NEW YORK, NY; May 26, 2018—In the end, it’s all about boxes, isn’t it?
Amazon was, is, and will remain The Topic for licensors, manufacturers, retailers, consultants, agents, and anyone else involved in the business of licensing. And what is Amazon about if not boxes?
The headline out of Licensing Expo in Las Vegas this month had to do with Merch Collab, the online retail behemoth’s new program offering design and manufacturing/sourcing expertise for fast-to-market licensed merchandise to be sold on its eponymous website.
But as much as has been written about Amazon’s impact on retailing, that impact can’t be overestimated. Whether Epic Rights’s Dell Furano holding forth on the shift of music and celebrity t-shirt and jersey sales from venues to physical retail to online or Cartoon Network’s Pete Yoder enthusing about the technology behind Amazon Go, the company’s prototype supermarket (and likely all-merchandise) store of the future, to cite but two conversations during Expo, any conversation about retail inevitably turned to Amazon.
A part of that discussion that tends to be underrepresented, however, concerns Amazon’s various experiments with physical retail. Just as many “digital-only” magazines discovered the need to develop physical magazines because that’s what advertisers demanded, so, too, Amazon clearly recognizes that physical retail isn’t going to disappear.
My friend Marty Porter, executive director of the Media & Entertainment Services Alliance (MESA), and author of the Record Plant Diaries, calls this phenomenon “physigital,” and predicts that physical media will cater to the luxury segment of the market while digital will be for the masses. Amazon understands and lives that concept instinctively.
That’s one type of box. In my idiosyncratic take on what was fun and interesting at Licensing Expo, though, there’s another:
Cross Bratz with Shopkins, mix in the unboxing craze, add steroids, and you have Boxy Girls, which debuted exclusively at Walmart via Jay@Play the week of this year’s Licensing Expo. The child gets the doll in a box that has additional little boxes with clothes, accessories, makeup and other items. There are add-on boxes with multiple surprise boxes, boxes with two limited edition dolls plus little boxes, and so on. This is completely of-the-moment. Jay@Play is represented by Cynthia Hall Domine’s licensing agency, Synchronicity.
Cartoon Network (CN) has worked with subscription box licensees Loot Crate and Box Blvd., notes CN’s Pete Yoder, who sees boxes as viable long term rather than a fad, particularly as the ratio of consumables is increased in the mix.
In a larger context, boxes (and unboxing) are part of the trend toward licensing experiences rather than products. CN has been upping the number of live and touring shows it does, says Yoder, especially in Latin America and EMEA. CN launches its first cruise ship in 2019 — cruises have become a staple for Disney — and the network has its CN-themed Six Flags amusement park in China. In the U.S., Adult Swim’s Rickmobile started touring the country last summer; now there’s an Adult Swim music and comedy festival scheduled for Los Angeles this October and featuring Run the Jewels, among other acts.
BuzzFeed had one of the more curious booths — certainly for those of us who aren’t regular BuzzFeed addicts (that includes me). Visitors toured its big red box of a booth, with only the name out front by entering a series of doors that led to rooms that had displays and might also be housing BuzzFeed execs for meetings in action.
There wasn’t much to fill you in on exactly what the rooms represented (I went through three times at different points in the show, uniformly hearing people mystified and curious) until you read the thick newspaper-like handout that explained the rooms were themed to popular BuzzFeed channels — in particular the foodie Tasty brand room, which had a display of kitchen utensils and a chef preparing pancakes and other goodies. Turns out the line of Tasty-branded utensils are also a Walmart exclusive.
Shout out to BuzzFeed for the best swag of the show: When you got to the end of your self-guided tour there were bags on pegs and shelves from which to select whatever items you wanted — multi-colored measuring cups and whisks, cosmetics cases (or maybe they were pencil cases?), glass water bottles, miniature yo-yos…Eric Karp is heading up the licensing effort.
And moving beyond boxes. Way beyond boxes:
The dinosaur roaming the show entrance near the Universal booth and scaring the bejesus out of unsuspecting passersby was presumably promoting the upcoming Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom movie opening June 22. I say presumably because no one was indicating what he was about, despite a handler upfront in dinosaur-wrastling get-up and a handler in the back keeping people away from the giant tail. The guy inside this costume wielded it phenomenally well.
Lenovo’s Jedi Challenges, available since late last year but offering demos at the show to attract other properties is the first augmented reality game I’ve seen that defined the genre for me: Put on the goggles, extend your lightsaber and you’re jousting lightsaber to lightsaber with a Jedi. Or in local mode, with another player. Asked whether the Star Wars relationship with Disney bodes well for Marvel and other Disney franchises down the road, a spokesperson suggested that “it’s easy to imagine” such a scenario but for now they are “concentrating on Star Wars.” That said, more software is needed to justify the expense of the $199 headset, but the play value is pretty incredible.
Walking malls in recent months conducting licensing tours, I’ve been struck by the variations on the classic photo booth — booths that upload to Instagram, selfie booths (contradiction in terms, no?), booths that feature licensed properties. At the show, Sony Pictures had an interesting iteration with a screen featuring characters from its upcoming Hotel Transylvania 3, opening July 18. Facing it, when you moved, the character mirrored your moves. Your image appeared in the corner near the movie character. More traditional: When Grumpy Cat wasn’t available in person for a photo, you could step in an old-fashioned photo booth and pose next to a preprogrammed Grumpy Cat.
On the promotional side — and what is Licensing Expo if not a promotional event? — kudos to WWE and, especially Sesame Street (see photo up top for your humbled blogger and friends), for the photo ops in the show’s registration area. Great way to talk into a show.
The booth garnering the most speculation was perhaps that of Jonathan and Drew Scott, known for their HGTV Property Brothers home-fixer-upper TV show. The booth referenced Property Brothers but the license being offered was Scott Brothers.
I assume Property Brothers is owned by the network and that the Scotts want to control their own licensing. (That’s akin, so to speak, to the situation many chefs featured on, say, Food Network, find themselves in: Network owns the show and controls licensing rights, but savvy chefs have retained the rights to their individual names.) The Scotts’ booth — a large, multi-tiered, beautifully outfitted affair — was packed when the brothers were on hand, and not very populated the rest of the time, save for a few staffers.
Licensing Expo is not just about entertainment, though it can feel that way. There are heritage brands, literary properties and artists along with fashion labels, sports properties, and others. Among the heritage brands new to the show this year were two fourth generation members of the family that founded Capezio, the classic dance apparel and footwear brand. While the brand was once licensed to a wider audience, it has in recent years been more limited to the dance community. Reimagining the brand through licensing is the plan.
The Licensing University program sponsored by LIMA orients hundreds of newcomers to understanding the benefits of licensing, the structure of the business, the trendlines and more.
I had the honor once again of leading the opening “Basics of Licensing” panel with “godfather of licensing” Gary Caplan, of Gary Caplan Inc., and Hallmark’s Katy Briggs. Thanks to you both, and to LIMA’s Marty Brochstein for inviting all three of us to participate.
Finally, at the airport leaving Las Vegas, there was a great pop-up booth dedicated to local hockey team the Vegas Golden Knights, who made it to the Stanley Cup finals. Sporting goods stores in Fashion Show mall were also festooned with Knights merch, but the pop-up was a great unintentional last impression of the show!
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BROOKLYN, NY: February 23, 2018—An idiosyncratic distillation of New York Toy Fair this week.
Is Rubik’s the Toy World’s Betty Boop? Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop first appeared as a cartoon character in 1930. She has since been successfully licensed for thousands of products. Even young people who don’t recognize the name know the image. And as you travel, you’ll find Betty in store windows around the globe as a come-on, even when the stores barely carry any Betty merchandise.
I was reminded of Betty at Toy Fair seeing the number of booths with a Rubik’s Cube at the sign-in desk. It only really sunk in my second day, so I can’t tell you if they were all licensees, or distributors, or putting it out there to amuse visitors while they wait for their appointments, or legitimate knock-offs (patents have expired, though trademarks are still in effect for the word Rubik and Rubik’s).
Bricks, Briks, and Pix. If you start your annual tour of Toy Fair as I do downstairs at the Javits Center in Manhattan, where the newer, smaller, scrappier companies tend to be, and head north from the southernmost aisle, one of the first booths you would have seen this year is Rubik’s Briks, from Strictly Briks, which are compatible with other brick sets such as LEGO’s.
Speaking of compatibility with the Danish company’s toy blocks, that’s been a theme for years now, with plenty of toy companies riding LEGO’s coattails into construction set glory. The above video of a replica of Coney Island’s Cyclone roller coaster illustrates a personal favorite among the relative newcomers to what I term construction brick interoperability — whatever the brand, they’ve all got to work together. As for the Cyclone, I live in Brooklyn, NY after all, just a few miles from the real thing. The set is manufactured by CDX (CoasterDynamix) and has been out since mid-2017.
Non-tech Toys With Tech-ish Names. Another variant on interoperability with LEGO is Pix Brix, which offers “pixel art” by way of mini-bricks (also compatible). That plays into yet another theme: companies with traditional (read that non-electronic/non-digital) toys trying to imbue those toys with a hint of interactivity by borrowing tech-ish descriptors — for example, “pixel” art, or their tag line, “What will you pixelate?” Similarly, Charles Zadeh’s booth featured art kits urging kids to “Explore your inner selfie” while puzzle-maker 4D Cityscape Time Puzzle, which makes upscale 3D puzzle (not sure what the 4th dimension is here), incorporating 4D into its name. That company has about eight Game of Thrones titles, just signed Harry Potter and has 6-8 Potter puzzles forthcoming. Nothing tech about these.
From Tech-ish to Tech — And Every Gradation In Between. My bad for not being aware of the term “mixed reality” until the show, certainly not in the context of toys. But there it was on signage touting MergeVR’s Merge 6DoF Blaster, one of at least half a dozen devices at different booths integrating a smartphone as its screen.
Thank you Wikipedia for the formal definition: “Mixed reality (MR), sometimes referred to as hybrid reality, is the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time.” Move in a real space and you move similarly in the parallel universe of the imaginary space on the screen.
Variations On Classic Themes. Slime is back. A generational fad if ever there was one (comes back about every 17 years). When Cra-Z-Art saw sales of its glue soaring as children used it with other ingredients to make slime, the company licensed the Nickelodeon name and produced a now best-selling slime-making kit. Meanwhile, Keycraft Global’s variant comes in Goobands (remember SillyBandz?), and Steven Spangler has DIY slime science kits. That’s just three of many slimey products. . . .Twee (funny name for a company, but hey) offers gorgeous sidewalk chalk that comes in the shapes/images of sushi, glittery donuts, and more. . . .Bobble Head banks from Tin Box Company featuring DC, Star Wars and other licenses. . . .My Arcade’s miniature arcade replica games licensed from Bandai Namco and Data East.
Hot Brands. Rick & Morty. Game of Thrones. Minecraft. I keep hearing that Paw Patrol is falling off, but it’s still omni-present. Ditto for Star Wars, but more on that in an upcoming post. Coming on strong: Bendy and the Ink Machine. I didn’t know, either, folks; year-old horror videogame from TheMeatly Games. Runs on multiple platforms. Watch it (the brand), but don’t wait too long to sign on.
Off-the-Beaten Path Licensed Brands. Bachman Trains with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus (now certainly a nostalgia brand; how long can it be maintained? Will Feld revive the brand in a new context?) and Norman Rockwell. . . .American Chess picking up Bobby Fischer. . . .Kitchen/home graphic designer and children’s book illustrator Mary Engelbreit will have her own Looney Labs card games later this year.
Collectables. Imperial Toys’ collectable food trucks, coming out fall. Imperial is known for bubbles — and they have a new variant on the flavored bubbles they first introduced a year ago, to be known as Lick-A-Bubble going forward (1.6 million views of the ad on Youtube since mid-January). But food trucks are definitely trending, and for a company as non-trend-rooted as Imperial to come up with nice designs, with side hoods that go up to reveal the kitchens plus movable roofs, this is a nice surprise. The preliminary packaging says 5+ but I see this as a 20-something office fad. Toys aren’t just for kids, you know.
On that note: There has long been a market for upscale collectables for adults, but credit Funko for expanding the category and giving it legs.
New, Neat & With Licensing Potential. Stroller Costumes to entice kids to get in. “Inspired by my son, who refused to get in the stroller. I designed one that looked like a truck. Problem solved,” says inventor/dad-preneur Moses Atkins. Definite potential for licensing. He found interest among licensors, retailers, and manufacturers.
Sago’s Pillow Playsets, which are beautifully detailed with sewn pockets, curtains, and other features. Retailing at $49.95, for upscale toy/gift boutiques and, again, potential for licensed versions. Toronto-based Sago, by the way, launched five years ago offering wordless apps for kids that have now been downloaded 27 million times and subsequently became an activity toy company.
Roooz Planet is a book with an exceptional array of characters its author/illustrator Rooz Mousaur sees delivering environmental messages.
Glove-A-Bubbles makes an oversized glove that has a pouch for bubble mix and different size holes above the fingers. Empty the bubbles into a dish, dip the upper part of the glove in, and wave your hand to generate multiple sized bubbles. The original art isn’t that interesting, but the concept could definitely work for licensed characters.
Other Views. Writer/consultant/photographer Karen Raugust kicks off her Toy Fair coverage with a look at the role social media influencers such as toy testers, mommy bloggers, comedians, singers and pranksters are playing in the toy industry. LIMA’s Inside Licensing goes behind the press releases, including commentary on poop toys and games, and collectables. The Wall Street Journal explores the toy industry’s efforts to match fast fashion’s speed to market.
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BROOKLYN, NY; FEBRUARY 24, 2017—“What did you see that was new?”
Those are the questions anyone who has walked a trade show of any kind is asked in the aisles and at cocktail receptions once the floor closes. And hardened show attendees, even though they, too, ask those questions, know the answer: “Not much.” Not so, I say. It just takes a little time to reflect.
Walking NY Toy Fair last week, and AmericasMart Atlanta and NY Now, known by most as the Atlanta and New York gift shows, respectively, isn’t about “new” or “exciting.”
Walking such shows is instead an opportunity to:
√ Soak up innovative design and product development trends;
√ Evaluate the latest technology advances — and how they’re being integrated into traditional products;
√ See the color palettes coming over the next few selling seasons across multiple product categories;
√ Discover the tweaks that build on success; and, equally importantly…
√ Bear witness to concepts/products being tested for retailer interest that will never make it to market. These, too, are instructive.
Here, then, are the themes and random observations from a month of shows. Some of these products already have some licensing supporting them; many of the others have clear licensing potential because, while the technology (in the broadest sense) can be copied, licensing the right properties for it offers differentiation.
Tech, Tech Everywhere
One striking trend is the integration of textiles including bedding and rugs, as well as floor coverings, wall hangings, and other decorative accessories, into app-based games and stories. Note: The classic “RC” radio-controlled toys are often though not exclusively now controlled by apps. This segment includes:
- Apps where augmented reality stories are controlled by aiming a smartphone or tablet camera at a map or map-like image (a forest, say) which are increasing in number. Tilt’s SpinTales (owned by textile manufacturer Welspun) delivers video, narration, and activity suggestions when a device’s camera is focused on an illustration matching one on a Tilt-designed duvet cover or rug. The app itself is free. This is the tech-enhanced version of the gaming format used by Charlotte, NC-based Playtime Edventures, which designs sheets that are used as gameboards for non-electronic games such as checkers.
- Virtual reality goggles and a small app-driven drone with a camera are part of Spin Master’s latest add-ons to the Air Hogs DR1 Racing line. The goggles center the user inside the action, which is the next step after “watching” the action on a tablet or phone.
- Decalcomania, which is primarily known for stick figure family-on-board car decals as well as traditional licensed decals, is introducing wall decals that are essentially gussied up QR codes which, when activated by your device, take you to video footage or games.
- Luvabella is a life-like doll, also from Spin Master, that was, frankly, a little creepy in its responsiveness (and its eyes). The doll stretches when waking, laughs when you tickle it, makes appropriate sounds when eating, and expands vocabulary as the child playing with it grows. It is NOT internet- or Wi-Fi connected, a problem Mattel encountered with its talking Barbie a while back. Note to Spin Master: Luva Bella is a wine bar and bistro in Lowellville, OH, for which Luvabella the doll is definitely underage.
I can’t say as I’ve seen the “killer app” in augmented or virtual reality, but that will come in time, no doubt. And sometimes classic technology can be executed with a fresh spin. Helio’s light projector, for example, exchanges the typical stars projected on the ceiling of a child’s room with interchangeable word games and other educational material. The company is now producing projectable discs featuring Mickey Mouse for its lamps for sale exclusively in Disney theme parks and stores.
Holiday season 2016’s must-have out-of-stock toy was Spin Master’s Hatchimals. Now that they’re in-stock, they’re spawning not only new editions in their own line, but copycat versions such as Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Company’s Surprizimals. Similarly, Disney’s success with stackable Tsum-Tsum plush finds Ty featuring Teeny Tys very prominently.
Generally, interest in “collectible” small toys (add Spin Master’s Chubby Puppies, which may be politically incorrect, and classics such as Hasbro’s My Little Pony and Polly Pocket, among many others) is perennial, though I suspect hitting a peak for the moment. As a trend, that will rest and come back in some new iteration in 6-7 years.
Chalk It Up
Chalk boards and chalk writing had been a trend for a number of years at the gift shows, though that seems to have plateaued and perhaps fallen off. However, there are new versions of chalk toys for kids that are interesting.
Chalk of the Town, launched in August and seen at NY Now, offers t-shirts with markable and erasable/washable chalk boards embedded. The shirts come with special markers. Licensing opportunities seem like a natural fit for a chalkboard in the shape of, say, Mickey/Minnie ears or a Mustang.
Jaq Jaq Bird started 12 years ago with a foldable chalk mat on one side, placemat (for eating) on the other. Its latest offering, seen at AmericasMart, are artist-based Chalk Color It Books — soft-sided books evoking Van Gogh, Degas, and others. The pages have outlines based on the original art which can be filled in with the company’s Zero Dust Chalk. Again, easy to see licensed applications here.
Color Me Bright
AmericasMart and NY Now are notable for the color palettes that jump out at you. The photos here tell the story:
Bumkins and Avanchy are among those selling brightly colored silicone “plates” and mats for young children. Bumkins is a long-time licensee of DC, Dr. Seuss, and others, and Avanchy uses the silicone for the suction bottom and non-dishwasher-friendly bamboo for the plates and utensils. Baggu offers a range of reusable shopping bags. Color Cords specializes in colorful electrical cords, fabric wire, and other accessories.
I started by talking about fabric and technology, but fabric is a running theme here with its own “technologies,” what with wearable chalk boards you can throw in the wash and others that fold, crinkle, are heat-activated, and so on. Examples include Palomar’s “Crumpled City” cloth maps; Mikabarr’s heat-activated polymer fabric that folds for lamps (and other fabric types that fold in unique ways), from Israel; Uashmama’s washable paper food bags, aprons, cosmetic cases, and more, out of Australia.
Sometimes I come across products that have been around that I simply haven’t seen before. Ciao! Baby’s Portable High Chair folds the way beach chairs do, and is about the same weight. The Louisville, KY-based company has licensed versions for 49 schools via Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) and the product has been on the market for about five years. The new accessory: a clip-on lightweight umbrella, thus far only with the Ciao! Baby logo but which attaches to the licensed high chairs, too.
What’s new? What’s exciting? Those are questions with no answers in the heat of the moment, coming off the floor in that hazy state I’ll call “convention head.” But a little reflection always brings new ideas and perspectives.
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Following up on why there won’t be a “next” Pokémon GO, as if there hasn’t been enough written about it:
- Book and toy as well as mass merchants and other specialty retailers, are not surprisingly reporting vastly increased demand for Pokémon merchandise. See Publishers Weekly for bookseller (and bookstore café managers’) comments on how the “New Pokemon Game Takes Bookstores By Storm.”
- While there have been reports that Nintendo is signing Pokémon GO licensing deals “left and right” (see NY Post), that is inaccurate on several counts: First, Nintendo doesn’t control the rights, The Pokémon Company (TPC, of which Nintendo is a part owner) does. Second, The Pokémon Company signed its deals for the 20th anniversary of the property last year and marked that occasion with a Super Bowl commercial this past January. So while the degree of success of the app was unanticipated, the fact that there would be renewed attention on the property, which Millennials grew up with, was not.
- The Pokémon Company London office covers all of Europe, where poster and other merchandise licensee GB Eye’s Max Arguile relates to me his own conversation with the company. “Given that there is no difference between the artwork of Pokémon and Pokémon GO,” Arguile says TPC told him, “it makes no sense for them to spend time negotiating licenses that would effectively replicate what they already have in the market (and either making licensees pay twice for the same thing or annoying them by appointing a competitor). The only difference in artwork is the addition of GO to the logo. If [their position on not licensing separate Pokémon GO Images] changes they will let us know but right now they are busy fielding multiple calls every day from all the major retailers — this is where the real money is, not in adding licensees. [In the wake of the Pokémon GO Phenomenon,] Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury, Primark, Debenhams, Matalan and M&S have all ordered big apparel ranges for Q3/Q4 2016. This will be achieved by print-on-demand. Other categories, such as bedding are going into most of the same retailers.” Arguile adds that TPC forecasts “some big collaborations in 2017.”
- The most recent estimate of worldwide retail sales of licensed Pokémon merchandise is for 2014 at $328 million, according to The Licensing Letter. I estimate that in 2015 the property would have been down somewhat as is typical prior to an event such as a 20th anniversary. Published reports of $600 million seem way out of range.
- Publishers Weekly isn’t the only non-game trade magazine reporting on Pokémon. Try this one from Billboard, about the characters landing in music business offices. Not to mention the fact that the New York Police Department issued Pokémon GO Safety Tips, sent by email to subscribers to its various alerts as well as posted on its website.
- While Millennials are the core audience, even among my boomer contemporaries, the topic literally came up in every dinner conversation the past week, and a number of friends have downloaded and played with the app, though they’re not going out in search of merchandise. (At least not until this filters down to their grandchildren…)
NEW YORK, NY; July 12, 2016—Here’s the Pokemon GO story — “How Pokemon GO Took Over The World And Why There’s No Point In Ripping It Off,” a commentary by The Wrap’s Phil Owen — you need to read if you’re wondering how to cash in on the craze.
For years I’ve been warning people that building their business plan on being “the next Beatles,” “the next Disney,” “the next Andy Warhol” is to set yourself up for failure. If you do that well, great — and hopefully you can be prepared for how to prolong the life of the property or project. But most business propositions aren’t going to hit the stratosphere.
Years ago I asked Clive Davis, the legendary music business impresario and then Arista label-head, how surprised he was when the single “There Goes Another Love Song” off the Outlaws’ debut album was a hit “out of the box.” “Not surprised enough not to know what to do.”
It was a brilliant answer that I’ve quoted often, and that has informed much of my research into and thinking about pop culture over the years.
I don’t agree 100% with Owen: I suspect there will be a market for other Pokemon GO-like augmented reality games. They just won’t be the phenomena that Pokemon GO is, and as long as the creators don’t scale up for being “the next Pokemon GO” at least some will be viable.
The critical question is how long Pokemon GO can be sustained and, for Nintendo, whether it will have a salutary affect on sales of Nintendo game systems, games and licensed merchandise. (See my recent post, “Sustaining Licensed Properties In A Multi-Platform Universe.”) Generally, the faster a fad takes off, the faster it crashes.
FYI, if you’re a gamer of a certain age thinking it’s time to cash in on your dusty classic Pokemon collection, eBay had 440,296 Pokemon items available when I just checked, 95,548 of them trading card collections.
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