New Apps Abound and Old Brands Return

Coke, the Postal Service and Swampy the Alligator on Day 1 at the Licensing Expo

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It is another Licensing International Expo here at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. The world's leading brands, manufacturers, retailers and agents are coming together to launch new properties, sign product-extension deals and network for three days. And once again, I get to share my licensing, retail, marketing and trend observations, direct from the show floor.

What caught my eye today?

The re-emergence of old friends. The Coca-Cola Co., one of the world's largest licensors, has been conspicuously absent from the International Licensing Expo for the past seven years. But this year the brand is back with a large presence. After a four-year hiatus, the U.S. Postal Service, another great brand, is also back. Both seem to be focusing on the ongoing nostalgia trend. For example, the Postal Service is heavily promoting its Pony Express and Letters to Santa properties. Coca-Cola is showcasing coffee-table books of iconic Coke advertisements, playing on the traditional glass bottle shape to create glasses and flatware. There is a big push for clothing and accessories featuring classic Coke images.

While it is impossible to really know why they have chosen to return, it is safe to say that both brands have what I would call mature licensing programs (I mean, the Pony Express stopped running in 1861). Perhaps some of their relationships are winding down, or they are in need of an injection of new product ideas. Regardless, I expect to see some exciting new products from these brands in the next 12 to 18 months, which is exciting for the licensing industry as a whole.

Is the phrase "Trend Licensing" an oxymoron?

Not according to Carole Postal (no relation to the U.S. Postal Service), president of CopCorp Licensing. Her agency signed the popular "Fifty Shades of Grey " property for North America licensing this past Friday, and she says that they'll have product on the shelves in time for the upcoming holiday gift-giving season. While no deals have been signed yet, the property is receiving strong interest in categories ranging from lingerie/sleepwear, apparel, fragrance/beauty, bedding, home furnishings, stationery, jewelry and, of course, adult products.

In the not so distant past, it was a commonly held belief that it took 12 to 18 months, once a deal was signed, for a licensed product to appear on retailers' shelves. But in the case of Fifty Shades, this timeline is being significantly contracted. Other properties, such as Downton Abbey, are also putting out product quickly. According to Postal, who signed "Downton Abbey" a month ago, the brand will have 2013 calendars on sale by August.

What accounts for this newfound speed? First, retailers have found religion when it comes to licensed products. They are no longer willing to run the risk of missing out on the buzz that comes from a huge, unexpected trend, simply because it doesn't fit into pre-determined merchandise planning cycles. Since a brand can circumvent traditional retail channels entirely, by opening its own shops online, mainstream retailers (both online and offline) have to be willing to be opportunistic. As a result, retail merchandisers are buying later than ever, in hopes of being more on trend with popular culture. And manufacturers have become much more flexible with production, opting to pounce on new trendy opportunities.

In the case of Fifty Shades, the big winner in all of this -- in addition to the consumer who really wants Fifty Shades branded duct tape right now -- is the brand itself. All three novels in the trilogy are out in the market. A movie is in the works, but that is not likely to see the light of day for a few years. So what can they do to capitalize on the incredible buzz and momentum taking place now? How can they maintain interest in the property in the run up to the movie? With a shortened production timeline, branded extensions are the perfect solution.

When I am right, I am right.

Those who know me know that I don't like to repeat myself. But walking the show today, I was overtaken with an incredible desire to shout, "I told you so." So please humor me for a moment. Last year, I highlighted the fact that a few forward thinking app developers were entering the world of licensing. Brands like Angry Birds, Moshi Monsters and Talking Friends (a Beanstalk client) were taking a page from the large entertainment franchises and developing products designed to take the app's characters from the big screen (in this case a touch screen) into consumers' homes.

Well this year, apps are represented in droves. Even before entering the show floor, visitors are greeted with a huge advertisement from Cut the Rope, which is published by EA's Chillingo. Rovio, the publisher of Angry Birds, and Mind Candy, the publisher of Moshi Monsters both have large, standalone presences at the show, while Fruit Ninja, Talking Friends (Beanstalk client) and Movie Star Planet (Beanstalk client), among others are also well represented.

But you know that something has really become part of the mainstream when Disney gets involved, and Disney is making a concerted effort with its new app, Where's My Water? Less than a year old and featuring Swampy the Alligator, the app has already been downloaded over 40 million times and is positioned above Angry Birds on Apple's list of most popular paid apps. This summer Toys 'R' Us will stock a line of merchandise based on the app. The line will include toys, T-shirts and backpacks. Disney is rolling out a 12-episode web series, based on the app, and it has been reported that Swampy will make cameo appearances on the Disney Channel. So, I told you so. More trends you'll read here first tomorrow.

Michael Stone is president and chief executive officer of Beanstalk, an Omnicom Group-owned global brand licensing consultancy. You can follow Beanstalk @BeanstalkGroup.
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