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Start Licensing’s Ian Downes speaks with Kevin Spindler – Group CEO of Signature Gifts – about what he looks for in a brand, the key to good relationships with licensors and the future of personalisation.
Kevin, it’s great to catch up. To kick us off, can you give us a short overview of Signature Gifts and the company’s background?
Signature Gifts creates personalised published gifts that are easier to give, mean more and connect more deeply – with an unrivalled range. The company was set up in 2003 by Mike Herbert and I, as we recognised the opportunity presented by the growing internet to sell personalised gifts easily. We were later joined in 2014 by Deborah Hancock providing the skill-set and manufacturing capability in general gifting.
Our main markets are the UK and USA, but we also have websites targeted and selling in Australia and Spain. We turnover around £14m and employ 120 people in Scotland, Stoke, Harpenden and the US. We benefited greatly from the boost to online retailing brought on by lockdown, and are maintaining much of that growth into 2022.
We create, manufacture and market personalised books, including titles from most major publishers like Disney, Harper, Mattel, Egmont and Penguin. We are involved in all aspects of the supply and value chain.
Our products also include the UK’s largest archive of around 2.5m to 3m UK and US newspapers dating back 200 years. These are sold as gifts for milestone occasions, such as a 50th or 60th birthday. We also have an extensive capability based out of Stoke in general personalised gifting, which is increasingly being used to enhance the gift appeal of books and newspapers with the creation of higher value gift sets.
Our comprehensive range of personalised published gifts are primarily sold via our leading e-com websites – www.inthebook.com and www.historic-newspapers.co.uk. We also sell via most leading online retailers such as Shop Direct, Next, Getting Personal, Studio and JD Williams in the UK, and Uncommon Goods, Hammacher, Signals, Pottery Barns Kids and so on in the US.
I know that you feature a lot of licensed products in your range. Do you have a set approach to licensing? What does it add to your business?
Licensed brands raise barriers to competition, can improve average value achieved and increase sales as they’re more recognised and established than our internally created titles.
When looking at a new licence, we evaluate demand. We also look at the assets available from the licensor and determine the level of work required to create a personalised book. Finally, we review the level of admin and reporting requirements. If estimated demand is questionable, reporting requirements are onerous and the level of work to create a personalised book is high, we are unlikely to take on the brand.
Great insights. Now, given your products are centred on personalisation, how do you ensure that you keep them on trend design-wise?
We continually review the market for latest trends. For example, the popularity of unicorns increased some years back, so we created a number of books around that. We will look at gift occasions and create relevant story books based on events like births, birthdays and things like Father’s Day.
We also keep up to date with technology. Photo-led gifts are a big area, for example, so we have recently developed photo-led story books, where the personalisation is one or more photos. These are incorporated into a story and the photos themselves adapted to look as if part of the story rather than flat images.
I know you have a lot of football related products. Are there other sports categories you have developed or are looking at?
We cover most sports, including in the US. We mainly focus on our newspaper books in this area, creating editions that reproduce coverage of great sporting events like the Ryder Cup, Cricket, Rugby, Wimbledon, F1, cycling, horse racing, boxing and so on. These books don’t just look back in time, but allow the recipient to relive those special moments or games from as far back as the early 20th century, as they were witnessed and reported at the time.
Thinking ahead over the next two years or so, what trends do you see having an impact on the personalised products space?
In some respects, the need for innovative gifts around the core occasions does not change. It’s why our books have a long-life cycle. If relevant for a birthday five years ago, they are still relevant now. However, the days when companies can simply print a name on a mug – usually a cheap one at that – are on the wane.
Technology will be one key driver of trends. The use of innovative apps and websites that allow customers to create, preview and get delivered – same or next day – a highly personalised book or gift will become increasingly common. Customer expectations keep increasing, and we must deliver on that.
Returning to licensing, what advice would you give to brand owners wanting to work with you?
Stop demanding a minimum guarantee and advance on signing. We are not simply adding a character or logo to an item which costs little and can be in market quickly. To create a truly amazing book – especially if the assets provided are not in an easily useable form – means we can spend three to six months, or more, in development and getting sign off from the licensor – or not! We can spend thousands creating one book edition. To pay upfront months before we can sell – and run the risk that it’s not signed off – is just too risky.
Also, simplify the reporting and requirement per quarter. Currently we have to employ a large accounts and royalty team just to manage this. It adds further costs and reduces the attractiveness of licensing.
Insightful answer Kevin. Finally, thinking about design and product development, what advice would you give to young designers looking to work in your sector?
Being a great illustrator and designer is not enough. They need the skills in software like InDesign, DirectSmile and Photoshop. Also, an ability to learn quickly and use the systems of our licensors. We see many brilliant artists who claim tech skills, but in most cases it’s not sufficient. Employability increases massively if they are equally skilled in the technical aspects of design.
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