When we last wrote about face masks as a licensing opportunity, about a month ago, licensors’ and licensees’ activities in this space were almost purely charitable, with the products donated directly to healthcare workers. But manufacturers and IP owners have pivoted quickly to creating masks for consumers to purchase. There is still a charitable component—with some licensees using a buy-one-donate-one model, others donating proceeds from sales, and some doing both or taking another path altogether—but sales to the public are a key driver of many current initiatives. It should be noted that all the masks are cloth, as opposed to N95 or other more protective models.
These ventures may not be big money-makers at this point, but they seem to be generating significant demand, at least at this early stage. Some of the key players in licensed face masks to date include:
- Fanatics, FOCO, and Industry Rag. The five largest U.S. major sports leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLS) are working with Fanatics to sell team-logoed face masks, supplied by licensees FOCO and Industry Rag, for sale through league and team online stores managed by Fanatics, as well as on the Fanatics-branded and the licensees’ own e-commerce sites and some other platforms. FOCO also makes league-licensed gaiters and scarves that can be used as alternatives to masks for face covering.
- Mask Club, a new company backed by licensee Trevco. Mask Club was launched as a protective facial wear specialist, debuting with more than 2,000 licensed choices. Properties range from numerous Warner Bros.-controlled characters to Star Trek, Betty Boop, Popeye, Care Bears, and Hello Kitty. In addition to entertainment/character designs, it also has licenses with other properties, such as Lotéria Don Clemente, WWE, Stark/House of Scalamandré, the Emoji brand, and NASA. The masks are available as one-offs and through a one-per-month subscription.
- Wild Bangarang. This U.K.-based specialty apparel company, which holds rights to a wide variety of geek-and-gamer properties, launched its NHS Face Mask Program to benefit the British National Health Service. The range debuted with more than 40 designs. Licensed options among them include SKUs tied to fantasy artist Anne Stokes, character-based lifestyle label Phat Kandi, and Bill & Ted. The company was forced to stop production and shipping of its other products for a time to focus solely on face masks, due to high demand and a skeleton staff to ensure worker safety.
These initiatives often start with extensions of existing deals with current licensors, which helps speed up the process of getting the product to market. But new deals are being signed as well. In the last week or so, Mask Club secured the rights to the Emoji brand and Lotéria, the latter licensed by Pacific Swell Brands, while Wild Bangarang acquired Bill & Ted, represented in the U.K. by Reemsborko, to name a few examples.
Meanwhile, other IP owners are creating property-identified masks that are sourced internally rather than achieved through a licensing deal. Disney launched an extensive program of masks featuring characters and designs from all of its major property families and plans to donate up to $1 million in U.S. mask profits and 1 million masks to the nonprofit group MedShare. Music merchandiser Bravado launched a We’ve Got You Covered ecommerce site featuring graphics from Universal Music Group artists, from Justin Bieber to Black Sabbath; proceeds will benefit the music community, which has been hard-hit by the pandemic. And a variety of designers, such as Alice + Olivia, have also entered the mask-selling business.
Companies making licensed or branded face masks have generated controversy in some quarters. Critics have accused the marketers of capitalizing on a crisis, creating products that are in bad taste, and inappropriately or unnecessarily turning face masks into fashion accessories and/or pop culture statements.
That said, there are also benefits to licensing and branding in the face mask category. Licensed face masks could encourage kids, and some adults, to wear the product, as recommended or required (depending on location), and could help lessen the fear some young children feel when seeing loved ones or strangers in a mask. In addition, if consumers are going to have to wear them anyway, or at least be encouraged to do so, they are likely to want them to become a canvas for social expression, much like a cell phone cover or t-shirt. And, at present, sales of masks, licensed or otherwise, are an effective way to help get equipment into the hands of healthcare professionals who continue to need the support. Licensed face masks certainly seem to resonate with consumers, given strong sales and fundraising reported by licensees and brand owners so far.
Of course, such licensing partnerships are beneficial to licensors and licensees as well. Face masks are one of the relatively few growth categories in licensing at present and, as a new segment, offer plenty of white space for licensors to fill. The opportunity may also have longer legs than originally thought. It seems as though the pandemic is likely to last for a while, with social distancing and face covering becoming the norm for many. These consumers are likely to want to add some personal style, and licensing is one way to do that.