How did this partnership between NBCUniversal and S&R Premium Brands come about?
Ken Mannering, director, S&R Premium Brands: My partner Joanna, who has been very actively involved in high end catalogues and mail order businesses for some time now, had a wonder moment. She woke up at four AM and though ‘Downton Abbey. That’s the plan.’ She then called Julian Fellowes’ [creator of Downton Abbey] agent who put her onto NBCUniversal. She then came to me because my background is in international licensing and said “how do I do this? What do I offer them?”
Nine months later, through NBC both in the UK and LA, we finalised an agreement. The gestation period has been virtually a year. The catalogue and the website has over 200 products on it, with prices from £20 into the many thousands. On our first Sunday we sold a four-poster bed, which is remarkable. The things that will sell online now is extraordinary, diverse and expensive.
We’re keen to promote British manufacturers and the whole Downton dynamic would suggest that. So we’re keen to do that wherever we practically can with jewellery manufacturers, lace manufacturers and we’re working with the last proper crystal glassmaker in England in Cumbria Crystal. It’s beautifully cut crystal.
So the customer can expect the very best quality, redolent of the era of Downton. None of it has the Downton logo on it, it’s all of the era of Downton. The majority of the product is made in the UK with a style that is Downton.
Downton Abbey isn’t immediately a show that you would think lends itself to an extensive licensing programme. And this is one of the rare partnerships made for the brand to date. Has there been a conscious decision to hold back?
Dominic Burns, SVP, brand management and commercial, NBCUniversal: We’ve been very careful about what we attach the Downton name to. We think there is a great opportunity in the lifestyle area to uniquely transfer what is a TV brand in its origins, into the lifestyle space. This opportunity presented a way to do that in a very tasteful and curated way.
One of the things that Joanna and Ken were able to show us through the process of negotiation was their understanding of the product. We fell in love with the range of products as much as they did.
Ken puts it very well saying the range is redolent of the Edwardian era in which Downton is set. Downton stands for elegance and Britishness. I always think that what we’re trying to do with Downton when we do our commercial deals is have classic British elegance but in a contemporary setting with contemporary curated articles that are going to appeal to our audience. We absolutely think that the website and the catalogues do that very well.
KM: You don’t need to live in an Edwardian home to buy pieces from the catalogue. They will look elegant in any environment. It all works because every piece has great style and every piece is beautifully made, and looks it.
And do you think the range will appear to casual viewers and those who don’t watch the show?
KM: We think it will be the gift catalogue of choice this Christmas. The media has been very kind to us so far and we’ve been getting immense support on social media.
Downton Abbey fans are very passionate about the show. Do you have to be wary of licensing the brand in a way that won’t upset its vocal fan base?
DB: Very much so. It’s no coincidence that we’re in series five now and there isn’t a huge programme of products out there. That’s been deliberate. Anything we do has to reflect the programme and the audience that it serves. Our audience is incredibly loyal and will quickly recognise if anything out there is not appropriate. We’ve been very careful to ensure that whatever we do, it’s appropriate and reflects what the brand is all about.
The great thing about Downton Abbey at Home is that it has been personally curated to be on message for the brand.
Will the range evolve alongside the show?
KM: My partner is already sourcing for the spring catalogue. She’s on it now. We’ve got to do that. We have a great opportunity for longevity, both because the brand has longevity and because we’ll make sure the products we develop is consistent with the way the programme develops.
DB: We’re incredibly hopeful that the programme, despite all the speculation that inevitably follows every series, will go on for years to come. But the stuff we’re trying to do, we’d love to continue after the end of the series, whenever that is. This is the type of activity that can really build a platform and a loyal following during the course of the series whilst it is on air, and can then live on afterwards.
KM: We’re certain it can. The reruns of the series will continue for quite some time, so that will support what we’re doing. We think the Downton Abbey brand has great longevity and great long term potential. We’re not here for one catalogue or one website launch. We’ve established a relationship with our colleagues at NBCUniversal and we couldn’t wish for more in terms of the support they’ve given us.
There is a massive global following so will the range be sold abroad?
DB: We’d love to prove success here and then look further afield. It would be mad to not think about the huge audience and the huge following we have in the US as a potential opportunity in the future.
Are there replica pieces in the range too?
KM: There aren’t replicas, although the biggest seller is the Butler’s Bell. It appears on the TV series and it is still being made. We found the people who make it and are selling a Butler's Bell.
DB: That’s iconic but it’s not typical of the range. The great thing about Downton is you can see that everything is so heavily and carefully researched so that everything is of the era and appropriate. Not everything you see in the catalogue is of the Edwardian era because not all of it would to the taste of a contemporary audience.
It’s the inspiration of that time but translated into products that will sell to an audience today. That’s what we’ve tried to achieve. In no sense are we claiming Downton Abbey at Home is Edwardian furniture for today’s audience. It isn’t that. It’s furniture inspired by that time and the elegance of that time that we feel is appropriate to our audience today.
I don’t think our audience is looking for reproductions. They have a clear taste and we’re using the Downton Abbey brand as an umbrella to refer to this idea of English elegance. What everybody loves about Downton is the warmth, the comfort and the beauty. It’s that sensibility and aesthetic that has been borrowed by the website and catalogue, rather than direct reproductions.
The thing that surprised me was that there was an opportunity in the market. Nobody is owning that classic English space in the way that these guys hopefully will. That presented a real opportunity.