Licensing Expo 2016: Ten Trends for the $250 Billion Licensing Industry

Disney Dominated, While Sports and Fashion Brands Were Mostly Absent

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Worldwide retail sales of licensed products now top $250 billion -- attention must be paid. And there was lots of attention being paid in Las Vegas last week at the International Licensing Expo 2016. Not only were there many hot properties on display inside on the show floor, but the outside temps soared to 117 degrees.

As always, there were hits and there were misses. Digital, in its many forms, was apparent everywhere. Content is king. Some of the trends we saw last year were already on the wane (e.g., 3-D printing). For the kickoff presentation, three leading executives from Hasbro, Mattel and Jazwares talked about the burgeoning role that content creation is now playing within toy companies. Here are 10 takeaways from the show:

1. Disney domination. The "mouse is roaring." Disney's domination in the entertainment space was palpable. Just consider (some of) the Disney properties for a moment: "Star Wars," "Frozen," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Finding Dory," Marvel, Pixar, and of course, the classic characters that keep getting rebooted. And Disney knows how to develop its brands in all formats. Consider "Frozen." Coming up: an original "Frozen" story, "Frozen Northern Lights," including publishing, animated shorts, digital extensions and a Lego license. There's a "Frozen"-inspired Instagram account, an updated website, and an ABC holiday special. Also on the horizon, "Star Wars" every year for the next five years, "Cars 3," a live action "Beauty and the Beast," and a new Pixar film, "Coco." But they do miss now and then. See No. 8 below.

2. China. Every year we see more foreign properties and countries exhibiting at the show. But China seemed to have a more pronounced presence this year. I was particularly impressed with two exhibitors. The Palace Museum, located in Beijing and drawing a whopping 15 million visitors annually, had an absolutely stunning display of cultural products in a very large and well-appointed exhibit. They were exhibiting to meet with attending retailers. On the other side of the spectrum, another booth from China featured the "Boonie Bears." In case you don't know the "Boonie Bears," they are, as you might assume, animated bears, and they are the highest rated animated show in China, have had 120 billion hits over the past four years on their website (that's not a typo), and over 100 licensees making thousands of products. Who knew?

3. Authentic brands, Sequential brands, Iconix. I'll lump these three together since they are compared so very often. Each exhibited. Iconix, much to its dismay, had to have two separate exhibits with "Peanuts" in the entertainment area and the rest of Iconix in the brand area. But "Peanuts" looked great (despite rumors that MetLife is moving on).

At Sequential, Martha Stewart is launching a Martha and Marley Spoon licensed meal-kit delivery service online as Sequential takes advantage of all of those Martha recipes. And Sequential also announced it is acquiring the fitness brand Gaiam. ABG rolled out licensed Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe virtual reality (i.e., hyper-realistic digital humans that appear to be alive, performing in holographic form) with first time exhibitor Pulse Evolution.

4. What's old is new again. There is always lots of nostalgia at the show, properties and brands from yesteryear. Curious George, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Bela Lugosi monsters, "Teletubbies," "Ghostbusters" and more. But, I was particularly impressed with King Features' plans to reboot Betty Boop. There are Betty Boop collections from Zac Posen, Supreme, and FILA in Japan. But Betty is trying to reach millennials as well as Gen Z. Coming to a paint store near you is the new Pantone Betty Boop Red, and the School for Visual Arts is engaged in a Betty Boop rebranding project. So stay tuned for more on Betty Boop.

5. E-sports. With the exception of a smallish Jinx exhibit (Jinx sponsors a team, is an agent for some games, manufactures products for games and teams, and manages an e-commerce store), the explosion of e-sports was MIA at the show. Maybe next year.

6. Fashion. The show organizers have done everything they can to entice fashion designers to exhibit and, generally, have failed. But this year, Pierre Cardin exhibited at the show and we were told that Perry Ellis is giving consideration to next year's show. But don't hold your breath waiting for Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein or Tommy Hilfiger.

7. Engagement. Seems like everyone (not just the toy companies) is trying to engage consumers with content, and consumers get to choose where and when they want to engage. All of the entertainment companies are seeking to reach consumers through as many media outlets as they can find. Universal Studios calls this Franchise 365 -- touching consumers 365 days a year with its tent pole properties (e.g., "Fast & Furious," "Jurassic Park," "Pitch Perfect") through movies, licensed products, digital, games, mobile, and live entertainment, among other media. Every day of the year. And the other studios are doing the same. Content and engagement is on everyone's lips.

8. Toys-to-life. Not a lot going on with something that seemed hot as a pistol at last year's show. Although Activision's "Skylanders" announced Imaginators, a new product range featuring customizable characters, Disney announced that it is withdrawing from Disney Infinity. This category needs some evolution. But I'm not ready to label it DOA quite yet. Stay tuned for next year.

9. Sports. Although the National Football League Players Association erected an impressive sports zone, none of the major leagues (MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA) exhibited at the show. It's a big miss. Although I did spot a senior NBA exec at the hotel gym one morning.

10. Marijuana marketing. Marketers across the country are closely monitoring the emerging legal cannabis industry. There is a lot going on in the handful of states where it is now legal, with celebrities and brands beginning to extend into an array of strains, edibles and smoking accessories. High Times Magazine exhibited at the show. I expect to see a lot more next year in this emerging market.

Other mentions include: lots of specialty magazine titles available for licensing; food and beverage licensing remains strong; the international success of wildly popular children's YouTube properties (e.g., Gallina Pintadita, Tube Heroes); wearable technology MIA; new tween lifestyle property Hanazuki from Hasbro; and lots of female superhero characters. Maybe Hillary Clinton will be next year's keynote. See you in (hot) Las Vegas next year.

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