Driving Living History Forward With National Geographic Consumer Products

ACROSS THE UNITED STATES; July 17, 2017—Rarely do you literally drive head-on into the challenges and opportunities of licensing as my wife Riva and I did this summer.

The property: National Geographic, founded in 1888.

Tracing the route: Start with an elaborate, beautifully orchestrated presentation at Licensing Expo in Las Vegas, an early stop on what turned into a 9-week cross-country road trip visiting primarily national parks and forests.

Add 45-minutes the next morning with a bleary-eyed but no less enthusiastic and articulate Rosa Zeegers, who I first met during her 12+ years in licensing and business development at Mattel, and who is now EVP Consumer Products & Experiences at National Geographic Partners, the for-profit spinoff of the National Geographic Society that was formed two years ago by 21st Century Fox (which owns 73% of NG Partners) and the Society. A percentage of all profits from the operation benefits the Society.

But our paths didn’t stop crossing in Las Vegas, and it was those additional crossings that drove home, so to speak, so much of what was presented at the summit and that Zeegers and I discussed.

The talk of Yosemite National Park, where we happened to be on June 3rd, was how rock climber Alex Honnold scaled the 3,000-foot El Capitan without ropes in a record three hours and 56 minutes that morning. Who documented the event? National Geographic.

El Capitan w-RB-IM

Heading north to Redwood National and State Parks, who had documented the height of the tallest Sequoia sempervirens — better known as a California redwood about 10 years ago? National Geographic.

Redwood - IM measures circumference

Who publishes the detailed trail map to Olympic National Park (among many others) that our rock-climbing son-in-law lent us? National Geographic.

Throughout our trip, which covered about 10 parks and forests in the U.S. and more in Canada, references to National Geographic cropped up repeatedly. And therein both the challenges and opportunities.

Ubiquity? Check.

Respect? Check.

Name and logo recognition? Check.

Your grandparents’ magazine? Check.

Dusty stack of old National Geographics in the basement or attic? Check.

You get the idea.

At its Vegas presentation, which served as a summit for existing licensees but also included select potential licensees the company was hoping to impress and bring into the fold, the emphasis was on National Geographic’s efforts to attract millennials. Touting its status as a No. 1 social media brand (the No. 1 title seeming a bit fabricated, based on “the number of social actions” such as likes, shares, comments, and retweets over a three-month period in 2015, as measured by Shareablee), spotlights the divide between the substantially older group that follows the classic print magazine and books, and the younger audience for the TV and online offerings. Theme-based issues of the magazine such as those on gender, or on Mars, have skewed younger than the traditional audience, and more of these are on the boards.

But bridging that gap is the challenge that hangs over all future opportunities — opportunites that are varied, numerous, and not limited to licensing.

For example, Zeegers says the company is “moving up [the] vertical integration” ladder, having recently purchased Global Adrenaline, a tour operator it had worked with on a licensing basis in the past “so we earn more than a royalty.” National Geographic has 16 partners in the travel segment, as well as lodges. That travel group represents an effort that was started 17 years ago and which has shown 20% annual growth over that period. Up next for travel: Adding river cruises.

The company plans on “building a kids franchise” with various potential spinoffs. “Millennial parents want kids to play with toys that add substance, that pull them away from the tablet and educate — but are still fun,” says Zeegers.

Focus will also fall on National Geographic Live, e-commerce, books, and, of course, licensing, among other areas under Zeegers’s purview. Outdoor fashion and footwear, she suggests, are organic brand extensions which Zeegers sees as an opportunity “for a retailer to grow together with us.”

The timeline for new licensing agreements? Two years, with a two year option, and assuming a year for negotiating and product development. “What’s five years in 129?” Zeegers asks with a smile.

The franchise she is looking to drive in new directions, to younger audiences, is living history. After 12,124 miles I can vouch first hand.

P.S. The photos accompanying this story are Riva’s and mine, not National Geographic’s; the video link is theirs!

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Merchandise Wagging The Book At BookExpo

New or recently new exhibitors at BookExpo America, the book publishing tradeshow in New York City this week, are using plush, handbags, and other items to differentiate their books in the competitive children’s and YA aisles. Some is licensed, or (hopefully, from the view of the authors and designers) will be. And some prefer to maintain control. (See my previous post for a report on artists at Surtex and the National Stationery Show similarly wanting to maintain control.)

Much of what we saw this week is being manufactured for show display only, as a test, or in small quantities the authors sell on their own websites.

Louisiana-based author Lance Olsen and illustrator Thomas Perry were showcasing their “Sharky Marky” preschool book with a plush shark in a plush car, both of which they fabricated for the show. The website also features coloring book sheets that can be downloaded. They had a sign that they’re looking for a literary agent and/or publisher, and they’re amenable to licensing. Distribution is primarily via Barnes & Noble and amazon, plus a handful of stores in Louisiana.

Author/illustrator/designer Christopher Straub had similarly beautiful 9” plush for his books, “Albert the Confused Manatee” and “Rocky the Confused Platypus.” Indeed, the level of detail in the plush was striking, making the book characters seem a little plain by comparison.

Straub told me he had to have the fabric for the platypus made to his specifications because he couldn’t find something the right color that had as good a feel as the fabric for the manatee, and he is concerned about continuity in the look and feel of the characters.

Straub sells his books ($17.99 MSRP) and the plush ($22.00 MSRP) on his website, and estimates he’s shipped about 2500 books from his home office over the last six months.

PumpkinkidsAuthor/illustrator Karen Kilpatrick, based in Florida, is working with licensing business pro Joan Packard Luks to build on her series of learning books based on her Pumpkinheads characters. The books are self-published for the moment, with Baker & Taylor and other traditional distributors making them available as well. An app has just launched, and Luks says animation is in the works, as well as formally licensed merchandise.

BeautyLand Couture is an online retailer offering beauty items from hair appliances to HBA to candy sticks, as well as handbags and apparel for young teens.

Madison KThe book tie-in? A YA series built around a character named Madison K., an 18-year-old fashionista with positive morals and work ethic created by author and BeautyLand Couture founder Nina Kaplan. A third book in the Madison K. series launched at the show, as did some new Kaplan-designed merchandise.

Of course there were plenty of licensing business standbys at the show:

Disney Publishing had a relatively modest booth.

Candlewick Press is using the inside of the dust jackets to create coloring posters for Peppa Pig and other titles, and is doing book + novelty packs for Peppa, including “Love Game” for the upcoming Valentine’s Day. (Candlewick shares U.S. book rights for Peppa Pig with Scholastic — different formats for each.)

Bendon and Parragon had their wide assortments of licensed titles.

Plenty of Star Wars and Star Trek, as well.

And there were a handful of very creative book-based companies that sell their own very unique merchandise. Two standouts:

  • I continue to be impressed by Litographs, which designs shirts, prints, and other goods in designs composed of all the words in the book in teeny tiny type.
  • Obvious State BEANew to the show this year (but in business for two years), is Obvious State, which creates art out of quotes, titles, and other book-based sources.

Both companies handle their own manufacturing, but their designs are certainly licensable for categories beyond those they make or source themselves.


Nina Kaplan,; 267-644-6119

Karen Kilpatrick,; 954-309-3640

Joan Packard Luks,; 201-224-2190

Lance Olsen,; 504-919-0082

Christopher Straub,; 612-387-4488