Digital Platforms, Social Media Spawn New Trends at Licensing Expo

At Licensing Expo 2015, there was a notable rise in exhibitors and attendees and according to show management, retailer attendance was up 15 percent over last year’s. This included representatives from Toys R Us, Hot Topic, Target, Staples, Pottery Barn, Justice and Kohl’s. International visitors and exhibitors also increased, with show sections devoted to various home-grown properties from Asia and South America. The powerhouse studios and media company exhibitors including Disney (with a separate space at the convention center), DreamWorks, NBC Universal, 21st Century Fox, Warner Brothers and Nickelodeon/Viacom also focused on their global audiences. These players have long dominated Licensing Expo but there is clearly room for new entrants.

While the Disney phenomenon Frozen (a sequel is in the works) continues to hold a sizeable share of buyer’s open-to-buy dollars across apparel, toys, home and more, there were plenty of options for retailers looking to differentiate their assortments or for licensees in need of new brands to spice up their existing product lines. However, while there was a rich array of properties and brands at the Expo, many of the top brands in available categories got snapped up quickly. “Reality is if core brands are taken, we plan to explore the sleeper brands with a growing following, as an alternative,” said Christine Lanigan, vice president at Rashti and Rashti, a baby and children’s wear company in New York City.

More apparel and brand management companies are exhibiting at the show to take advantage of the growing traffic and to heighten awareness for their brand portfolios and various product extension opportunities. Sequential Brands, owner of Jessica Simpson, Ellen Tracy, Avia, And 1 and recently purchased Martha Stewart Living had a presence. So too did Authentic Brands Group which owns celebrity brands Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali, along with Juicy Couture, Judith Leiber, Hart Schaffner and Marx, Spyder and more. Cherokee Global Brands, owner of Liz Lange, Carole Little and Tony Hawk,  introduced Point Cove, a new lifestyle kids’ brand with California style  geared to boys and girls ages two to 14, seeking to extend into apparel, footwear and home products. Even Saban Brands, known for its long-running TV favorite, Power Rangers, recently expanded to a new division, Saban Brands Lifestyle Group which includes Paul Frank, Mambo, MacBeth, and Piping Hot, the latter three focused on board sports and surf style. Sun Bum, a sun care brand from Cocoa Beach, Fla., introduced the character Sonny, inspired by its brand.

Men’s fashion and lifestyle brand After Dark is pursuing licensed partners to create day-to-evening sportswear and suits for the 21-to-35-year-old guy. The brand is being launched in 2016 in conjunction with Playboy and has the popular Latino rapper, Pit Bull, as the brand’s spokesperson. Maxim, once known as a lad magazine, has transformed itself into a lifestyle brand with a new editor in chief at the helm, luxury advertisers and a focus on licensed products in men’s grooming, nutrition, and of course, apparel. To not leave out the female Maxim fan, a new line of women’s swimwear will launch early next year.  

Entertainment and character brands get into fashion
Many entertainment brands were showcasing their apparel and fashion collaborations at the expo to show potential licensees and retailers their breadth beyond the typical toy, social expressions, publishing, and stationery categories. Hasbro made clever use of its imagery from Monopoly and Clue board games for sportswear concepts. Coke had a lineup of accessories and mannequins in outfits with the iconic Coke bottle imagery, the Coke bear and the brand’s famous script logo. The brand also displayed its collaboration with Herschel, a casual bag and backpack line.

The Peanuts characters will star in a new movie to be released this November. The brand has partnered with high-end fashion and accessory lines including Snoopy X Coach, a collection of exclusive handbags and leather Snoopy dolls.  

Cartoon Network took a global approach, pairing Adventure Time with H&M and Doc Martens footwear for infants to adults. Based on the success of the colorful footwear collaboration, there are new high fashion and retail partnerships in the works for late 2015/early 2016 geared to tweens and teens. The Powerpuff Girls, an animated series which began in 1998, is coming back for Spring 2016 with an all-new series. Licensing plans include a global fashion line to be launched at New York Fashion Week in September. The Crayola brand recently teamed up with Bloomingdales and select fashion designers such as Rebecca Minkoff for its “I Am Color” campaign this past spring and is planning to continue the theme on kids’ and adult licensed graphic tees and aiming for other retailer exclusives.

Celebrities’ brands are here to stay
While hundreds of characters have brought success to Disney, Fox, NBC Universal and Warner Brothers, celebrities continue to prosper through their development of lifestyle brands. Kathy Ireland, former model and actress, made an appearance at the show and has products from beauty to furniture. At the other end of the spectrum, Hulk Hogan brought crowds to the World Wrestling Enterprises booth. The David Beckham brand was introduced by The Licensing Company, a division of Global Brands Group (owned by apparel giant Li & Fung). Madonna’s Hard Candy fitness brand has eight gyms around the globe and is seeking licensees in related areas.

Digital platforms spawn new stars and product
A whole new crop of young creators is being developed into celebrities through digital platforms. Awesomeness TV, a YouTube channel, was an exhibitor at the show, along with YouTube. Executives from both companies and their creators participated in the first-ever Digital Media Licensing Summit. Panelists included Hannah Hart of My Drunk Kitchen and Missy Lynn, beauty vlogger. They shared stories of how they got started making their videos. Because young viewers are flocking to these channels, as opposed to watching traditional TV programming, consumer products and retail brands are eager to learn how to customize content for the channels, place product on the shows, and find linking opportunities via social media. The session closed with Awesomeness TV consumer products head, Jim Fielding, and Amy Kocourek, executive vice president, merchandising, from Kohl’s, discussing the success of the S.o.R.a.d. clothing line and their “pioneering in the game with this teen demographic.”

Kocourek explained that unlike traditional celebrity direct-to-retail deals, which take more than a year to develop, the S.o. R.a.d junior line was produced in six months. Various teen influencers such as Lia Marie Johnson collaborated on the line that coincided with the “A” TV series, Life So Rad. A rotating line of product with fresh styles at Kohl’s brought new customers into the store and as a result, Kohl’s saw an increase in store traffic. Junior customers snapped and shared photos of their new outfits in the fitting rooms, adding more exposure for the brand on social media.

Other entertainment brands are capitalizing on digital platforms with Netflix and Amazon. Upcoming Netflix children’s shows include pre-school geared Masha and the Bear, Tarzan and Jane, and King Kong of the Apes. Annedroids is a kids’ show streaming on Amazon along with Tumbleleaf, and Creative Galaxy.

The Nickelodeon booth, Shimmer and Shine, featured a new pre-school animated series airing later this summer that will teach lessons to its viewers about learning from mistakes. Nearby, 3D printers were demonstrating the ease of making your own Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle figurines at home. NBC Universal’s team was creating custom pet tags on the spot to promote its upcoming summer 2016 animated movie, The Secret Life of Pets, about what pets do when their human owners leave for work or school.

Beyond Frozen  
Disney’s various franchises including Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and the Disney studio are thriving. In addition to Pixar’s latest hit, Inside Out, two upcoming features, The Good Dinosaur, to be released in November, and Zootopia, set to debut in the spring, inject plenty of humor to appeal to a broad fan base. According to Josh Silverman, executive vice president of Disney Consumer Products, connecting the consumer products to storytelling is vital. Marvel’s roster of characters has been translated into adult apparel and accessories, but the stories continue to strongly appeal to kids, too. This will be demonstrated through the new Playmation toy concept that gets kids running around with their favorite characters from the Avengers or Frozen. All consumer touchpoints are essential including film, TV and digital platforms. The upcoming movie sequel Alice through the Looking Glass has inspired a limited edition collection with Marc by Marc Jacobs, in store this November. More fashion stories are in the works for the Tinkerbell live action movie and Minnie Mouse’s polka dot theme.

Across the board, when brands encourage their brightest creatives to use their imagination, to mine for characters or a new way to tell a story, the corresponding licensed products are more likely to engage fans and hit a home run.

Nancy Gendimenico is founder and CEO of Elan Brand Licensing, a consulting business to help brand owners and companies expand into new product categories. She has a 25 year career as a corporate executive in apparel and entertainment creating brand extensions and new business for Champion, C9 by Champion, and more at Hanesbrands. Prior to Hanesbrands, Nancy built character brands, such as Peanuts and other properties at United Media and BBC Worldwide.
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