Amazon’s Big and Others’ Little Boxes: An Idiosyncratic Take on Licensing Expo
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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Licensing Expo At 35,000 Feet: Sustaining Licensed Properties In A Multi-Platform Universe
EN ROUTE, LAS VEGAS, NV to NEW YORK, NY; June 23, 2016—Over 26 years attending Licensing Expo, whether sitting down to interview people or walking the aisles, I always get variations of the same question (especially from exhibitors who rarely get to leave their booths): “What are you seeing on the floor?” “What’s new?” “What’s hot?”
The truth is, when you’re at the show, the elaborate exhibits, the characters walking around, the noise, the constant visual bombardment make it difficult to process what you’re experiencing beyond realizing that the longest line at the show was to have your picture taken with Grumpy Cat (except for those of us allergic).
So to all who asked me that question this year, while I was in my tradeshow stupor, and to those just wondering, 35,000 feet on the way home offers the needed distance to pull some thoughts together.
The key theme for me: Sustainability has dual meanings. One is environmental, which is subject for another time. The other is about sustaining the life of a property in a digital age. I’m going to focus on the entertainment/character/gaming worlds here, but that subject is top of mind for every brand, fashion, sports, art, and other licensor, manufacturer, agent, and other player as well.
Traditional media still count, certainly to companies rooted in it, but the fact is many of the digital content producers don’t yet understand the importance of multiple platforms, including the traditional ones.
“Linear still has the reach and consistency you need” to support a licensing program, Cartoon Network’s Pete Yoder told me. “But we also know mom hands off [he moves his smart phone from one hand to the other] to the kids.” Three key changes in the digital age:
- “We’re developing content specific to each digital medium. It’s based on the same IP but we’re not just re-editing 11-minute programs to 90-seconds.”
- “We’re ordering the number of episodes we need by medium from the beginning.”
- “Years ago you needed 6 months to a year after a program was a hit to get a licensing program underway. Now the question is, ‘When are you launching the first access to the brand’” via any medium.
At Activision, the “traditional” medium is games, and that — just as obviously as TV is for Cartoon Network — continues to be the core. But the news at Activision is a Netflix commitment to two seasons of a Skylanders Academy series. “Our audience is 6-12, with a real sweet spot of 6-9,” the company’s Ashley Maidy noted. A linear program, for her, has the potential to “bring new kids in — younger kids whose older siblings know the game, as well as others who just haven’t been exposed to it at all. . . .It’s a marriage of digital product and multiple platforms.”
The transformation of Skylander across platforms has proven easier than for Call of Duty, but a film is in the works for that, as well.
Activision’s challenges — and a common refrain at many companies: “We still have to educate buyers and retailers who are tradition-bound that our customers aren’t watching TV. And with no ratings for Netflix, how do you measure success?” [Aside: One of the most promising areas to Activision founder Bobby Kotick, Maidy says, is eSports, which Kotick believes — and Activision will be playing an ever-greater role to accomplish — could be as big as the NFL in five years. Why not think big?]
Both Yoder and Maidy agreed with me that even two years ago if someone had offered them Netflix as an outlet for a series they would have turned up their noses. Not anymore.
That said, hyperbole from the digital world doesn’t really help on the measurement count, in part because it feels as though (not just at Licensing Expo, but in the “wider world”) that the digirati don’t really understand what’s important to know. They can measure all sorts of things, but those numbers don’t necessarily translate to something the IP, ad, or licensing worlds can use.
Consider Paladin Software’s James Creach, speaking as part of the Digital Licensing Summit program at the Expo, who observed that “the Super Bowl is watched by 112 million people but 1 billion people are active on social media in a month.” Well, an event watched simultaneously by 112 million people — roughly one in three Americans — is a very different story than a billion people spread across almost as many messages of all sorts. The latter isn’t unimportant, but the comparison does no favors in selling the medium.
I didn’t get to speak with anyone from Youtube, but their booth looked like a lost opportunity. Clearly a major player as an outlet for new IP as well as for creating new channels for existing programming, the company had a huge space. But from the outside all one saw was a small sign with some of the properties named. No effort to educate what the properties are, where Youtube fits in, how it translates into consumer products or even just to pique interest. I don’t think I’m alone among show attendees (OK, of a certain age — but younger as well) in having heard of only a very few of the properties named.
I’ll get off my soapbox in a moment. But coming from the print publishing world, one of the things I’ve watch many “digital-only” publishers discover is that at this point in time, to satisfy advertisers, they still need print. Similarly, digital video celebrities or others will find it difficult to sustain their fame or develop long-term careers without multiple platforms — and I don’t mean just multiple social media. Just as traditional media have been forced to embrace new media, so new media will need to embrace the old. Tyler Oakley, who is part of the Dreamworks/Awesomeness stable, gets it: he’s out there touring with a live show, there’s a documentary, AND he keeps up his video and social media output. Rock and roll, watch out. [Commented one music merchandiser: “We survived superheroes and Star Wars. Music is trending up.”]
Most trenchant observation by a newcomer to licensing at the show, though: John Haugh, the 3-months new CEO and President of Iconix, at a reception for Peanuts licensees: “I know many of you would like a Peanuts movie every year. We would too, but nobody does a movie every year, not even Star Wars. And I want to remind you that many of you have done very well with Peanuts for 50 years before there ever was a movie!” Talk about sustainability!