15 July 2016
Licensees Gear Up with 2017 Tipped to be Wonder Woman's Year
With her own movie and a 75th anniversary to celebrate, Wonder Woman is being billed as one of the hottest licensed products of the next 12 months, at least according to many of the exhibitors at this year's Las Vegas Licensing Expo.
While a smiling Pokémon floated above the recent Las Vegas Licensing Expo, few seemed to be aware of the cultural tremors about to be unleashed by this reinvigorated Japanese franchise. Just two weeks later, Pokémon Go was released on to the unsuspecting public, proving to be a truly transformational event in terms of gaming and social media. At this year's Licensing Expo, though, attention was on pretty much anything but, with all things Pokémon barely meriting a look-in.
Instead, the buzz on the show floor was more focussed on girl-power, a development driven by the looming release of Wonder Woman, one of 2017's more keenly anticipated superhero movies. There was also a lot of love for such perennial favourites as Harry Potter and Grumpy Cat.
China, too, had an impressive presence this year, a sign, perhaps, of the country's growing significance as both a market and a source of licensed properties. There was also a number of new opportunities on show from several online companies, opportunities that – in one or two cases at least – veered notably towards the bizarre.
Overall, robust growth is expected of the licensing industry, with consumer support expected to remain strong. According to the Licensing Industry's Merchandisers' Association (LIMA), sales in the character-based goods sector were US$113 billion worldwide last year, while the total retail sales of licensed merchandise was some $251.7 billion. The lion's share of the sector's 4.2% year-on-year growth came across just four categories – entertainment, sports, publishing and celebrity.
The latest predictions from Euromonitor International, the London-headquartered strategic market research specialist, spelled out the key role that licensing has in the toy sector. Between 2015 and 2020, it expects sales of licensed toys to hugely outpace those of non-licensed toys, skyrocketing by 27% to reach a total value of $26.2 billion by 2020.
The Many Facets of China
From popular characters to art treasures, China had on offer a wealth of licensing opportunities this year. To mark the opening of the show, the China ACG Group, the Beijing-based animation giant, hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony at the expanded China Pavilion. This saw a number of the company's best-loved properties – including Boonie Bears, Dragmon, and Chicken Stew – all on show.
Welcoming visitors to the pavilion, Tuo Zuhai, ACG's chairman, said: "This pavilion is dedicated to celebrating many of ACG's original brands and characters and the roles they now play in the international market. We're all here to assist any exhibitors and attendees who are interested in learning more about the licensing opportunities in China."
One of the highlights of the pavilion was the 4,000-square-foot China Art and Cultural Properties Area. This was home to a range of traditional and contemporary Chinese art, relics from the Forbidden City and an array of supposedly typical mainland artefacts, ranging from silk embroidery to cellphone cases.
This year, the pavilion had been organised by the Shanghai-headquartered National Base for International Cultural Trade (NBICT). Explaining why it was quite so important to have such an extended presence at this year's event, Ren Yibiao, the NBICT's General Manager, said: "We hope that by enhancing the ability of Chinese cultural and creative enterprises to make creatively designed, high-quality goods – complete with embedded cultural values and distinctive Chinese elements – we can establish a more quality driven and sustainable model for our cultural and creative businesses."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, interest from licensors was strong. Meng Rao, a Partner with Art Pudong (Shanghai) Artwork, said: "We've had a lot of contact with American companies that like our artists and products, with our silk scarves proving particularly popular. We've also learned a lot about the business. Licensing in the US is a very mature sector, while it's really just starting out in China."
New Tech Platforms
Making a somewhat surprising return to the forefront of the world of licensing this year were Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. All of them, as well as a host of other departed celebs, now have the chance to carry on living – or, at least, working – thanks to a number of new licensing-related technologies.
One company looking to take a lead here was Pulse Evolution, a Florida-based digital production and IP company. The company is best known for producing a virtual Michael Jackson performance for the 2014 Billboard Music Awards. Through the use of virtual and augmented reality, in combination with artificial intelligence, it now claims to be able to deliver authentic digital interactions with a host of dead celebrities and sporting legends.
Expanding upon the possibilities, Frank Patterson, the company's Chief Creative Officer and Co-founder, said: "You can have Marilyn Monroe sitting anywhere, standing, doing anything that's appropriate with any product, while engaging in any behaviour that's brand appropriate. So, Coca-Cola, for example, can have its own set of Marilyn Monroe images, videos and assets that are completely unique to its company. The possibilities of those kinds of media assets are unlimited."
In a decidedly less creepy realm, the Ohio-based SPIN Screen Play Interactive Network was presenting its own take on brand engagement with its new interactive wall and mobile device app combo. Largely finding applications in the bigger shopping centres at present, the system can be used to create a wall display of something like a virtual aquarium.
A child standing in front of the display could then create a fish avatar on a mobile app, then virtually "launch" it into the aquarium, controlling its movements and interactions. The fish could easily be replaced by any other branded item deemed appropriate.
Joshua Kingdon, a Senior Manager with the company, said: "The content is completely customisable. You can have a cooking show or a dance class or anything you like." Along with new locations for its existing walls and content, the company was hoping to connect with a number of new toy or cartoon brands at the show, with a view to partnering with them to create custom content.
This year, Warner Bros Consumer Products was focussing on promoting DC Comics' Wonder Woman character. The comic book heroine celebrates her 75th anniversary this year and headlines her own summer blockbuster next year, backed by a number of new publications from Scholastic and Random House. A display featuring her movie costume proved one of this year's must-see exhibits.
In other movie-related activity, Star Wars proved ubiquitous. With a new instalment of the franchise heading to the cinema every year until 2021 (at least), this is something visitors to the Licensing Expo are going to become very familiar with.
Another film franchise revving up for the long-term was Universal's Fast and Furious. As a result, its ice-charger vehicle was tipped to top more than a few Christmas gift lists. Pasquale Limone, a Regional Brand Manager for Papeles Nacionales, a Columbia-based manufacturer of licensed products, was hoping to strike a deal with Universal during the event. Explaining his thinking, he said: "Fast and Furious is going to be amazing. It's a huge movie. And it's crazy popular in Latin America."
And, all the while, Pokémon sailed on overhead, with few seemingly aware of the storm that was about to break…
The Licensing Expo 2016 took place at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas from 21-23 June. More than 460 exhibitors representing some 5,000 brands were on show this year, while visitor numbers held steady at around 16,000.
Anna Huddleston, Special Correspondent, Las Vegas