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To the victor: Warhammer and it’s march upon the global hobby, retail, and licensing scene

Games Workshop’s Warhammer is massively successful. Seriously. Over the past three years – since the onset of Brexit fell upon us – Warhammer has doubled the size of its business. Last year, it ended £81million in profit. Robert Hutchins talks to senior licensing manager, Zoe Smith about how the franchise is building on this success for 2020

If ever there was a Great British success story, Games Workshop is it. A company that can’t seem to keep out of the press year in year out, the Nottingham-based unit has truly bucked the trend of the UK’s retail narrative over the last few years.

At the end of 2019, Games Workshop – yes, the retailer-come-licensor of the world spanning and vastly popular Warhammer franchise – broke all of its own records when it closed the year by announcing its £257 million in sales, marking an £81 million profit for the organisation that has built its business on fantasy miniatures and orc warfare. And they tell you playing games won’t get you anywhere…

In fact, Zoe Smith, senior licensing manager at Warhammer Licensing, the consumer product licensing unit of the Games Workshop enterprise, tells ToyNews that its business has doubled
in the last three years.

Let’s put that into some context – that’s a business that has seen continual growth and profit since the on-set of Brexit. Perhaps there really is more than a hint of magic to the fantastical franchise that has the world so gripped.

ToyNews catches up with Zoe Smith to talk about the ongoing success of the retailer, its brand portfolio, and its franchise model.

Hi Zoe, so wow, not a bad few years for you. What’s business been like for Games Workshop and Warhammer over the year?

We had a really, really successful 2019 for Games Workshop, in fact it was a record breaking year. Year on year we have been seeing record-breaking results and really strong growth. Our full year results for 2019 came in at £257m in sales, marking an £81m profit. Our business has doubled in just three years, which is amazing, especially in a climate where retail is particularly challenging at the moment.

We are currently one of the top five best performing investments on the London stock exchange over the last decade (+2630 per cent).

It’s also been our biggest ever year for Warhammer Licensed products with Retail Sales of £104m. We signed 21 new partners bringing our number of licensees to 94.

A big part of our business at the moment is video gaming, from a licensed product point of view, but there is a massive focus from us – from since I started in May last year – on growing our presence at retail. We are really focusing on our retail relationships, meeting with lots of them, to get that face to face relationship.

We had some really exciting announcements, including that we are in development with a live action TV series. Then we secured our partnership with Marvel for Warhammer Comics, which will be coming later this year. Talking about Marvel and Warhammer in the same sentence is really cool, and I think – talking to retailers – it’s a great hook and breaks a few barriers.

What have been some of the biggest successes for the brand in the licensing space?

We had some great launches with our first range of Warhammer Funko Pops, which actually went on to win the Community Choice Award at the International Licensing Awards in Las Vegas, and we launched our first ever action figure from Bandai, which sold out in just 48 hours. It goes to show that when we get the product right, and it’s something that the customers want, they really invest. We are looking at how we can now broaden this out for the future.

We also had our first ever nomination in the Licensing Awards for Best Licensed Gaming property, up against some very tough competition like Fortnite or Minecraft. The nomination went to demonstrate how we are engaging with the licensing industry now more than ever.

We continue to develop stronger relationships at retail. Barnes & Noble are a good example where we have seen strong success, having launched three boardgames with them. Very soon after, these games appeared in their best sellers list for that category. For the following season B&N increased their buy significantly and we have been able to recognise their support of the brand by directing our fans to B&N via our marketing channels.

We saw reports at the end of the year of another successful run for Games Workshop – why do you think it is resonating so well with audiences at the moment – be that through its retail operations, Warhammer gaming, or overall licensing business?

One of the great things behind our success is that the core business is still a vertically integrated business, meaning that everything still happens here in our Nottingham HQ. We manage every stage apart from the actual printing of the packaging.

Over the past three years we have established incredibly strong marketing channels including a Warhammer Community site. We have an extremely dedicated fan base and they are highly engaged via these channels. We see much engagement and response from our fans. We are not just about sales, we host videos on how to paint your miniatures, gaming demonstration videos; it’s a real community that focuses on the hobby.

We are not driven by the next big film or TV series release, but we are driven by our own product release cycle and therefore our customers keep coming back for the products they want and love. It means that we can be an evergreen brand, and our customers are never restricted – there’s always something new for them to sink their teeth into.

Even though the gaming space is getting crowded with a lot of successful gaming properties, there is still nothing quite like Warhammer. People love the uniqueness of this franchise, and look at it, it is unique.

We are now seeing growth coming from international markets, with America being our biggest single market, while Japan and China are our two fastest-growing territories with still lots of untapped potential out there for us.

Warhammer caters for different types of audience with our core pillars of collect, build, paint, play. We also have an extremely successful publishing division (the Black Library) where we have over 2000 individual titles including multiple NY Times Best sellers, an extensive video game portfolio and various other consumer products such as board games, card games and so on. The thing is, however you like to indulge in the hobby of Warhammer, there is something for everyone.

The IP has a real strength and depth and it is all so cohesive, so whether you are playing the video games or reading one of the books, it is all connected.

How does Games Workshop tap into a current consumer demand for hobby gaming and pop culture?

We have really benefited from the growth in gaming and pop culture globally, which is a really growing trend at the moment. As a brand with more than 40 years in the gaming space, we are seeing fans introduce their children and grandchildren to Warhammer.

We have managed to remain really relevant, and we are seeing new generations getting into Warhammer now – this is a brand that still resonates as something cool, edgy, and timeless with audiences.

How has the success of the last year set you up for 2020? What will be some of the biggest moves to come from you guys this year?

A big thing for us will be to keep building on the successful partnerships that we
have in place, those with Funko, Bandai, the upcoming Marvel partnership that will introduce Marvel Warhammer comics in Q4 this year.

At the same time, we will continue to develop and release all new examples of the finest plastic model kits in the world and the accessories used to build/paint and play games with them.

With all of this behind us, we hope that 2020 will see us doing even more with retailers. We have had some really good conversations with retail at various shows, and I would like to see some of that coming through this year and increasing our presence within retail for the brand.

How are you adapting to the changing demands of the licensing space today, and how is this helping you maintain your position as leaders in the field?

We are one of the most prolific video game licensors at the moment, and you will definitely see us building on the success of some of the recent AAA releases such as Warhammer Total War 2 and Vermintide 2 with some more big budget, high quality titles on the way in the next couple of years.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned, Warhammer fans are driven by quality rather than price. This applies across the whole licensing space. As we’ve already mentioned Funko, Bandai, Marvel, we will be focussing on working with best in class category leaders across a broad range of consumer products.

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of Licensing.biz and ToyNews. Hutchins has worked his way up from Staff Writer to the position of Editor across the two titles, having spent some six years with both ToyNews and Licensing.biz, and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@bizmedia.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobHutchins3 if ranting is your thing...

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