Talking Brands: Given the increase in visitor numbers at BLE 2023, how will this translate into new business opportunities?

BLE 2023 welcomed record numbers of retailers – and enjoyed a healthy jump in total visitors on 2022’s show. Claire Potter, Ian Downes, Richard Pink and Clare Piggott discuss what this means for their businesses – and where future growth lies…

Brand Licensing Europe, BLE, Claire Potter, Metrostar, Richard Pink, Pink Key Licensing, Ian Downes, Start Licensing, Claire Piggott, Larkshead LicensingClaire Potter, Founder, Metrostar
We have a 19-year history with BLE and have always valued it. It’s no surprise to us that numbers were up this year. Our meeting numbers were markedly up – almost 30% more than 2022 – and we had a strong level of interest in our brands.

Our meetings suggested that all licensing sectors are forecasting growth after some uncertain years in most cases. Most sectors have washed Covid out of their systems and while inflation continues to put pressure on margins – and the supply chain is still patchy – there was a sense that that is easing. Importantly, there were clear signals from retailers that they’re looking for ‘new’ and we had a number of walk ups from buyers interested in working with our brands for the first time.

A theme of our best meetings was innovation and how our brands can help brand partners and retailers to disrupt the consumer conversation. Licensing is being seen as an important part of the mix for both retailers and brands. Both in terms of creating retail theatre, range difference and shopper footfall, as well as expanding a brand’s footprint and relevancy amongst key audiences. Expect to see a number of nice collaborations in 2024!

Licensing also enables brands to realise their emotional footprint in product and commercial terms… That often means we need to layer on originality to the process and talk with those new to or at the margins of licensing. Previously we wouldn’t have looked to BLE to facilitate that, but this year the event attracted more of those companies and we enjoyed seeking them out and engaging with them through the matchmaking platform. It’s a complete joy to have strong interest from companies and brands new to licensing, and we’re progressing some really exciting projects.

“A theme of our best meetings was innovation – and how our brands can help partners and retailers disrupt the consumer conversation.”

From the point of view of an agency representing brands, one of the great innovations at BLE is the Independents stand. It gives every licensing agency – no matter how small – an affordable platform to showcase their brands and I wish it had existed when Metrostar started! Our clients don’t take stands of their own, so if we don’t exhibit, their brands are invisible at the industry’s most important event of the year – but it’s an expensive event for a start-up or small agency. The Independents stand means we can all contribute as a collective to BLE’s continued success.

Brand Licensing Europe, BLE, Claire Potter, Metrostar, Richard Pink, Pink Key Licensing, Ian Downes, Start Licensing, Claire Piggott, Larkshead LicensingRichard Pink, MD, Pink Key Licensing
The lockdowns and the transport issues immediately afterwards have had a knock-on effect that has lasted longer than anyone anticipated – and longer than others realise. The increased numbers at BLE are, I think, a reflection of the clearance of the overstocks brought about by these issues. I sense that retailers going forward are going to be more open and willing to look at licence-based opportunities that go beyond the sure-fire sellers.

“There’s likely to be a rise in opportunities that involve greater creativity and that’s a very good thing for the industry.”

There’s also likely to be a rise in the opportunities that involve greater creativity, and that’s a very good thing for the industry. The continued growth of collectables – and the new direction being driven by companies such as Zuru and brands like LOL – show different takes on what a collectable is. This highlights that the category is still very much in its infancy, with a lot more scope for expansion and diversification.

I also believe that we are only just seeing the real growth in the area of food licensing and there are many more creative collaborations that will emerge over the next 12 to 18 months.

Ian DownesIan Downes, Director, Start Licensing
It was good to hear that visitor numbers were up this year. I have long held the view that licensing needs to have a good flow of new companies – and new categories – to ensure there is steady growth, which should also help ease the reliance on more long-standing categories.

Licensing has a strong entrepreneurial ethos and, as such, naturally attracts young start-up businesses. It can be a way of kick-starting a business. We definitely had a number of early-stage companies visit us at BLE and a number of these were direct to consumer businesses selling online. This is definitely an area of growth for licensing and presents a good opportunity for the industry – matching products with consumers efficiently should be a natural for licensing.

“One post-show suggestion is that BLE might consider a ‘New to Licensing’ lounge.”

Dovetailing with one of BLE’s themes this year, there is definitely growth in interest from leisure operators and event focused companies. Our client Aardman have made great strides in this area. It’s a category that seems to need a ‘licensing plus’ approach, with an emphasis on leveraging content fully and being tuned into new ways of delivering content… This is something Aardman excels at.

One post-show suggestion is that BLE might consider a ‘New to Licensing lounge’ – maybe in conjunction with Licensing International. We had a lot of IP owners seeking advice about bringing their IP to market… Being called Start Licensing in part explains this! The same was true of new to the industry manufacturers. I think a ‘drop in’ lounge that dispensed advice would work well and could be a hub for new companies. I could also see this being supported by law, accountancy and design firms who may relish the opportunity of meeting new companies.

Brand Licensing Europe, BLE, Claire Potter, Metrostar, Richard Pink, Pink Key Licensing, Ian Downes, Start Licensing, Claire Piggott, Larkshead LicensingClare Piggott, MD, Larkshead Licensing
BLE discussions were certainly encouraging in terms of new business opportunities, but it’s still a little too early to tell when these discussions will translate into actual sales – ask me that question again in a couple of months and hopefully I will be brimming with enthusiasm for all our newly signed deals!

Larkshead launched our new partnership with Sweet Cherry Publishing at the show this year and we were very pleased with the response from prospective licensees and retailers. Having a proven track record in terms of global publishing sales, a savvy social media strategy and a mission to engage with all readers, Sweet Cherry is a vibrant, fresh voice which makes for an attractive licensing proposition. On top of that, if you add the distribution power of their sister company, Books 2 Door, you have an immediate route to market offering a retail solution for licensees.

Every business is facing challenges – so to be able to offer licensees a way to launch products to an already engaged audience is very helpful in presenting viable new brand opportunities.

“I’m impressed by the number of emerging brands from across Europe taking stands at BLE.”

Larkshead has always championed brands with a purpose and our portfolio has been reflective of this for some time now. Additionally, in terms of new business opportunities, we also recognised that our portfolio needed to diversify – so a new area for us launched at BLE this year is Factual Entertainment… We are working with a documentary film company, trusted to tell incredible human stories with creativity, authenticity and care on a wide range of subjects. This presents an opportunity to engage with a very different target market for licensing and certainly opened up new conversations for us at the show.

I’m also impressed by the number of emerging brands from across Europe taking stands at BLE. It was great to see Nelly Jelly back again this year and it was also good to meet with the teams from Simon Super Rabbit and Bibi’s World. These brands demonstrate an absolute belief in the power to take a home grown commercially successful brand and utilise BLE to demonstrate that success story.

Given current trading challenges, an increasing number of conversations on our booth at BLE focused on territories outside the UK. I’m optimistic that this will continue as BLE expands the number of international visitors to the show.

Brand Licensing Europe, BLE, Claire Potter, Metrostar, Richard Pink, Pink Key Licensing, Ian Downes, Start Licensing, Claire Piggott, Larkshead Licensing, Jess Houston, AardmanJess Houston, Senior Manager, Product Development, Aardman
The Aardman stand was as busy as ever this year at Brand Licensing Europe. We swapped out the giant Shaun the Sheep for Wallace on a bench from one of our charity trails. This still provided us with a photo opportunity, but we really wanted to celebrate the upcoming Wallace & Gromit film releasing on the BBC in the UK and Netflix globally.

Alongside our UK Agent Start Licensing, the Aardman team met with partners old and new and had some really interesting conversations. We are hopeful that some of these will translate into new business. It’s still early to announce anything but we are positive!

I have personally been attending BLE since it began – and licensing has changed massively since then. Partners seem to be, understandably, more cautious and less willing to take risks. This has encouraged growth opportunities for trusted brands that people remember and have confidence in. Brands like Pokémon, Barbie, Peter Rabbit and, of course, the Aardman brands looked very strong at this year’s show. I think an offshoot of this is IP owners having to be more creative. Although heritage brands, new content is still really important to us. At Aardman we are finding that new content can come in many forms.

Aardman and Netflix are releasing new content this Christmas with the much awaited sequel Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget launching globally on December 15th. A trusted brand but with a new story for new audiences, 20 years later!

The release will be supported by a strong licensing programme, with product launching from the autumn across apparel, publishing, toy and games, gift and homeware. This includes a range of books with Macmillan Children’s Books, a fashion-led apparel range with Skinny Dip London and Aurora World have produced fun plush characters alongside a host of other licensing partners. This is a classic example of utilising new content.

Shaun the Sheep is Aardman’s best performing IP globally and our new ‘Shaun the Sheep: One Farm’ initiative utilises Shaun’s authentic link to the great outdoors, sustainable living and food to encourage participation in activities that will enhance and sustain our own world and lives. Successful partnerships to date include Natural England’s Countryside Code and The National Forest with further brand collaborations to be announced later in the year.

Growth for Aardman means creating new content but also keeping our product offerings interesting and creative. Alongside working with our established and experienced licensees, we’ve recently enjoyed working with smaller businesses that haven’t necessarily worked with licensed brands before. They often have the head-space to think creatively and out of the licensing box.

We are working with some amazing partners including nationwide not-for-profit alliance Veg Power, Little Beau Sheep on British wool laundry balls and soaps, and Willsow plantable books. Alongside this we have some exciting live event partners on The BAA-rilliant Hide and Sheep AR trail app available for venues to run at their properties and Championsheeps Live sports events now running at Haven Holiday Parks. This and constant investment in new design helps us keep the brand engaging.

As licensors we have to be creative, adaptable and ever-evolving… We need to embrace new sectors such as live events and digital gaming. It’s what keeps things interesting for us and our audiences.

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