas are is so much higher, we are looking for a billion dollar concept, a concept of franchises.”

Quite whether this is what retail is looking for at the moment, is increasingly becoming something to assess on a brand by brand basis. Consensus would dictate that as the retail landscape becomes a tougher space in which to do battle, buyers are leaning on the tried and tested IP they know will shift; a mind-set that will impinge on the newer and emerging brands’ route to market.

Just how sustainable a strategy this is for either toy or licensing industry remains to be seen; one thing is for certain, and that’s that change is afoot.

“And change is not always a bad thing,” continues Global Licensing Group’s Knight. “Evolution is essential to stay relevant and profitable, and innovation is critical to stimulate consumer demand.

“Personally, I think we will continue to see a huge transition in what toys look like, how they will be marketed and where they will be sold, thanks to an increasing interest in the circular economy and conscious purchasing, the rise of influencers, and the way millennials, and the iGeneration consume media, as well as the growth of online retailing.

“Also, there are good signs for 2019 being a bit of a comeback year, with the release of movies like Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2.”

Just how the ongoing conversation around toys and its relationship with licensing will affect the look of Brand Licensing Europe this year is an easy one to answer. The plan is to continue to nurture and foster that partnership – the special relationship – for the future.

“It’s one of the core segments, both in terms of content and exhibitors,” continues Knight. “Visitors cannot afford to miss our conference panel – How toy licensing can recover its sparkle – with our experts including NBC Universal, Viacom Nickelodeon CP, VTech Electronics, Moose Toys and The Entertainer.” T

his will be taking place at the License Global Theatre from 12.30pm until 1pm on the first day of the show, Tuesday, October 1. It’s just one of many reasons that Knight gives as to why the toy sector should be gearing itself up for BLE this year.

“BLE is the must-attend show for the European licensing community. The UK licensing industry is the second biggest in the world, and biggest in Europe, with a value of $14.58bn in 2018 according to Licensing International. This is an uplift of 3.9 per cent,” continues Knight.

“Visitors can meet manufacturers, brand owners, network with fellow retailers, and keep up to speed with consumer and retail trends affecting to the industry now and over the next 12 months. This year’s show will have over 260 exhibitors from all areas of licensing, brand new publishing and gaming activations and the License This! Finale, all of which will provide great inspiration for licensed toy programmes and products.”

For the future of toys and licensing, there’s no doubt there’s a bit of a shift to be put in from all sides of the debate – be you in retail, toy design and innovation or licensing. It’s going to take some frank and honest discussions to get this relationship back on track and back to what it once was, but there’s no doubt that licensing still has a major part to play in just what our industry will shape up to be in the coming months and years.

“Licensing has a huge, supportive role to play in the future fortunes of the toy industry, and it’s one that we – at BLE – take very seriously,” adds Knight. “There is always scope for industries to work closer together – communication is key to any successful partnership – and that means between licensees, licensors, retailers and trade associations.

“Innovation is critical for any industry to evolve and to create and fulfil consumer demand and, by its very nature, innovation always starts small before it (potentially) explodes in popularity.

“We’ve watched board games become more and more popular in recent years, particularly with more mature gamers, which has been reflected in the number of clubs and cafes that have opened. There’s no reason to believe something like this can’t achieve longevity, if managed correctly,” she concludes.

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