Fluid turned out to be very appropriate name for the company formed earlier this year by Hasbro’s licensing director Andrew Lane and former Manchester United licensing chief Tom Howgate.
Fluid World, to give the outfit its full moniker, was born from Lane and Howgate’s belief that the potential of football club licensing was being hampered by ingrained partisanship and not very splendid isolationism.
So Howgate quit a job with the biggest club in the world to chase something even bigger: a pivotal role in creating a business model and an environment where Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and others don’t compete, but co-operate to drive the concept of football licensing to new heights – and benefit long-term from having slices of a bigger pie.
And that’s going very well, thanks. More details coming up. But, as well as this big goal, Fluid has also recently been signed up as the UK licensing agent for the classic Japanese IP, Hello Kitty.
And it’s been appointed as a consultant to tie-up deals with brands to be associated with luxury property developments on two islands within Dubai’s most exciting new development ‘The World’.
Pretty diverse stuff. And evidence that Fluid World is already thinking and acting as flexibly and imaginatively as its name suggests.
Things have probably moved faster and in more different directions than either of the firm’s founders imagined. Howgate recalls his initial, specific ambition. “We wanted to fill a gap in the sports licensing world. There was and is no centralised resource and that was a void that needed to be filled, for licensors, licensees and retailers, in order to make the most of the sector.
“Andrew and I had always talked about doing something together, and I knew that his contacts and expertise would be invaluable – and that’s how it’s proved.”
Fluid announced itself to the industry through a deal with Arsenal that Lane describes as a sort of third way. “We’re not an agent and we’re not in-house. We’re a licensing consultancy, I suppose. And it was our view that the Arsenal licence wasn’t being utilised properly. That’s not a huge criticism, I think you could say the same about the majority of big football brands. With Arsenal, I’d say, commercially, they should be in the top two or three in the UK and top five globally.”
So far, Fluid has helped broker over 20 deals for the North London club, some extensions of existing relationships, others creating new ones. “I think we’ve moved them up a couple of notches,” reflects Lane.
But the point about Fluid not being part of the Arsenal infrastructure is an important one, and central to Howgate’s central vision. “The other side of this is the multi-club philosophy, that’s the big picture, really. Retailers have asked us to secure the top four clubs in certain categories and we want to be in a position to do that.”
“Retail knows what they achieve with, I don’t know, Fifi the Flowerpot or whatever, and they give over store space accordingly, but there’s no football merchandise, even though football is exponentially more popular.”
He mentions a licensee that was in London recently and wanted to talk to Chelsea about a possible deal. Fluid (an independent consultancy company, remember) was able to arrange a meeting and facilitate a deal. “In the first instance, this licensee didn’t know where to go or who to talk to. Now, three months later, and with the assistance of Fluid, it has deals with six of the biggest clubs in Europe.”
Lane continues: “There is no other company that can do that, and then help follow it up and see it through and roll in other big clubs, and do all that at the highest level. And that’s huge.”
Howgate again: “Also, because we’re not tied to any of the clubs, we sit in the middle and make sure the deals make sense for both sides, because that’s the only way it’ll work.
“Licensees and retailers do want these multi-club deals. If you can get the licensees in front of the buyers they want them. It’s just pulling them together that, at the moment, is so hard.”
In the US, of course, this idea of collective power, of the sport or league being bigger than any club, is engrained.
And Howgate sees this as the ideal. “Second or third tier teams over there are doing at least as well as the leading teams here, because they’re getting a slice of a much bigger pie. In a perfect world, you’d start again and give the rights to all clubs to the Premier league and market and license centrally. But it’s a million to one shot that this will ever happen, so we’re working to improve the situation as it stands.”
Lane says he never thought the business would be restricted to sport. With his contacts, other opportunities were always going to crop up. And so it proved: “An old friend of mine, Roberto Lanzi, the European president of Sanrio started talking to me about Hello Kitty. I’d always been a fan and so we were interested straight away.
“Hello Kitty has never actually had a UK agent, and the push over here has never been as strong or co-ordinated as it could have been. It was quite difficult to work with, actually. So we were really pleased to be given the opportunity to break some new ground and see if we could move things on a bit. I also knew just the person to help us do that…”
Libby Grant had been working at Disney, handling some of the licensing for the corporation’s biggest brands, but was intrigued enough by the Fluid proposition and the prospect of spearheading the Hello Kitty push to join the new firm in the summer. “I believed in the same thing as Tom and Andrew, and I totally believed in the potential of Hello Kitty. There are plenty of properties that come and go, but this is a true evergreen, with built-in potential to really grow.
“The key is to grow it whilst protecting the integrity of the brand. This is not a case of opening the floodgates, because this is a brand that has a unique and very passionate fanbase. We want to create truly innovative product that helps maintain the quality and longevity of the brand. We need to increase Kitty’s presence on the High Street, but we need to be there with the right partners.”
The same goes for licensees. There is tremendous interest, but Grant knows the key is to feature Hello Kitty on the right products rather than as many as possible. She and Fluid have already agreed partnerships with New Era Caps, Zap, Zeon, BB Design, Premium Mobile, Gemma International, GB Eye, Danilo, Halsall to name a few, and there are more in the pipeline.
The style and the product range is designed to appeal to tweens, teens and above, with Grant well aware of the fact that younger girls aspire to the brand not because it’s aimed at them but because it’s admired by their big sisters and older friends (and, indeed, by celebrities all over the world – Mariah Carey is Kitty’s number one fan).
More recently, just to hammer home the message about diversity, Fluid has expanded its business to include a partnership with Veeran World One & Two, the company behind two islands on the really quite incredible property development
‘The World’ in Dubai; a series of islands that form a map of the world, each one containing either hotels, apartments or villas. Fluid has been brought in to broker deals with brands looking to be associated with the project through branded properties.
It’s a truly bizarre project that barely fits into the realms of reality, let alone the portfolio of a start-up licensing consultancy. Yet, somehow, for Fluid, it’s perfect.