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!
Looking for a licensing assessment to assist with strategy and new business development? I’ll help you identify the white space for your licensing program through competitive analysis. Visit www.iramayer.com for details.
Uncertainty Of ‘Trumponomics’ Shapes Discussions At NYC Licensing Summit
NEW YORK, NY; March 6, 2017—Sequential Brands Group’s Yehuda Shmidman did his best to put a positive contextual spin on the current state of retail at Li©ense Global’s sold out NYC Summit last week. Even if you didn’t agree with all of his assumptions, he made a compelling case for a future (five-plus years from now) in which we will “look at this [period] as the ‘2008 crisis’ for retail,” a reference to the financial collapse of that year.
Shmidman’s boiling down of the root causes of the current status of retail to two key factors — we are “overstored” at 48.4 square feet of retail space per capita in the U.S., compared to 23 square feet for the next largest market, the UK; and the disruptive effects of e-commerce — crystalized the themes that emerged in a day and a half of presentations by licensors, licensees, and agents at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. (More on Shmidman’s observations shortly.)
Among the themes:
- Impact of Trumponomics — in particular trade agreements and tax structures — on the licensing business.
- A shift away from boomer-centric to millennial-centric shopper behavior, and the commensurate overwhelming challenge of embracing social media and staying ahead of trendlines. (A favorite presentation among Summit participants I spoke with was PepsiCo Creator Carlos Saavedra — yes, that’s his title, and licensing is part of his domain — whose talk centered on implementing experiential licensing-based programs that spur social media use and lead to new business concepts.)
- Continued rapid growth in licensors’ embrace of off-price and club stores.
- “The anxiety [that the] retail store-based consolidation that we are seeing is the tip of the iceberg,” as PVH’s Ken Wyse put it.
- Acknowledgment of limited growth opportunities for evergreen brands (e.g. “maintain” brands at Iconix, including Canon, Waverly, and Fieldcrest; “heritage brands” such as Izod at PVH. Of course both have developing as well as high growth or, as Iconix terms them, “driver” brands).
- Impact of just-in-time sales data which, combined with consumer ability to order instantly, requires substantially greater speed to market and, as Xcel Brands Robert D’Loren put it, “52 seasons a year.”
- Dramatic differences in how companies define “experiential” licensing, which might mean the Kola House restaurant in NYC’s meat packing district for PepsiCo, sponsorship of a half-marathon for Iconix’s Danskin Now brand, or arena eSports events for Activision Blizzard.
- Near-impossibility of countering counterfeits in many markets.
‘Trumponomics’ Trumps the Conversation
“How will Trump changes impact global trade?” PVH’s Wyse asked. Some were more uncertain than others of how trade policy will shake out. Robert D’Loren of Xcel Brands (and the financial co-founder with Neil Cole of Iconix who had previously run the retailer Athlete’s Foot) was the most emphatic. Having lobbied congressional offices in Washington, DC the prior day with the American Apparel and Footwear Association, he was convinced “the border tax will become law. We were arguing to phase it in to give us some time.”
Speaking of brand holding companies such as Sequential and Iconix, that specialize in licensing out all manufacturing, equity research analyst Eric Beder, of Wunderlich Securities, wasn’t hazarding a guess as to what the new administration will do on the economic front, but suggested that some of the proposals under consideration could deliver “a new tax structure that could potentially destroy every brand that doesn’t have core,” core being something that they make, market, and distribute themselves. (Interestingly, Iconix’s Dave Jones said earlier in the event that Iconix deems itself “asset –lite; we don’t make anything,” touting that as a positive aspect of its business model.)
Of a potential border tax, Beder adds, “A border tax doesn’t let you account for cost of goods [in your pricing]; and you can’t turn on a dime to manufacture in the U.S. It’s going to be tough for Republican senators in states like Arkansas to vote for.” Unlike D’Loren, Beder said, “I think it won’t happen, but it will keep rearing its head” and keep that state of anxiety high.
Meanwhile, Wyse noted that he’d made the infamous shirt and tie licensing deal with Donald Trump 11 years ago. “At some point, for various reasons, I wound up a member of Mar-a-Lago,” he said. “And recently I ran into the president there. He remembered me, and remembered the deal. We talked, and he was very much on top of the apparel business.”
As for the “2008 crisis for retail,” Shmidman likes to look to the book business, which he said is now “post-crisis,” for inspiration: 46% of book stores are gone, he noted, while in the apparel business, for which 15% of sales are online compared to 10%-12% for merchandise overall, only 7% of stores are gone so far. With the growth of online retailing, he added, “We have to be able to adjust distribution.” To that end, Sequential is increasingly focusing on building digital businesses for its brands. Example: Martha Stewart meal kits, a “pure digital business” that is “growing double digits month to month.” Earlier that week, Sequential had downgraded its guidance for 2017, attributing the decline primarily to weakness in the department store segment.
- Off-price retail sales were up 9% 2015-2016, reported Iconix’s Jones. But off-price, discount, dollar, and clubs are “mostly for our ‘maintain’ brands.
- PVH’s Wyse said off-price is “crucial — not for designer brands, though we certainly sell some Tommy [Hilfiger] and Calvin [Klein] at Costco. For our heritage brands it’s vastly expanded. We might have a halo [presence] at Macy’s or Belk. But where off-price might have once been 12% of business for certain brands [it] can now be 20%-40%.”
- “Retailers need to get better at e-commerce. It’s not something we want to be in on our own.” (Dave Jones, Iconix)
- Brand marketers and retailers need to “reimagine shopping, entertainment, and social as one.” (Robert D’Loren, Xcel Brands)
- “PepsiCo is doing something every agent in this room wishes every client did: applying metrics beyond dollars.” (Debra Joester, The Joester Loria Group, which represents PepsiCo). On a similar note, Scott Bannell, recently retired from Stanley Black & Decker (represented by Beanstalk), outlined the four objectives that company has for licensing: Increase brand impressions and touchpoints; please end-users so they buy more core; expand to new channels and partners; and use licensing income to invest in brand-building programs.
- “We are a media company, not an apparel company.” (Robert D’Loren, Xcel Brands)
- “We don’t sell posters anymore. We sell wall art.” (Dell Furano, Epic Rights, which specializes in licensing musical artists)
- “We are one year away from Amazon, WalMart, and Alibaba accounting for $1.5 trillion in sales.” (Yehuda Shmidman, Sequential Brands Group)
- “Retailers don’t want the brand, they want product performance.” (Scott Bannell, Stanley Black & Decker)
- “Don’t think you can give licensing part-time to someone on a team.” (Scott Bannell, Stanley Black & Decker)
- “Wall Street doesn’t like debt anymore, which hit Iconix and Sequential[‘s stock valuations].” (Eric Beder, Wunderlich Securities)
- For subscription box service Loot Crate, “every box has to arrive the same day, so the videos of people opening the boxes aren’t spoilers.” (David Morris, Loot Crate)
- Spirit Halloween’s 1300 stores do “the same volume in eight weeks as [parent company] Spencer Gifts does in a year.” (Eric Morse, Spirit Halloween/Spencer Gifts)
- Asked what licensors can do to help retailer Tesco, the retailer’s Rachel Wakley said, “Talk to us. Walk our aisles. Make sure your licensees sell your brand as well as you do. If you have to call me to ask for feedback about your licensee you’re probably working with the wrong licensee.”
- “If you can’t sell it in a tweet, it’s not good enough.” (Rachel Wakley, Tesco)
- “Let the customer tell you what they want, then be the best to deliver it.” (Rachel Wakley, Tesco)
- “If you’re rotten and toxic on the inside, no amount of makeup is going to cover that up.” (Drew Barrymore, actress and founder of Flower Beauty, a cosmetics brand available exclusively at WalMart, and other companies.)
Ira Mayer, co-director of the Institute of Branding & Licensing at LIU Post University, and former Publisher of The Licensing Letter, conducts competitive research for marketing and licensing companies. Contact him at email@example.com.