In one of my posts from last year's show, I called attention to the fact that celebrity brands were woefully underrepresented at the show. This was not to imply that celebrity licensing deals were in any way slowing down or that there was even some unspoken tension between celebrities and licensees. But I do think it was emblematic of the type of relationship that exists between most celebrities -- the licensor -- and the licensees, typically manufacturers and increasingly retailers as well.
More often than not, the celebrity/licensee dynamic can best be categorized as a "friends with benefits" relationship and not true love. Manufacturers need celebrities to differentiate their products, which is crucial in fighting for shelf space at retail and creating an emotional connection with consumers. At the same time, celebrities seek out licensees to help extend their personal brands through products, generate additional revenue and remain in the popular consciousness between projects (i.e., the things that made them celebrities in the first place).
Since it was often a marriage of convenience for both parties, many celebrities took the relationship for granted. While there have always been celebrities who took their licensing programs very seriously, in the past they were the exception and not the norm.
But all of that has changed, and it's quite apparent at this year's Licensing International Expo. It is clear that this year celebrities (and their representatives) are actively courting licensees.
For the first time ever, powerhouse talent agencies are exhibiting. Case in point: both Creative Artists Agency and William Morris Endeavor historically attended the show to take meetings with licensees and potential licensees but are now full-fledged exhibitors. By visiting the CAA booth, you can pick up its licensing booking guide. A quick flip through it will show you that a wide range of celebrities/athletes, including Andre Agassi/Stefanie Graf (I think they come as a pair), Carmelo Anthony, Carrie Ann Inaba, Carrie Underwood, Chelsea Handler, David Beckham, Drew Barrymore, Magic Johnson, Eva Mendes, Jamie Oliver, the Jonas Brothers, Kelly Ripa, Mariah Carey, Olivia Munn, Shania Twain, Shaun White, and many others are interested in discussing licensing opportunities.
In some cases, the book even identifies the potential opportunities. For example, Carmelo Anthony of the New York Knicks is interested in men's grooming and health and beauty; "Dancing With the Stars'" Carrie Ann Inaba is interested in eyelashes; talk-show host Chelsea Handler is interested in apparel and greeting cards; actress Eva Mendes is interested in home decor, fragrances and decorative wall art; pop star Mariah Carey is interested in infant/toddler apparel; and, not surprisingly, G4 host and actress Olivia Munn is interested in intimates.
It's not just the talent agents who have become more aggressive. In some cases, it's the celebrities themselves. This year for the first time, Janet Jackson and DJ Tiesto have their own booths. It's not unusual for the estates of deceased celebrities to have their own booths, but it is much more rare for living celebrities.
So what's changed in 12 months? In talking with a number of my colleagues, two opposing, yet equally powerful trends seem to be at work:
- The nature of celebrity has drastically shifted. With a never-ending supply of new reality TV show stars/villains, "lifestyle" experts, and YouTube phenoms, there is literally a glut of celebrities on the market seeking to have the next hot licensed product.
- The prolonged recession has limited the number of retailers and the SKUs they carry.
In today's retail market, celebrity-licensed products need to differentiate themselves beyond just the celebrity endorsement. If a retailer is going to remove one brand of jeans consumers are already buying and replace it with a new celebrity brand, the celebrity jeans better be superior to what was already there. At the same time, the celebrity really needs to support their products at every level. It is no longer enough to just be big at the box office or have a million twitter followers. Celebrities need to partner with their licensees from the design stage all the way through to the marketing campaign.
What has become clear to me at this year's show is that it no longer works for celebrities and licensees to maintain a "friends with benefits" relationship. Both need to be fully committed to long-term success.