From Candy Crush to Bubble Wrap, Brands Descend on Licensing Expo

Observations from Day One at the Annual Licensing Show in Las Vegas

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Today is only the first day of the annual Licensing Expo in Las Vegas, but I am already struck by how many new brands and players are either embracing licensing for the first time or choosing to exhibit here for the first time.

The brand causing the biggest commotion on the show floor may be Candy Crush, a first-time exhibitor and a new licensor. Excited potential licensees seemed to think the addictive smartphone game, created by developers at the game maker King, is the licensing industry's new Angry Birds. When I visited the Candy Crush booth, the brand's VP of business development was holding court amid a swarm of would-be partners trying to pitch him ideas.

Another new licensor that caught my eye was Bubble Wrap. To be honest, I didn't know that it was a brand before today, but after hearing its pitch I can see the logic. Owned by Sealed Air Corporation, a $7.6 billion company operating in 175 countries with approximately 25,000 employees, Bubble Wrap has near ubiquitous brand recognition. After all, who doesn't love popping those bubbles? So the brand sees an opportunity to capitalize on consumers' pre-existing emotional connection by creating bubble wrap-branded luggage, arts and crafts, furniture, cell phone cases and toys. I don't know if it will work, but it is inventive.

It was also good to see Meredith Corp. back. The company, which publishes brands such as Better Homes and Gardens and Family Circle, is a very successful licensor -- Better Homes & Gardens is a huge home brand at Walmart -- but it has not exhibited at the Licensing Expo since the show moved to Las Vegas four years ago.

Perhaps it's especially good to see the newcomers and returnees amid all the coverage, tweets and Vine videos coming out of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this week. Brand licensing has often been misconstrued as primarily a trademark protection tactic or a route to incremental revenue, rather than a marketing craft on par with advertising, public relations, experiential, social or content marketing. And I've always been a little bit envious of my colleagues at Omnicom who get to go to Cannes every year and share their creative innovations with the world.

Don't get me wrong: The Licensing Excellence Awards taking place at the Licensing Expo tonight are important for our industry. But they just don't carry the same gravitas.

So it's it all the more interesting to me that this year Cannes and the Licensing Expo are taking place concurrently. Even more interesting to me is that despite the fact that one takes place in Cannes against the backdrop of the French Riviera, and the other takes place in Las Vegas against the backdrop of Mandalay Bay, both are -- perhaps for the first time -- pre-occupied with many of the same issues and tactics.

I have no doubt that at Cannes this year phrases such as "marketer as maker," "maker culture" and "culture of invention" are being bandied about as frequently and with as much passion as "big data" was at SXSW Interactive this year.

The idea is that marketers aren't just making ads anymore. The focus is on the creation and invention of new products and services, designed to instill new, authentic connections with a brand's audience while conveying the brand's attributes in fresh and innovative ways. A widely heralded example of "marketer as maker" is of course the Nike+ Fuel Band. The band, which tracks an individual's Nike+ Fuel points, has become the embodiment of "Just Do It" in ways not possible even through the most interesting or innovative advertisements.

In other words, "making" has become the new creative.

But in the world of licensing, "making" has always been the creative. We have always been a culture of invention. Aren't Flintstones Vitamins, created through licensing in 1968 by Hanna-Barbera, or Polo Fragrance, created through licensing in 1978 by Ralph Lauren, as innovative in their own ways as the Nike+ Fuel Band is today? The vitamins, which are still sold at retail, have become more iconic than the show they originally helped to market. And what young man in the past 30 years didn't first learn about Ralph Lauren by receiving Polo cologne as a gift?

In truth, brand licensing is the original "marketer as maker" marketing discipline, and the fact that both the industry and the Licensing Expo continue to grow is a testament to our collective ingenuity and our industry-wide "culture of invention." Sales of licensed goods increased for the second consecutive year in 2012, generating nearly $5.5 billion in royalties on an estimated retail value of $112.1 billion, the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association said today.

More show trends tomorrow.

Michael Stone is president and chief executive officer of Beanstalk, an Omnicom Group-owned global brand licensing consultancy. Follow the agency on Twitter.
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