Back to the Future: What's hot in licensing right now

As head of LIMA UK, I'm often asked for my views on the latest 'trends' within licensing.
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These aren’t always easy to fathom and themes come and go. But every so often, a few surface as more than 'niche' movements, gain traction, get copied, imitated and inevitably become a ‘trend’. Having spent a number of days speaking to licensees at the London Toy Fair and Spring Fair in Birmingham here’s what I am seeing and hearing.

Full circle – a return to the 80s?

When I first entered licensing in the 1980s, all the big properties focused on boys eight to 12. Successes included Transformers, Masters of the Universe, Ninja Turtles and even Power Rangers later on. But success led to overcrowding and many were condemned to failure. Who signed up for Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters from Beverley Hills (I kid you not)? Fast forward to the Nineties, and building on properties like Winnie the Pooh and Thomas and Friends, Teletubbies heralded the golden age of properties for the pre-school market. The pre-school sector will remain a strong one for licensing in 2012, but I perceive a big shift back to the prime target of the 1980s.

Return of boys action

Ben 10 blazed this trail going back as far as 2007, but this year we see a number of classic and new properties doing well in their original media and moving steadily to the fore in licensing. Star Wars, Transformers and the various Marvel characters all enjoy renewed TV and film exposure this year and are fighting new and revived series like the Matt Hatter Chronicles and Thundercats for the revitalised boys action market. I think that this demographic will enjoy a good few years in the licensing sunlight as licensees look to widen their product appeal, and licensors attempt to take a slice of a market that has been under-served during the pre-school boom.

A mini construction boom

At the London Toy Fair, I was struck by the number of miniature collectables. Of course, these have long been a licensing success, from stickers to trading cards. Since Gogos boomed a few years ago, exploratory launches in other mini figures have built and built, and 2012 will see many of them come to market. I’m interested to see that many miniatures are linked to some form of construction set which allows play with more established building toys.

The prize here is a big one: but licensees and licensors need to be wary: the market for licensed collectables was almost wiped out in Italy a few years ago by an impossibly large number of launches (sadly involving a good deal of 'splicensing') all fighting for exposure – and retail space – at the same time.

Licensed promotions and brand partnerships

With consumers still hunting for value in 2012, price promotions will feature heavily. Where licensing can add value through brand recognition, we have a chance to take some of this market without resorting to unsustainable levels of discounting. The film studios have pursued partnerships with leading brands for some years now in the UK. Expect this to continue to grow, but also to see other entertainment brands (theme parks, attractions, even TV shows) join in this year.

Continental Europe has also seen a boom in licensed promotions for specific retailers, not in support of any particular license but to drive a retailer's overall sales by the tactical use of licensing. Supermarkets have been to the fore, with licensors like Warner and Disney licensing branded collectables to be picked up by consumers linked to a level of overall purchase. Tesco had a go at something similar with the official England team world Cup cards in 2010, but I expect to see much more of this in the coming year.

Digital and app based properties

At Spring Fair I gave a couple of presentations aimed at convincing retailers of the profits to be earned from licensed products. I argued that licensing allows retail to earn from seemingly inaccessible business areas. The 'digital revolution' may see consumers spending money directly with website and app developers, but the licensed merchandise based on these digital properties give bricks-and-mortar retail a great opportunity to take a slice of this new business.

Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters and Angry Birds have blazed the trail with hundreds of products already on sale. In 2012 and beyond we can expect them to be joined in the licensing fold by the likes of Bin Weevils, Where's my Water? Worms and many more.

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