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Digital Media Rights Take Centre Stage at Las Vegas Licensing Expo

This year the YouTube generation and the wider digital universe clearly conquered the Las Vegas Licensing Expo – the world's leading licensing industry event – even seeing off the combined might of Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman.

Photo: Distroller: Bringing Mexican religious icons to the Cartoon Network.
Distroller: Bringing Mexican religious icons to the Cartoon Network.
Photo: Distroller: Bringing Mexican religious icons to the Cartoon Network.
Distroller: Bringing Mexican religious icons to the Cartoon Network.

Living up to its reputation as the "apex predator of the mean streets of Gotham City," the newest, meanest Batmobile took centre stage as the doors opened on this year's Licensing Expo – the world's leading licensing industry event. With Warner Bros' highly anticipated Batman vs. Superman action movie scheduled for release in early 2016, attendees flocked for a close-up of the actual Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman costumes, all straight from the set.

The power of stories and emotions is the magic potion that brings characters and other properties to life in the world of licensed products, with thousands of such deals secured at this year's show. While the appeal of global franchises is undisputable, this year it was the YouTube generation and their digital universe that excited licensors and stole the show.

For the first time this year, the expo hosted a Digital Media Licensing Summit, convened to explore the ways consumers are influenced by digital media brands and personalities. The star power of online video content is hardly news, however, and it was obvious that brands are already embracing these new potential partnerships, as well as looking into the potential of those "creative influencers" rocking it on visual social media channels, notably Instagram and Snapchat.

The opening speaker of the Digital Media Licensing Summit was Malik Ducard, Director of Content Partnerships for YouTube. Tellingly, this was also the first time the online video service had had an exhibit on the showfloor. During his presentation, Ducard described the most successful YouTube users as "master storytellers" and praised their commitment to "maintaining authenticity" with their followers.

Another sign of this "new threat" was the fact that this year's keynote address was made by Bethany Mota, an online fashion celebrity with millions of social media followers and the founder of the Aeropostale clothing brand. Authenticity was again the buzzword here, as Mota attributed her own success to developing an "authentic and interactive relationship" with her audience, while creating a sense of connection with her personality, which she then projects into a relationship with her clothes line.

YouTube has also been the key to success for Kokonuzz, a Hong Kong-based brand created by Alexis Bautista, a Spanish graphic designer. The property features seven characters from different parts of the world who want to become YouTube celebrities and documents their quest for stardom through a series of short videos. What started as a comic strip doodles just over a year ago is already turning into a sought-after licensing property.

Charting the brand's rise, Bautista said: "I was pretty much broke. With the last of my money, I went to the Hong Kong Licensing Show. It changed my life. I thought you needed to be a superstar to succeed, so I was shocked when people offered to give me money."

His bright, fun-loving designs first came alive on T-shirts and on a range of other products sold in Hong Kong and the Greater China region. Now they feature as part of online mini-games and there is a pending deal with a "large technology company" interested in adding character "stickers" for the new digital messaging app on their devices. Bautista said: "If that happens, that's like 900 million people who will have access to our stickers, which is amazing."

Along with new digital frontiers, Bautista was excited about expanding into other new geographic regions. He said that, although the original reason for coming to this year's Licensing Expo was to break into the North American market, he found that his products were also proving a hit with South American licensors. He said: "It's very surprising, especially considering that all of our content is in English. It seems to really resonate with their audience, though."

Photo: Kokonuzz: YouTube wannabes.
Kokonuzz: YouTube wannabes.
Photo: Kokonuzz: YouTube wannabes.
Kokonuzz: YouTube wannabes.
Photo: Gapchinska: Supplying happiness apparently.
Gapchinska: Supplying happiness apparently.
Photo: Gapchinska: Supplying happiness apparently.
Gapchinska: Supplying happiness apparently.

International presence was strong at the show, with a 6.6% increase in international attendance and one out in three attendees coming from outside the US. The countries with the greatest number of attendees were Canada, Japan, Mexico and the UK, although there was also a significant increase from Australia (+31%), Brazil (+30%) and China (+12%).

South America, perhaps unsurprisingly, was also the target region for Distroller, a Mexico-based brand dedicated to bright cartoon characters and sparkling depictions of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint. The company's decidedly arty stand, complete with a distinct folk flare, was a standout even amid the showfloor's veritable sea of visual imagery.

In 2013, the company signed a deal with the Cartoon Network and launched a its dolls range through Wal-Mart. Already in receipt of more than US$45 million in licensing fees – on everything from pyjamas to picture frames – it's now looking to develop additional lines of products for the Latin America market to complement its cartoons. Looking to the future, Alejandra Duran, Distroller's Art and Design Manager, said: "We've had great response at the show. This year, we're also developing content for the Cartoon Network so, hopefully, the US will represent our next growth area."

While Distroller built a whole line on the notion of the Virgin of Guadalupe answering prayers, one Ukraine-based brand is hoping for similar success in its mission to be "Supplier of Happiness #1". Gapchinska, an eponymous brand dedicated to the whimsical characters created by illustrator Eugenia Gapchinska, already has a strong following in Eastern Europe. Now the company is developing a variety of add-on product lines, ranging from furniture and fashion to bath and body care. There're even little lace-wrapped jam jars, completed with a label reading: "Gone with the Jam".

Eduard Akhramovych, Chief Exceutive of UDC, the Ukraine-based Licensing Agency that represents Gapchinska, said: "Women from different countries all have the same emotional reaction to our products." A first-time exhibitor, the company also had a positive response from South American licensors and is now hoping to break into the American and Asian markets via the contacts it made at the show. Chocolatier Ferrero Rocher is also rumored to have gotten a taste of the brand's sweet appeal.

Photo: Can even the World’s Finest see off the digital usurper?
Can even the World's Finest see off the digital usurper?
Photo: Can even the World’s Finest see off the digital usurper?
Can even the World's Finest see off the digital usurper?

The Licensing Expo 2015 took place at Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas from 9-11 June, and featured 460 exhibiting companies across 232,000 square feet. It was attended by more than 16,000 licensing professionals, representing a 3% increase from last year, with retail attendance up 15%.

Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas

 

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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