Welcome to Raugust Communications’ Coronavirus Resource Page. All of our writing on the pandemic is collected here for easy access. Some articles are original to this page, while others were first published in other sources, such as RaugustReports, Raugust Communications’ monthly e-newsletter, or Publishers Weekly. Check back often; we continue to update the page regularly.
May COVID-19 Update: Navigating a New Reality
May 19, 2020: The last month has seen the release of many economic and corporate financial numbers that painted a picture of the impact of the coronavirus on the worlds of consumer products and retail. Businesses are starting to re-open or make plans to do so, albeit with many unknowns ahead. And announcements of licensing deals and marketing campaigns to support licensed products are on the rise, at least to a degree, despite continued uncertainty.
The Numbers Are In
We all knew the pandemic and associated lockdown would have a negative impact on the global economy. In the past month, we started to get an indication of how big that impact would be. In the U.S. alone, unemployment hit 14.7% in April, and as of mid-May 36 million people are without jobs. Retail jobs alone fell by 2.1 million in April.
Sales in retail and food service channels in the U.S. overall fell 16.4% in April compared to March, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, and saw a 21.6% year-over-year decline in the month. Apparel and accessories stores were down 89.3% from a year earlier, department stores down 47%, and bookstore sales down 33.4%. E-commerce sales were, not surprisingly, a bright spot, with sales up 21.6% in April compared to last year. But in dollar terms that does not compensate for the losses at bricks-and-mortar.
Meanwhile, the National Retail Federation in the U.S. predicted double-digit declines in imports this year; U.K. retail saw a decline in foot traffic in April of 80.1%, according to Springboard, the biggest decrease ever tracked and almost double the rate of decline in March.
All of this has an impact on companies’ value, not just in terms of stock or other financial measurements, but in intangibles, including IP. Brand Finance says global companies will lose $1 trillion in brand value—the value of trademarks and associated intellectual property—due to the crisis.
Individual Companies Continue to Struggle
Of course, not all categories, regions, or even property types are affected equally by these macro-economic numbers. But recent releases of quarterly financial data for public companies, as well as other corporate announcements, together paint a dark picture.
J. Crew, Nieman Marcus, JCPenney, and Stage Stores are among the companies reorganizing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Lord & Taylor plans to liquidate. Dillard’s said same-store sales in recently opened stores were down 56% percent from the previous year, while Uniqlo saw total sales (in-store and online) drop 57.7%. Gap stopped paying its rent. Even essentials retailer Costco saw a negative impact on sales due to safety restrictions that kept the customer count down.
As their retail customers face challenges, so do licensees and licensors. In Q1, Safilo’s sales were down 11.5%, Spin Master saw its revenue drop 4.9%, Mattel’s sales declined 14%, Formula 1 announced a year-on-year revenue decrease of 84%, and Iconix’ total licensing royalties dropped 22%. Designer label John Varvatos and Gold’s Gym both filed for Chapter 11. Not all of these numbers are attributable solely to licensed products, but they create a snapshot of the landscape in which licensing executives are operating.
Sales declines are not the only problems being faced. Costs are rising due to safety protocols and many retailers and suppliers are dealing with inventory issues ranging from too much on hand currently, given sales levels, to the threat of shortages later in the year due to supply chain issues. Xbox’s head, Phil Spencer, has said in interviews that the current halt in production will potentially lead to a lack of new titles in the video game sector—a growth business during the pandemic—in early 2021.
In some of these situations, the COVID crisis is simply hastening things that would likely have happened anyway. Many observers note that there are too many retail stores and that this is a needed contraction. But that does not make it any easier for the companies that sell to the shuttered locations.
A Cautious Re-Opening
In Asia, Australia/New Zealand, and parts of Europe, businesses are coming back online, especially in places where the virus has largely taken its course and/or the impact was less severe. Many regions in the U.S. are opening, too, either wholly or gradually, despite the still-rising illness numbers.
Some malls in China have seen better-than-expected traffic, although others remain empty. When Disneyland Shanghai announced it would reopen (at 30% capacity), tickets available for the first four weekdays and the first weekend sold out immediately.
But there are still concerns. How many people will shop or eat out in the short term and how long will it take the masses to come back? Will businesses be able to bear the increased costs and lower capacities associated with safety needs? Will the virus lag on or come back in repeated waves? Can businesses fully get back to work with social distancing and travel restrictions still in place? When will large-scale events be able to operate again?
Many of the concerns in the short term have to do with safety. But the severe economic downturn that most analysts agree is ahead will likely play an even bigger role as the months go on. The question is how long it will be before a turnaround occurs; analysts and others currently disagree on the potential severity and duration.
Meanwhile, activity on the licensing front is on the rebound (to a degree). More deals for licensed products and especially collaborations are being sought, signed, and announced at an ever-quicker pace, although perhaps not with the terms that would have been expected during pre-corona times. Licensors and licensees are working together to renegotiate contracts to ensure both parties can survive and keep the products or services on track. Marketing and promotional campaigns are starting to come back, not just with pandemic themes but also with general messaging to support licensed products.
Taking Time to Reimagine the Future
A number of licensing executives across property types and product categories are taking the time to re-envision what their businesses might be in the future. Almost everyone agrees that the “new normal” will be different from the “old normal.”
They are looking at how licensing deals will change in the future, how they will reach consumers directly or in new ways given the upheaval at retail, and which B2B and B2C relationships and events can or should continue virtually after the crisis. The fashion industry is taking a close look at whether the traditional seasons for new collections constitute a reasonable way of organizing the year, given the way customers shop now. Everyone is considering how to ensure and communicate safety and balance it with commerce.
A lot of uncertainty exists about how long this crisis will last and what the licensing business will look like in the aftermath. But many licensing executives see an upside, in that this time will give them a chance to learn and refocus, or perhaps even force the business to change for the better.
Bringing Apparel Back: Can Licensing Help?
May 19, 2020, first published in Raugust Communications’ e-newsletter: One of the hardest-hit sectors during the coronavirus pandemic has been apparel, accessories, and footwear, which had already been facing significant challenges prior to COVID-19’s appearance. Some of the hurdles facing this segment of the business:
• It has seen some of the biggest sales decreases overall of any category where licensing plays a role, aside from a few bright spots such as athleisure clothing. The global apparel market is set to decline more than 15.2% this year, a drop of $297 billion, according to GlobalData, with the U.S. accounting for 40% of that number.
• Sales estimates by retail channel confirm these trends, with apparel marketers’ customers seeing the poorest results. Specialty store sales dropped 89.3% and department stores almost half in April compared to last year, to name just two relevant stats, according to the U.S. Commerce Department.
• Many of the retail Chapter 11 reorganizations (J. Crew, Nieman Marcus, JCPenney, and Stage Stores among them to date), not to mention store closures, rent non-payment, loan defaults, and other struggles, have involved chains that are particularly important customers for apparel and related categories.
• It seems as if consumers are going to be working from home at a much greater rate than in the past, even as the crisis eases, with some companies such as Twitter saying their employees will have that option for the foreseeable future. This will tamp down demand for many clothing categories.
• Excess inventories are a big problem, with the crisis starting just after spring collections hit retail stores. Many apparel marketers are deep discounting and selling to off-price and outlet stores. Some, such as Armani, are waiting until next year to debut new collections. Meanwhile, the entire concept of seasonality in fashion is being questioned, with the crisis moving the industry toward a long-discussed “buy-now-wear-now” approach.
• Safety issues will impact many aspects of the fashion industry going forward, as some consumers will be leery of trying on clothes and browsing through items on racks or shelves, both “high-touch” activities. Fast-growth new business models such as rental/personal styling boxes and resale programs will also be off-limits for some consumers for the same reason, at least for a time, despite their relevance for shoppers who value sustainability.
On the positive side, drops of limited edition and capsule collections, many of which are collaborative in nature, have reportedly continued to perform well overall. This model, already a key strategy, is generating interest even among companies that had stayed away in the past. In fact, as announcements of licensing and collaborative deals start to come back after an approximately month-long hiatus, a significant proportion—from Leicester City football club with Kasabian to Super Mario with Uniqlo—fall into the category of limited collaborations with outside properties.
Such programs infuse a degree of consumer excitement and urgency, while minimizing risk to still-struggling fashion marketers and retailers and their partners. It seems logical that limited collaborative collections featuring licensed IP will play a key role as the industry reimagines itself and ultimately reemerges from the current crisis.
Licensing-Related Marketing Campaigns During COVID-19
May 19, 2020, first published in Raugust Communications’ e-newsletter: The number of marketing, promotional, advertising, and social media campaigns to support licensed properties and products decreased precipitously in the U.S. as soon as the coronavirus hit the region in earnest in mid-March. The incidence of awareness-generating efforts, both to consumers and the trade, is creeping back up. But many licensors, licensees, and other partners are still figuring out when it is appropriate to get back to marketing, as well as how to develop appropriate messaging for the times.
Companies that have been promoting themselves in some way have mostly been sticking with COVID-related messaging, according to new Raugust Communications research. The analysis includes approximately 400 examples of advertising, social media campaigns, and published publicity releases (consumer and trade) launched from March 15 to May 15.
COVID-related efforts tend to fit into three categories: spotlighting charitable efforts (35.1% of campaigns); highlighting existing COVID-friendly product lines, such as puzzles, educational workbooks, meal kits, and the like (29.4%); and touting new products or services created due to the virus, such as face masks, content about hand-washing, t-shirts with COVID-related phrases, and thank you messages to first responders (12.4%).
Non-COVID-related messaging continues to exist, but these represent just 16.9% of campaigns. They fall into two classifications: 7.3% that are tying their messaging to a recurring special event, such as Easter, Cinco de Mayo, graduation, Earth Day, or the NFL Draft, and 9.6% that are promoting general product launches.
The landscape has evolved quickly as the crisis has gone on. In the first month, COVID-related messaging of the three types mentioned above collectively drove 84.4% of campaigns, while 11.4% were non-COVID-related. From April 15 to the present, messaging still skewed toward the COVID-specific, accounting for a 73.0% share of campaigns collectively. Non-COVID messages are starting to reappear, however, comprising an 18.7% share in the past month.
A Little Help From Your Friends
May 18, 2020, first published in RaugustReports: A number of retailers have set up programs in which they assist their customers in supporting healthcare workers, their neighbors, or their broader communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. These initiatives are primarily charitable, but they bring marketing and sometimes sales benefits as well:
• Walmart teamed with NextDoor, a social networking app for neighborhoods, for a “Neighbors Helping Neighbors” Program. The collaboration, formed at the end of April, is meant to make it easier for neighbors to assist each other during the lockdown. It creates a platform to match consumers who need help securing essentials such as groceries and pharmacy items with neighbors who are willing to pick up and deliver the things they need. Members of the free Nextdoor app click on the Groups tab to find Walmart stores in their area pinned to the page, along with a prompt to post a message if they need help or want to provide it. Members can then connect and coordinate logistics and payment. Prior to this deal, Nextdoor had seen a sevenfold increase in people joining groups formed to help their neighbors during the crisis.
• Joann, the craft and fabric retailer, has encouraged its sewing-savvy customers to make face masks for healthcare professionals, and has given away free kits containing all the materials they need, with instructions and how-to videos available on its website. The retailer’s store managers have worked with local hospitals to assess their current requirements, collect the finished products, and arrange the deliveries. As of the end of March, the chain had gathered more than 11 million masks. The effort not only fills a need for medical first responders but keeps consumers busy and fulfilled as they self-isolate.
• Lowe’s created a campaign to spur consumers to build yard signs to thank healthcare professionals for their essential work. The company asked them to use materials they have around the house, such as holiday lights or craft and DIY supplies to create the signs and display their creations in a prominent location. On April 6, participants shared pictures of their work on social media with the hashtag #buildthanks. Lowe’s offered instructions and examples for inspiration on a dedicated page on its website. Like the Joann program, the #buildthanks campaign also gives consumers a project to keep them occupied while offering support to those on the front lines, even as it reinforces the retailer’s position as a go-to source for craft and DIY products.
• JCPenney, prior to its Chapter 11 bankruptcy declaration, created an initiative in partnership with Give Back Box that allowed customers to donate used items and feel confident that they went to charities supporting education and job training for furloughed and unemployed Americans. Customers could fill a box with good-condition used clothing and household items, print a free shipping label from the JCPenney website, and drop the box at a UPS or USPS location. The boxes were recycled and the goods donated to local charities. The initiative was themed to Earth Day, but its timing this year meant the need for such a program was as great as it ever has been, for humanitarian as well as environmental reasons.
• Supermarket operator Southeastern Grocers, whose chains include Bi-Lo, Winn-Dixie, Harveys, and Fresco y Más, paired with Feeding America on a program where shoppers can give “hunger relief” bags of groceries, for $5.00, to people facing food insecurity because of the ramifications of COVID-19. The bags, filled with SE Grocers-branded private-label non-perishables, are available for purchase at store registers across all of the chains, fulfilled at company warehouses, and donated to food banks in the southeastern U.S.
Retailers have often spearheaded charitable initiatives in the past, sometimes involving their customers’ participation. What is interesting about these examples is that they offer an opportunity for a retailer to raise awareness and buff its image in a pandemic-acceptable way, because they are filling a real need for consumers who want to help. This was a particular benefit during the first month or more of the crisis, when many marketers were shying away from advertising, promotions, and other exposure-generating activities altogether in fear of seeming insensitive or inappropriate. (Marketing efforts have slowly been coming back in the last few weeks, although nowhere near pre-pandemic levels.) Several of these initiatives also bring traffic to the stores and/or spur purchasing, either directly or indirectly.
Competing for Fan Loyalty During Hard Times
May 14, 2020, first published in RaugustReports: One segment of the licensing business where the shutdown of live events has had a significant impact is sports. The cancellation of sports seasons and events has removed their core reason for being, creating financial hardship for many and lessening the urge to purchase licensed merchandise, both in the short term and very possibly for a longer time.
As social distancing has made their real-world iteration at least temporarily impossible, marketers of live events and experiences of all types have tried to build alternative presences in the digital world. Virtual editions of things like author tours, theatrical movie releases, trade shows, and fan fests do not replicate their associated live events perfectly, but they have been adequate substitutes for the time being. Live sports, on the other hand, do not have a direct translation in the virtual world. Not only is there nothing like the experience of watching live sports in a stadium, but consumers cannot even watch the sport from afar in the safety of quarantine, since the players have been self-isolating as well. At this writing, some sports around the world are tentatively starting to relaunch, but the full sports experience as fans knew it in the past is not coming back anytime soon.
That said, sports licensors and their licensees and other partners have kept their brands and a bit of the experience of their sport—and sports in general—alive during the hiatus in a variety of ways. Some of the most common strategies have included:
- E-sports. Leagues, events, and athletes have been entering or expanding their presence in the world of competitive video gaming. The eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing series on Fox and FS1 has seen viewership grow during the crisis. Infront and the International Ice Hockey Federation hosted an Esports Fan Championship with eSport Studio in May, with fans from each of the 16 countries that had qualified for the real-life IIHF World Championship competing and with the finals broadcast on Twitch. Esports organization Misfits Gaming hosted an event pitting NFL athletes against gamers in Fortnite and Call of Duty competitions, with proceeds going to charity. NBA athletes played Take Two Interactive’s NBA 2K2020 on an event on ESPN, which also raised money for COVID-19 charities. Fox Sports aired a similar competition in which current and former NFL stars played Electronic Arts’ Madden 20. E-sports has been one of the most popular alternative marketing channels for sports entities during the pandemic, and there are many more examples.
- Gambling. Sports betting had been on the rise prior to the crisis, as laws in the U.S. and elsewhere have loosened. Without traditional live sports to bet on, gambling entities have kept their businesses alive by turning to simulations of canceled events. These are virtual games where the action is based on probabilities calculated from real-life player and team statistics. As one example, IMG Arena hosts virtual Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) tennis matches for bettors. Gambling purveyors have also offered betting for e-sports competitions and some continuing live events, such as horse racing from Hong Kong, the NFL Draft, and soccer leagues that played on in countries such as Turkey and Tajikistan. FanDuel and DraftKings, both partners of the U.S. major leagues, initially focused on the fantasy sports arms of their businesses as their gambling operations have fallen off, although fantasy sports has also had to evolve as it is based on real-life sports stats that have stopped being recorded.
- Alternative live events. Fans are turning to all kinds of obscure sports events that are able to continue during the lockdown as they strive to maintain the excitement of live competitive sports. A notable example has been competitive marble racing. Jelle’s Marble Runs, which launched on YouTube in 2006 and is the leading player in the space, has teams, commentators, and official team merchandise with TeeSpring. It has received significant boosts to its number of followers and viewers during the pandemic; Formula E racing has taken note and partnered with Jelle for a Marbula E series. Jelle also has had a presence on ESPN8: The Ocho, a pandemic-driven repositioning of ESPN2 featuring unusual live sports. Other marble racing leagues include M&H Racing and Fubeca’s Marble Runs.
- Ancillary events. Programming related to live sports, both ongoing and newly created, has generated publicity and sometimes significant viewership. The NFL Draft, which has been growing in interest over the years as a live event, generated record viewership this year, with more than 15 million people tuning in on the first day. The 10-hour Michael Jordan documentary series, The Last Dance, has not only been the top-rated ESPN documentary in history but out-rated this season’s NBA games as well, thanks to the dearth of competitive sports programming. ESPN, the NBA, and the NBA Players Association created a HORSE basketball shot challenge involving NBA and WBNA players, which did not garner high ratings but did generate notable publicity.
- Charitable initiatives. Fanatics’ CEO Michael Rubin launched the “All In Challenge,” in which sports and entertainment celebrities offer once-in-a-lifetime experiences that fans are eligible to win if they make a donation, with funds going to several nonprofits addressing food insecurity. The initiative has generated significant participation from celebrities and fans, raised $38 million as of last weekend, and built a high profile on social media. Separately, the Real Heroes Project features athletes who each dedicate a match shirt or jersey to an individual healthcare worker in their community as a gesture of thanks. The initiative is a collaboration between 14 pro sports and e-sports leagues, from the five U.S. major leagues to WWE, NASCAR, the U.S. Golf Association, and the World Tennis Association.
- Re-runs. While not as exciting as live sports, fans have been revisiting the many classic sports moments being televised by ESPN, Fox Sports, NBC Sports, and other networks, along with local TV and radio channels. NBC Sports Chicago re-ran all of the 1998 Chicago Bulls post-season games (the same period captured in The Last Dance), MLB Network’s programming has included things like “MLB’s 20 Greatest Games,” and ESPN Radio highlighted classic World Series games from the past decade, to name just a handful of many examples.
- Foreign live sports. This is a new addition to the list (aside from the few examples followed by bettors) as live sports are slowly coming back in some of the regions where the pandemic occurred first. ESPN signed a deal to distribute the 2020 regular season, playoff, and championship games of the Korea Baseball Organization, played live but without fans, with six games planned per week. ESPN commentators are doing the play-by-play from their homes. Also from Korea, K League soccer is streaming globally for the first time, with games available for free on Twitter and YouTube with English-language commentary. The K League also recently signed broadcast deals in a number of countries.
Currently, all of these initiatives primarily serve to maintain awareness for the leagues and other entities—and for live sports in general—and to keep fans engaged during this fallow period. There are few expectations for significant revenue-generation at this time, including from licensed merchandise, although there are products associated with some of these initiatives, such marble racing and the NFL Draft. And, fans engaging with alternative sports programming or events may be motivated to make the occasional e-commerce purchase, perhaps of a current need such as a sports-licensed face mask or a t-shirt or collectible from the available range of licensed merchandise.
Meal Kits: Reprieve or Turnaround?
May 11, 2020, first published in RaugustReports: Meal kits represent one consumer product segment that has benefitted from the stay-at-home orders in place during the last two months in the U.S. (and longer in some other regions) to stop the spread of COVID-19. Research has shown that this sector appeals to consumers, especially younger adults, at least in theory. Prior to the pandemic, however, it had been struggling to find a workable business model that would satisfy price-sensitive consumers while generating ongoing profits.
During the current crisis, meal kits have offered an attractive alternative for many. They keep consumers out of crowded grocery stores; they present another option, alongside restaurant delivery and curbside pick-up, to fill the void left by the elimination of dine-in restaurant options; and they help consumers prepare a good meal at home, even if they lack cooking skills or a full complement of beyond-basic ingredients. These benefits have led to an increase in sales for meal kits and related products and services, as well as the launch of new kits, across a variety of players:
- Meal kit specialists. Hello Fresh saw year-on-year growth of more than 66% for the first three months of this year, through March 31. That included two weeks of the lockdown in the U.S., the company’s biggest market, and longer in Europe, where it is based and where the virus hit earlier. It also doubled its U.S. customer count compared to the same period in 2019. Blue Apron reported a loss in the first quarter, but said its sales were up 8%, with orders up from 1.6 million to 2.5 million and customers up from 351,000 to 550,000 in the quarter, year-over-year. Other meal kit companies have reported similar results, and researchers including Nielsen and Earnest Research have tracked sales spikes for the segment as a whole during the pandemic.
- Restaurants. In addition to offering curbside pick-up and delivery of a range of prepared menu items, several restaurants have launched kits to allow consumers to prepare a fresh-cooked replica of their favorite restaurant foods. Shake Shack is offering DIY ShackBurger kits in partnership with Cream Co. Meats, delivered through Uber Eats in the Bay Area of California. Chick-fil-A launched a chicken parmesan meal kit, containing two precooked, breaded filets, marinara sauce, cheese, and creamy garlic and lemon pasta. Denny’s is offering Make-at-Home Meal Kits including a breakfast meal, picnic sandwiches, chicken and rice and pot roast dinners, and apple crisp desserts. Smashburger is offering kits including Classic Smash, crispy chicken, and smoked bacon brisket, all with tots. Taco Bell has an At-Home Taco Bar. A popular and award-winning Chicago fine-dining restaurant, Fat Rice, closed for good and transformed into a meal-kit provider called Super Fat Rice Mart. Several independent restaurants offered Cinco de Mayo kits so consumers could celebrate on May 5, a big day for Mexican restaurants in the U.S. And the list goes on.
- Retailers. U.K. retailer Home Bargains is selling lockdown baking boxes that are delivered to consumers’ homes and gather together all the Jane Asher-licensed products consumers need to create a variety of baked goods in their own kitchens. Each box includes five different cake and pastry mixes (from a vanilla sponge to scones); a variety of kitchen gadgets such as pastry cutters, tins, spatulas, and paper cake cases/baking cups; and additional ingredients such as frosting and sultanas/golden raisins. Kroger has seen almost triple the number of customers purchase its Home Chef kits (sold in-store and by subscription) during the lockdown, compared to before the virus hit. In a slightly different twist, Kroger is also offering downloadable activity kits for weekly parties under the “Social, Social” banner, with examples ranging from Mother’s Day to an ice cream social. Downloadable assets like cards and activities are paired with recipes using ingredients under the company’s various private labels, which must be purchased separately. Consumers are encouraged to share photos themed to the events.
- Delivery companies. In addition to partnering with restaurants to deliver their menu items, some services are creating kits, with a focus on special occasions. Deliveroo offered “Seder-to-Go” Passover kits in four cities in the U.K. and Ireland, in partnership with charity organization Chabad Lubavitch. The kits contained traditional foods plus other items that are part of the ceremonial meal, including a roll-up Seder plate, a box of matzoh, a bottle of grape juice and one of wine, a Kiddush cup, and a Haggadah with an English translation. The boxes were aimed primarily at vulnerable consumers who cannot or should not shop.
- Suppliers. Produce companies across the country are creating community-supported agriculture (CSA) style boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables for consumers to pick up, as well as direct-to-consumer fresh-produce delivery services. These ventures help them generate cash flow to partially replace the loss of their restaurant and other food service customers, as well as providing a channel for excess inventory and appealing to consumers’ desire to avoid stores.
The question, of course, is whether these positive trends for meal kits and related services will continue after things get back to some sort of normal and consumers feel more comfortable going back to restaurants and shopping regularly at supermarkets.
This is something licensors, especially in the food, diet, media, and celebrity spaces, will be closely watching. They have viewed meal kits from the beginning as a logical opportunity for partnership, with both marketing benefits and, potentially, revenue-generation opportunities. Many deals have been done over time, from Food Network with Kraft Heinz, to the blog Skinnytaste with Peapod, to model Kate Upton with Urban Remedy. But—with some notable exceptions—the challenges meal kit purveyors have faced in trying to build a sustainable business model have increasingly kept property owners away.
May 7, 2020, first published in RaugustReports: 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.
May 4, 2020, first published in RaugustReports: While the spread of the COVID-19 virus has created a long list of challenges and uncertainties for the licensing community, it has also given rise to some untapped opportunities for properties that are a good fit and can capitalize in a way that makes sense. One is to help fill the void for high school and college students, especially seniors, who are missing key milestones in their young lives due to stay-at-home orders.
Recent initiatives involving the licensing community and other marketers fall into three groups:
- Virtual graduations. Dr. Seuss Enterprises and Random House Children’s Books are hosting an Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Virtual Graduation, tied to the 20th anniversary of the Dr. Seuss title, a popular graduation gift. The month-long initiative kicked off on May 1 with a commencement keynote on Facebook by WWE star John Cena, which incorporated a reading of the book. Astronaut Scott Kelly is a spokesperson for the event. Other components include inspirational words of wisdom from educators, first responders, authors, illustrators, and celebrities; audio readings from John Lithgow, who narrates the Oh, The Places audiobook; a charitable donation to First Book (up to 20,020 books, one for every in-feed post tagged with #ohtheplaces2020, to be donated to school libraries in the fall); LinkedIn activities and thoughts about the book from business leaders; and graduation photo-sharing. A merchandise program from five licensees accompanies the initiative. Separately, other virtual commencement activities this year have included a Facebook-hosted address from Oprah Winfrey; a “Show Me Your Walk” celebration, presented by Chase, with Kevin Hart, Serena Williams, and Stephen Curry; and a LeBron James-backed primetime special with Megan Rapinoe, Pharrell Williams, Malala Yousafzai, Bad Bunny, and the Jonas Brothers.
- Fostering general camaraderie and school spirit, an important part of the secondary and post-secondary educational experience. CLC, the licensing division of IMG College, launched a digital campaign meant to help replace the loss of the community connections normally fostered by on-campus sports events, classes, and social functions. The campaign offers the overriding message, “United as One,” encouraging students at more than 180 CLC partner institutions to support each other and share their allegiance to their school. Students are prompted to create content, such as photos of themselves in their college gear and/or recreations of their most memorable sports moments, and to share it on their social platforms with the hashtag #UnitedAsOne. They can also download school-specific Zoom backgrounds. A nationwide top-10 list of memories will be aggregated from the user-generated content. In addition, seniors get a 20% discount code to Fanatics as a graduation gift, through a partnership between that company and CLC.
- Virtual proms. While there has been little connection to licensing in this space to date, a number of celebrities and a few corporate sponsors have jumped in. Actor John Krasinski held a virtual prom on his Some Good News YouTube channel, with visits from celebrities, first responders, and fans. The prom included dance music DJ’d by Krasinski and appearances from Chance the Rapper, Billie Eilish, and others. Seniors across the country got into the event by dressing in promwear, decorating their homes in prom style, and, without a date during social distancing, bringing their parents along for the fun. Many shared their experiences on social media. Meanwhile, the radio station KISS FM put together a virtual prom, hosted by Ryan Seacrest, with celebrity appearances, DJ sets, and shout-outs. And Al Roker held a prom for a single high school in Nebraska that was dealing with floods as well as COVID-19; seniors dressed up and danced, and each received a corsage or boutonniere from Roker, delivered to their homes. The festivities were highlighted on NBC’s Today show.
Collectively, these initiatives represent one example of how licensors, licensees, and other companies are gingerly negotiating the sensitive marketing landscape during COVID-19. They are attempting to fill a need in the marketplace in a way that gives them a positive image with relatively little danger of controversy or blowback, and helps them maintain awareness during a time where many consumers are not shopping much or receptive to sales messages. While the main goal is marketing, these sorts of events can sometimes also be opportunities to logically drive a few sales of licensed products along the way.
Children’s Books: What’s Selling in the Mass Channels?
April 30, 2020, published in Publishers Weekly: Mass retailers, from Walmart and Target, to supermarkets, drug stores, the dollar/value channel, and wholesale price clubs, have remained open during the pandemic and continue to bring in enormous foot traffic. Customers are not only picking up essentials like food and pharmacy items, but also children’s books, with publishers reporting strong sales across mass channels. Educational and coloring and activity titles lead the way, but increases have also been noted for titles outside of these categories.
Read the full article, from Publishers Weekly, here.
To Promote or Not to Promote
April 30, 2020, first published in RaugustReports: When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many companies put their plans on hold for product launches, marketing and media campaigns, publicity, and the like. But some have decided that an uninterrupted presence in consumers’ minds will help position them for success, or at least survival, once the peak of the crisis has passed. They have therefore continued to run publicity and/or advertising campaigns across traditional and social media over the past six weeks or so.
For the most part, given the severity of the crisis, with people still dying and a growing number suffering economically, marketers have kept their messaging squarely coronavirus-related, although there are commercial elements to some of the initiatives being promoted. Strategies fall into three major buckets:
- Highlighting efforts to support health care workers, consumers, or both. Many companies, from Fanatics to Prada, have highlighted their charitable activities, such as making or securing face masks or ventilators and distributing them to hospitals, raising funds and making financial donations, or providing free educational content for at-home learners. A number of entertainment studios and publishers have released content to teach kids to wash their hands or to help them understand the virus; Genius Brands touted the COVID-19-prevention PSAs it created starring the characters from Llama Llama and Secret Millionaire’s Club. Some initiatives help business partners that are hurting; CLC’s “United as One” campaign bolsters its university clients during a difficult time by fostering virtual community connections when classes and football games are not possible. Some retailers have touted the sale of products that aide consumers in supporting medical personnel or each other; Walmart paired with the neighborhood social networking app NextDoor to create a platform for consumers to buy products for people in their community who are at risk.
- Publicizing launches of products or virtual experiences that are COVID-related or came into being due to the lockdown. Several licensees are selling face masks, usually with an associated charitable donation. Marketers who normally put on or participate in physical live events are promoting the virtual iterations they have created for their fans during the pandemic; examples include BTS’s virtual concert convention and Tokidoki’s virtual fan fest. Some companies are going the quirky route, as WWE did with its line of t-shirts tied to WrestleMania 36, held without live spectators, with the phrase “I Wasn’t There.” The Smiley Company is taking to social media and email to spread good news about people who are helping in the crisis and to stress that everything will eventually be O.K. The respective marketers have generated awareness for all of these initiatives through publicity, social media, and/or advertising. In addition, several companies have been promoting existing product lines that fit the COVID lifestyle. These include categories such as puzzles (Masterpieces), arts and crafts (Michael’s), and coloring books (IDW), among others.
- Creating thank-you messages to a company’s own employees, or generally to first responders, healthcare professionals, or other essential workers (e.g., supermarket cashiers, warehouse pickers and packers, delivery drivers, etc.). This route tends to be taken by bigger corporations, with the messaging occurring through ads on TV or in other traditional-media advertising, supplemented by social media. One example: Pizza Hut’s “proud to serve” campaign applauding its 115,000 workers for their dedication and community outreach during the crisis. While several companies involved in licensing have used this technique, it has not been common in association with licensed product lines specifically.
There are always exceptions to the rule, of course, but most publicity, promotional, and marketing efforts tied to the licensing community and undertaken during the pandemic have fallen into one these major classifications.
As the crisis is entering its third month in the U.S., a growing but still small number of marketers have started to spotlight new products that have nothing to do with COVID-19. These are pre-planned campaigns that are going on as scheduled, or are being launched after a short delay. Several marketers publicized or advertised their Earth Day products, for example, while others promoted merchandise or fan contests tied to the NFL Draft. And, while still relatively rare, licensors and licensees—from Rebecca Atwood and Pottery Barn to Uniqlo and Nintendo—are increasingly announcing new licensing deals of the sort that would have been common up until the virus hit.
Coloring and Crosswords Books for Adults Get Boost
April 28, 2020, published in Publishers Weekly: Since early March, when the Covid-19 pandemic began, adults have been purchasing books to keep their children occupied during the long hours in isolation, driving sales of educational workbooks and coloring books. But they are also on the hunt for activities for themselves, both to while away the hours and to reduce anxiety and stress. As a result, puzzle books, coloring books, and even joke books for adults have seen strong sales over the past seven weeks, publishers report. They have seen sales increases for these categories both at online retailers and in the mass stores that have remained open, including Target, Walmart, grocery stores, and dollar chains.
Read the full article, from Publishers Weekly, here.
Turning Point for Digital Events?
April 21, 2020, first published in Raugust Communications’ April 2020 e-newsletter: The COVID-19 crisis has, by necessity, moved many formerly live experiences online, with each type of event taking a slightly different digital form:
Theatrical movies. With theaters shut down, TV shows halting production, and more free time available than usual, consumers are turning to streaming in a bigger way than ever before, with Nielsen and other researchers measuring big increases in viewership across platforms in March and April. Most theatrical films set for release this spring and summer have been delayed to later in the year or next year, if they have a new date. But Universal’s Trolls World Tour, the first big studio film to open as a digital download in lieu of a theatrical release (at $19.99 for a 48-hour viewing window), has been lauded as a success. While definitive numbers haven’t been released, it reached the top of almost every platform’s sales chart after its April 10 release, and Deadline estimated its earnings at $50 million, based on interviews with studio executives.
Shopping. With non-essential bricks-and-mortar retailers shut down and many customers uncomfortable with shopping in-store, the use of e-commerce is, as expected, on the rise. But the transition has not been a slam-dunk. Category success varies, with segments like fitness equipment seeing positive trends and others, including apparel, experiencing the opposite. Amazon stopped accepting non-essential items for about a month (affecting only products shipped from its warehouses). Fulfillment across e-commerce has been slow due to social distancing in warehouses and the need to bulk up on delivery personnel. And some retailers and etailers (e.g., Next, Yoox Net-a-Porter) stopped their e-commerce operations altogether for safety reasons.
Sports. Live soccer matches and baseball games do not translate directly from analog to digital forms. But leagues, clubs, and athletes are finding other ways to engage fans online. One is e-sports, with organizations from the NFL to NASCAR setting up e-sports competitions featuring their athletes as a way to engage fans during the hiatus from live play. Other entities, such as the ATP pro tennis association and many more, are working with betting providers to create sports simulations for gambling purposes.
Trade shows, fan festivals, and experiential initiatives. The inability to hold these events has been a big blow from a marketing perspective. Shanghai was one of the first of many global Fashion Weeks to be cancelled and subsequently launch a digital version. Canceled trade events from Children’s Media Conference to the Bologna Licensing Trade Fair have implemented digital events with components such as speakers, webinars, networking opportunities, and virtual exhibits. Events that have not been cancelled—including Toy Fair New York, which occurred before the pandemic, and Licensing Expo, which has been moved to August but not officially cancelled yet (as of this writing)—are implementing similar iterations. Meanwhile, individual licensors and licensees that rely on now-canceled fan events such as San Diego Comic Con (e.g., Mezco, Cryptozoic, Tokidoki) are setting up their own digital fan fests. Fan experiences are also turning to digital alternatives; Disney created a dedicated, interactive website to help fans engage with its now-closed theme parks, for example.
What are the long-term implications of these moves? It is likely that most of these digital alternatives will remain as viable options after the pandemic, probably at a lower level than at present but certainly much more frequent than before the crisis. In certain cases, they will likely be supplemental to traditional live events. It is hard to replicate in a virtual setting the unique experience of going to a live sports competition, for example, or of attending a fan event with other like-minded people.
In other cases, however, the long-term impact may be more profound. Some attendees and exhibitors have already been questioning the value and cost of trade shows, for example, when the work can be done via email, videoconference, and occasional office visits. E-commerce is already on the rise, of course, while traditional bricks-and-mortar shopping has become less appealing to many consumers (and some key chains may not even survive the pandemic). Box office revenues for theatrical films have been on a long downward trajectory; perhaps this will be the turning point where at least some studios opt for straight-to-streaming releases, even for tentpoles.
Of course it is difficult to look into the crystal ball when we do not yet know how long the pandemic will last or what the aftermath will look like. Time will tell.
April COVID-19 Update: Settling In But Also Struggling
April 21, 2020: The global COVID-19 pandemic began more than three months ago, and there is as much uncertainty as ever about the long-term ramifications. While the licensing community for the most part has settled into its temporary new way of life, many companies are focused on simply trying to survive. Others are maintaining a business-as-usual outlook, while trying to figure the best way forward.
Impact on Sales of Licensed Products
“Non-essential” stores have closed temporarily—who knows for how long—in many cities and countries. Some of these are unlikely to reopen; one analyst predicted that over 20,000 UK stores could remain permanently closed after lockdown, and some independent stores and small chains have permanently shuttered already.
Consumers are staying home, venturing out only to shop for food, pharmacy, and other essentials, as well as for outdoor exercise. Some states and countries are opening back up, or considering doing so, at least a bit, but there are concerns about the virus continuing to spread, or spreading again, in the wake of this decision. And, with the ranks of the unemployed reaching 22 million in the U.S. alone in just four weeks, there is little desire or ability to shop anyway.
Thus consumer purchasing is down nearly across the board. H&M saw its sales for March fall 46%, while England’s Rugby Football Union said it faces revenue losses (from all sources) of between £45 million and £50 million in the next 18 months, to name just two examples.
Mass merchants, supermarkets, dollar stores, and other venues that have remained open have seen sales spike in certain categories as consumers stockpile non-perishable foods and household goods such as toilet paper. Target reported comparable store sales for March were up 20% compared to last year, with food and essentials up more than 50%. Many mass stores are hiring additional employees to meet demand, as are the delivery services that are also seeing a significant boost.
But will the upward trend continue at mass? At some point consumers will have hoarded enough rice, canned fruit, and paper towels. Stores are increasingly implementing limitations on the number of units that can be purchased of some items. They are also limiting the number of people who can be in the store at one time and some are considering curbside pick-up only, as more of their employees catch the virus. Some states, such as Vermont, have started barring mass and grocery retailers from selling anything beyond essentials.
Some categories are faring worse than others. Apparel, jewelry, accessories, and footwear are all down significantly for the most part—sneaker sales fell 75% in March—while housewares and automotive supplies have been flat. But essentials and some items that support a life entirely at home are doing well. These include home office products, puzzles, board games, toys, children’s books, baking accessories, alcoholic beverages, video games, and workbooks, as well as athleisure and yoga wear.
With stores closed and events cancelled, many formerly physical aspects of life have moved online. E-commerce, naturally, has seen an increase in sales as bricks-and-mortar stores close. In the U.S., e-commerce sales were up 40% in the second half of March, according to Listrak. That said, digital retailing is not the panacea many thought it would be.
Many of the categories that are showing weakness at retail overall, such as apparel, are doing the same online, including formerly hot segments such as personal styling subscription services. Conversely, the categories that are doing well in-store are doing well online, too. Web-only retailers are not seeing the bump in sales that bricks-and-mortar stores with online presences are.
Not all retailers are keeping their online presence active, since they feel they cannot operate their fulfillment warehouses safely. Retailers Next and TJX, for example, announced they would shut down their e-commerce operations, as well as their physical stores, and online-only operators such as Yoox Net-a-Porter did the same. Many that are online are offering products at deeply discounted prices to move inventory. Amazon stopped accepting and fulfilling items that are not deemed essential for a time, as it struggled to fulfill orders for essentials such as disinfectant wipes. (This policy affected only items fulfilled from its warehouses, not direct-shipped or Marketplace orders.)
Meanwhile, aside from e-commerce, live events of all kinds have transitioned to digital iterations. Streamed entertainment is picking up steam (including the Trolls World Tour feature film successfully debuting as a download); gatherings from business meetings to cocktail parties are moving online through Zoom and other platforms; employees are being set up with the technology they need to work at home, even in tech-driven areas such as movie special effects; trade shows, fan events, and some individual exhibitors (e.g. board game and collectibles companies) are creating virtual environments to see if they can replicate at least some aspects of the live event; sports leagues are setting up e-sports competitions featuring their athletes; authors are doing virtual book tours and housewares retailers are hosting virtual wine tastings.
Inventory and Supply Concerns
A month ago, the main threat was a lack of inventory coming out of China and how that would impact marketers later in the year. Supply chain issues are still present, both in China (even as it largely comes back online) and other countries. But things are getting better and the concern now, given plummeting demand, is excess inventory. Some store inventory has been moved online, but that has not solved the problem entirely.
Many retailers, especially on the department and specialty apparel side of things, have cancelled orders, some of them even before closing their physical and/or digital stores. Primark and Ross Stores are two examples. Others are pausing orders for a “few weeks” until they can forecast for later in the year, although the timeframe seems to be moving further and further away. Some are even refusing shipments as they are delivered. All of this and other factors have slowed imports into the U.S., which were at their lowest level in five years in March, according to the National Retail Federation.
Many retailers and licensors are holding off on releasing new products, delaying some items to the fall (if possible), or even to next year. Giorgio Armani and Gap are among those taking the latter route. Some excess inventory ultimately will need to be donated, recycled, or destroyed. Many licensors have begun focusing on just their best customers or best-performing products.
The trickle-down effect of these decisions touches the entire business, of course. The Bangladesh apparel industry, second largest in the world after China, initially benefitted from the closure of Chinese factories. But it now expects to lose $6 billion in export revenue this year due to cancelled orders from retailers and brands.
Marketing: Walking a Fine Line
The cancellation or delay of trade shows, fan festivals, experiential events, sports seasons, theatrical films, and more, not to mention the closure of physical and some online retail stores, have wreaked havoc with licensors’ and licensees’ marketing plans and launch dates.
A growing number of trade and fan events have moved online, creating virtual editions. Marketers are trying to compensate for lost live opportunities by participating in these organizer-led platforms, as well as by creating their own virtual fan events, boosting their social media activities, or other alternatives. All told, 81% of global marketers have postponed advertising and promotional campaigns, according to the World Federation of Advertisers, while 79% have created coronavirus-specific messaging.
Speaking of messaging, some marketers are positioning themselves, if they can do so logically, as a solution relevant to consumers’ lives during the pandemic. Joann Fabrics is encouraging consumers to use its fabrics to make facemasks for hospitals and other caregivers. Puzzle and board game companies are reminding consumers that their products are a fun and family-friendly way to spend their abundant at-home time. Content providers such as Sesame Workshop have created new, free online materials to help kids and families understand the crisis or make good use of their time. Many marketers are temporarily making their e-books, educational materials, and trade magazines, normally sold through subscription, available to all.
A large and growing group of companies and brands, from Sesame Workshop to Fanatics to Prada to MGA Entertainment, are lending a helping hand. Their contributions include supplying masks, protective gear, hand sanitizer, and ventilators; donating goods, services, or funding to the cause; or fundraising. These are meant to help improve a bad situation, as well as, in many cases, to help keep some factories running and employees at work. They can also have secondary marketing benefits in that they keep a company top of mind and give it a positive image. But it is easy to cross the line into insensitivity or commercialization in a situation like this.
Looking Toward the Future
Companies are doing what they must to survive the many short-term challenges and threats presented by the virus. Widespread employee furloughs—cutting across companies from Build-A-Bear and Macy’s to Rent the Runway and Funko—are causing economic suffering in the immediate term, and it is likely that some of these will become permanent layoffs.
Several companies with a connection to licensing have declared Chapter 11 in an attempt to survive. To date, they include USA Rugby, fashion brand True Religion, and six European subsidiaries of fashion conglomerate Esprit, with Nieman Marcus, AMC Theatres, and others thought to be not far behind. Macy’s, Nordstrom, JCPenney, and Kohl’s are among the many that have warned about the substantial negative impact on their financials for the year.
Meanwhile, retailers and other marketers are doing what they can to cut costs and keep their businesses going, beyond furloughs. Ralph Lauren has drawn down $475 million from its credit line. Adidas suspended a 1 billion euro buyback of its shares that it had planned for this year, as a means of keeping cash on hand, while Puma suspended its planned dividend payment and secured additional financing. Target intends to reduce its planned number of store remodels by 50% this year and open about half the number of small stores originally anticipated. Some retailers and other marketers are foregoing rent payments; looking for extended terms or other concessions from landlords, vendors, and suppliers; and asking management and sometimes other still-employed staff to take pay cuts.
Licensors and licensees are considering restructuring licensing contracts to compensate for the impossibility of reaching minimum guaranteed royalty or sales levels this year. Many are also putting new releases on hold.
But even as they try to reduce costs and do what they can to survive in the short term, licensing executives are also working to move forward. Most continue to review new licensing proposals and some have even announced new deals, created new marketing campaigns, and gone ahead with product launches. Although this activity is at a much lower level than usual, it is still a positive sign for the future.
Bright Spots in Dark Times
April 20, 2020, first published in RaugustReports: The COVID-19 lockdown has caused steep global sales declines for most consumer products over the last six weeks or so. The impact has been evident across a wide swath of product categories, with the key licensed sectors of apparel, footwear, and accessories particularly hard-hit. There have been some exceptions to the rule, of course, notably toilet paper, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and non-perishable foods.
In addition to these lockdown necessities, several other opportunities for sales of licensed products have emerged over the course of the crisis, driven by consumers’ self-isolating lifestyles:
- Board games, puzzles, coloring books, video games, and other leisure-time activities. These were among the first categories to see a boost in sales as homebound consumers, both adults and families, looked for something to do to fill the time. Educational workbooks also give kids something to do while keeping them sharp, which was especially important during the gap between the close of the schools and the start of distance learning.
- Crafts and hobbies. Adults in particular have been revisiting hobbies they enjoyed in childhood, taking up things they have always wanted to try but never had time for, or increasing their participation in current hobbies as a way to reduce stress. Examples include baking (spurring sales of both gadgets and supplies like eggs and flour), crafts such as knitting (especially in the form of kits), musical instruments, and Lego sets, to name a few. Gardening is also on the rise as a way for consumers to get outdoors; some are even creating Victory Gardens to grow some of their own food. Meanwhile, the sharing of finished projects through social media has become a way for the hobbyists to connect with their community.
- Meal kits. This struggling category has seen positive trends as some consumers without well-honed cooking skills want to prepare more sophisticated meals at home and as others look for a bridge between the home cooking they must do and the restaurant meals they wish they were enjoying. Several of the leading purveyors of meal kits, including Blue Apron, Sun Basket, Purple Carrot, and Hello Fresh, have reported increased interest.
- Comfort foods. Feel-good products such as sugary cereals, chips, and frozen pizza, as well as childhood favorites like Chef Boyardee canned spaghetti, are all on the rise. Medical professionals have advised consumers to help ward off the virus by eating healthfully, and categories such as fresh produce have also seen sales increases, but the junk food has been particularly strong.
- Products tied to streamed entertainment. Streaming of TV, films, and other entertainment has spiked during the pandemic, and anecdotal evidence shows that tie-in products may be benefitting. Examples range from books linked to current and archival TV and film programming to plush tigers and fan-created merchandise driven by the popularity of The Tiger King on Netflix (which has not been officially licensed). Some new forms of streamed entertainment have popped up, too, such as marble racing as a replacement for live sports. Partnerships are starting to happen, with electric-car racing league Formula E launching a marble racing team in a deal with Jelle’s Marble Runs, the YouTube channel of choice for newly minted fans.
- Home fitness. Products to help consumers stay in shape while the gym is closed have seen holiday-level sales far exceeding the norm for this time of year. Smaller items like yoga mats and hand weights have been the focus, but major equipment requiring a bigger investment has also been performing well. Meanwhile, outdoor toys have experienced strong sales as parents try to get kids out of the house and moving, in a safe way. Online fitness courses are also seeing spikes in viewership.
- Apparel niches. Sales of clothing in general have plummeted. Consumers are not dressing up while at home and are holding off on non-essential fashion purchases due to economic concerns. That said, purchases of athleisure apparel have grown as consumers look for comfortable options for hanging around the house. And on the dressier side, Walmart has reported strong sales of tops as consumers want to look good—albeit only on the upper half of their bodies—for video conferenced business meetings and online hangouts with friends. Also driven by the need to look good on video conferences: sales of hair color, especially now that many consumers have gone more than a month without a stylist.
- Alcoholic beverages. Consumers seem to be drinking more wine, beer, and spirits during the pandemic. Many have been stockpiling alcoholic beverages in case of shortages, while others are buying due to an abundance of online happy hours. One brand of particular interest: Constellation Brands’ Corona, which some consumers initially thought was associated in some way with the coronavirus. Rather than causing a sales decline, however, the added publicity seems to have boosted sales so far.
- DIY projects for the home. Now is the time for many consumers to catch up on some of the smaller items on their to-do list, as well as to get crafty with home décor. Home retailers and e-tailers report strong sales of paint, removable wallpaper, hand tools, and other building materials and supplies. Many orders are small, as do-it-yourselfers focus on doable projects such as building a bookcase or wallpapering a small area, rather than a full makeover of a space.
- Products to support the new normal. Children’s books about handwashing, such as Andersen Press’s Little Princess: Wash Your Hands!, have experienced big sales increases. Craft supplies such as poster board and sidewalk chalk are being purchased to make signs of appreciation for medical professionals or upbeat “we’ll all get through this together” messaging. Meanwhile, as state and federal governments increasingly encourage or require the use of face masks or other protective fabric, consumers are buying both finished masks and material to sew face coverings for friends, family, hospitals, and assisted living facilities. Many are also seeking out scarves, bandanas, neck gaiters, balaclavas, and similar accessories as protective alternatives.
Many of these categories, from baking, to DIY and crafting, to puzzles and board games, were performing well even before the pandemic began. In other cases, such as meal kits, the crisis has proven to be a boon to their struggling businesses. The question is, can the latter turn this short-term interest into a long-term turnaround once things start to get back to some sort of normal, whatever that may look like?
In the Background
April 16, 2020, first published in RaugustReports: Since the coronavirus lockdown began, usage of video chat and teleconferencing apps has grown significantly as employees and consumers around the world utilize them to participate in virtual meetings, cocktail parties, trivia contests, and Easter and Passover celebrations.
Zoom in particular has hit the mainstream in a big way, reporting a 151% increase in daily active users year-over-year in March. Meanwhile Google Hangouts and Hangouts Meet, Microsoft Teams, House Party, Marco Polo, FaceTime, and Skype, among many others, have all seen spikes in downloads and usage. In fact, seven of the top 10 video conferencing platforms in the U.S. saw week-over-week download growth of over 200% during the seven days beginning March 16, according to SensorTower, led by House Party with 502.3%.
The platforms are enhancing this spike in popularity by offering formerly paid-for services, features, or tiers for free during the pandemic, either for certain territories or users (e.g., schools), or for all. Many are free to begin with, or at least have a complimentary option.
Naturally, IP owners want to get involved in a hot sector like this, especially at a time when other marketing efforts can be problematic. They are doing so by offering virtual backgrounds, enabling users to look like they are chatting from the set of a TV show or a sports stadium rather than their living room. Zoom is the primary setting for this activity. But other platforms such as Skype offer virtual backgrounds as well, and more are jumping on the bandwagon as consumers start to request this feature. Microsoft Teams added virtual backgrounds in March 2020, for example. Some third-party apps also enable users to add backgrounds across platforms.
Licensors offering free Zoom backgrounds cover the gamut of property types:
- Entertainment. Fox, Lionsgate, Disney, CBS, and many other studios and networks have made Zoom backgrounds available based on their TV show and film properties, with The Simpsons, Parks and Rec, Picard, Marvel movies, Sesame Street, Jeopardy!, Disney Princess, Star Wars, and RuPaul’s Drag Race among the abundant and diverse examples.
- Sports. Most of the teams in the major U.S. leagues have released backgrounds of stadiums and other imagery. So have football/soccer clubs around the world, from the Geelong Cats of the Australian Football League to British club Manchester City, to Germany’s Borussia Dortmund, to name just a few examples. Colleges and universities also are well represented, as are golf properties, NASCAR, and a variety of other sports-related IP.
- Corporate brands. Home goods brands such as West Elm and Behr Paint, names in travel such as OneFineStay, food and beverage players such as Nescafé, restaurant banners such as Taco Bell, and candy brands such as Skittles are among a growing range of corporate IP owners creating backgrounds. (Not all maintain licensing programs.) The bulk of examples to date are either brands with logical connections to imagery that can be used as environments (e.g. travel or home décor) or have a fun or offbeat positioning.
- Video games. Backgrounds are available showing in-game images from properties such as Final Fantasy, Street Fighter, Elder Scrolls, Doom, Sonic, and many more, offered by publishers across the globe.
- Other IP. A diverse range of properties of all types, in addition to the main classifications broken out here, have also been involved. They include fashion and media brands (Highsnobiety), artists (photographer Gray Malin), musicians (Machine Gun Kelly), and more.
Of course, anyone can create a Zoom background, and users are doing so with unlicensed imagery such as album covers and screen grabs. But the number of legitimate licensor-endorsed and provided examples is proliferating as well.
Once the current crisis is over, this trend will likely wane as consumers go back, at least to a degree, to live meetings and in-person cocktail parties. And the players may change over time; Zoom, for example, is facing scrutiny for privacy issues, which could affect its future success. Still, it is likely that the use of video chatting, both for business and personal activities, will remain at a much higher level than it was pre-pandemic. And that means that the desire for fun backgrounds will probably live on, although at a lower level than is currently the case.
While not a commercial opportunity for licensors, backgrounds for Zoom and other video chat and conference call platforms bring long-term marketing benefits. Choices based on TV shows or video games may spark immediate action, such as the purchase of a download or product; options tied to sports can help maintain engagement and awareness during the off-season; corporate-branded alternatives may help create a positive image and lead to purchases, either immediately online or on a later shopping trip. In the current environment, video chat backgrounds are a way for all properties to remain top-of-mind at a time when many other marketing channels are off limits or on hold.
Lending a Helping Hand
April 13, 2020, first published in RaugustReports: Many companies active in the global licensing and consumer products business are doing what they can to support medical professionals and consumers during the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to being the right thing to do, their efforts help keep some of their workers employed, utilize existing capacity and already-purchased materials, and give them a positive image among their consumers.
The initiatives, to date, fall into several classifications:
- Making masks and protective wear. Fanatics and Major League Baseball repurposed a factory to produce masks and gowns from on-field jersey fabric. Fashion designers and retailers such as Christian Siriano, H&M, Zara, Ralph Lauren, Baby Dior, Gucci, and more are transitioning some of their factories and/or assigning some of their workers to this task. Joann Fabrics and Crafts is enlisting its crafty customers to sew face masks and protective gear.
- Producing hand sanitizer. Spirits conglomerate Diageo provided 2 million liters of alcohol to be used to make more than 8 million bottles of free hand sanitizer and donating them to healthcare workers. Kylie Jenner and Kris Jenner teamed with Coty, a major investor in Kylie’s cosmetics brand, to produce hand sanitizer for hospitals in southern California. And toy company Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty paired with Five Saints Distilling to create hand sanitizer to be donated to medical professionals.
- Manufacturing ventilators, face shields, and other hard goods. MGA Entertainment is constructing ventilators, ventilator valves, and goggles, including in its Little Tikes factory, as well as making its 3D printers available to hospitals so they can address specific needs. Nike recently started making face shields from elements and materials used in its shoes and apparel. Car companies, electronics brands, and 3D printing services have redirected their operations to the production of ventilators or parts.
- Leveraging distribution and delivery networks. Burberry is delivering protective gear by utilizing its global supply chain. Footwear licensee Leomil and its sibling divisions acquired 200,000 face masks and donated them to Belgian healthcare providers. Among other initiatives, Burton, the snowboard maker, is donating 500,000 respirator masks to hospitals in the Northeast U.S., securing the products from a Chinese factory recommended by its binding manufacturer in that country. MGA is sourcing masks from China and using its distribution network to get them to hospitals.
- Providing free access to content to help kids pass their time in isolation productively. Sesame Workshop is making available over 110 Sesame Street e-books for free across platforms to help kids stay occupied. Amazon Prime did the same for its kids’ and family original TV content, as well as some commissioned and licensed series. Hasbro created a global platform called Bring Home the Fun, with content meant to inspire family activities and playtime, and Mattel introduced a similar initiative, Mattel Playroom. Harry Potter at Home is a free online hub of activities, videos, quizzes, and more. And Scholastic made a variety of online courses, of the sort it usually provides with subscription, available free to all families.
- Developing virus-specific educational content. Nickelodeon implemented #KidsTogether, a multiplatform initiative in which its characters explain to viewers how to stay healthy. Cartoon Network has created PSA video shorts starring a number of its characters, focusing on good hygiene, available both online and on-screen. Planeta Junior introduced a #StayatHome campaign, featuring the Gormiti and Pucca properties, to raise awareness of COVID-19 among children. Sesame Workshop launched a Caring for Each Other platform featuring resources for parents on how to manage their kids’ anxiety and stay healthy, along with kids’ content on how to wash their hands and cough and sneeze properly. (The campaign also led to a capsule collection with Champion.) Most of these initiatives enhance the message-based content with leisure-time activities similar to those mentioned in the bullet above.
- Making donations of existing inventory or funds. Amazon is donating N95 masks and other medical supplies, formerly sold through its site, exclusively to hospitals, first responders, and government agencies. Radians, the Stanley brand’s licensee for personal and worker protective equipment, donated N95 masks to hospitals in two Tennessee cities. Dolce & Gabbana, Armani, Kering, and Prada are among the fashion marketers that have made big monetary donations to be used for research, hospital facilities, and other purposes. ViacomCBS set up a $100 million coronavirus relief fund.
- Raising money. The NFL is turning its 2020 Draft, now a virtual event, into a three-day fundraiser for six NFL Foundation-selected charities involved in combatting the spread of the virus. Singer Harry Styles is one of several celebrities to make an effort to help, in his case by raising funds through the sale of a t-shirt with a self-distancing message. Ten percent of proceeds from apparel brand CLOAK’s collaboration with Five Nights at Freddy’s will be donated to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for WHO.
These examples are just a sampling of the many initiatives that are ongoing, with more announced every day. It should be noted that, while such programs offer secondary marketing benefits in terms of awareness and image, they need to be authentic to the company and have the potential to make a real difference. In a situation such as the coronavirus, where human life and livelihoods are at risk, it is easy to cross the line into being perceived as too crass or too commercial.
Cover Your Mouth
April 9, 2020, first published in RaugustReports: After first saying cloth facemasks were not effective in preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now encouraging Americans to wear masks whenever they are in the presence of other people, outside of those with whom they are self-isolating. Governments in Europe and other parts of the world are also increasingly suggesting or ordering their use. The World Health Organization, conversely, continues to maintain that healthy people should only wear masks when taking care of someone suspected of having the new coronavirus. (Protective N95 masks are, for the most part, being funneled to the medical personnel who are experiencing shortages and who need them the most.)
While the guidance is conflicting and confusing, there is no doubt that more consumers all around the globe are wearing face masks that cover their mouths and noses. This practice has been common in many East Asian countries for some time, particularly in China, where the population relies on masks for both disease and pollution protection.
Increasing demand naturally leads to the possibility of licensing. Licensed versions are already available in Asia, and signs suggest that face masks may evolve into a licensed category in other countries as well:
- Japanese apparel company Ceno markets licensed character-based masks under its Gonoturn brand, featuring Rilakkuma, Doraemon, Bonobono, Hamtaro, and Hello Kitty and the rest of the Sanrio family of properties. Other Asian companies, such as KNH of Taiwan, make cartoon prints, although not necessarily licensed.
- In China, fashion designers are creating face masks as well as other protective apparel. Liu Wei, based in Beijing, recently designed germ-resistant and breathable windbreakers, some of which are used in medical settings. Meanwhile, designers including Masha Ma, Wang Zhijun, Xander Zhou, Qiu Hao, and Sankuanz have been creating pollution masks since the mid-2010s.
- Halyard, a U.S.-based medical equipment supplier, has a license with Disney for children’s masks. Pre-coronavirus, they were positioned as being for use by kids who have the flu, are visiting a hospital, or are immuno-compromised.
- Croatian fashion designer Zoran Aragovic makes colorful masks from leftover fabrics that are simply a fashion statement, without protective qualities. They have become popular in his home country.
- U.S. designers are mostly getting into face mask production for charitable reasons, either making them to donate directly to medical personnel or selling them to raise funds for hospitals. But there have been some commercial ventures. These range from niche fashion brands such as Los Angeles Apparel and Matrushka to outdoorsy offerings such as Ball and Buck’s camo version. And designers and retailers active in production for medical professionals, including Christian Siriano, Prada, and H&M, among many others, could easily transition to consumer offerings at some point if demand remains high after the crisis.
- An activist posted a petition on Change.org in the hopes of convincing the five U.S. major sports leagues, as well as the NCAA and NASCAR, to work with face mask manufacturers on team-identified products as a way to encourage children and adults to wear them during the pandemic.
A growing group of communicable-disease experts are starting to say that there could be a long period of continuing cases and/or multiple waves of COVID-19 after the immediate crisis wanes and people start getting back to work and play. That suggests that the potential exists for face masks to become a permanent category for entertainment, design, and other properties in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere, as it already has, at least to a degree, in Asia.
Licensed Publishing in the Covid-19 Era
April 7, 2020, published in Publishers Weekly: Publishers of licensed books tend to rely more on distribution through mass merchants than children’s publishers at large, whose sales skew more toward trade channels. This fact has helped mitigate the sales declines that have accompanied the spread of the new coronavirus. On the other hand, publishing licensees are dealing with the unique challenges that come with releasing tie-ins to feature films that are being postponed indefinitely or being watched online instead of in theaters.
Read the full article, from Publishers Weekly, here.
Brands Practice Self-Distancing
March 26, 2020, first published in RaugustReports: A number of brands—many of which are involved in licensing in some way—have gotten creative with their logos as a means of stressing the critical importance of self-distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19. These tweaks simultaneously engage the brands’ fans and boost awareness during a difficult time for most businesses.
- Mercado Libre. This e-commerce site, which does business across Latin America, temporarily changed its logo from a handshake to an elbow bump. A small version of its regular logo appears at the top of each page on the site, with a larger version of the new design appearing throughout the various product pages.
- McDonald’s in Brazil. The company separated its two golden arches across all of its digital media platforms to remind consumers of the need for social distancing. (This example ended up being taken down after a global backlash against the company for not giving its employees paid sick leave.)
- Coca-Cola. It transformed its normally script-style identity on its billboard in Times Square by setting the letters apart and adding the phrase “staying apart is the best way to stay united.”
- Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox. The team separated its logo’s two overlapping socks in its profile picture on Instagram, one of a number of corporations tweaking their look under the hashtag #newsociallydistantprofilepic.
- Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami. The club moved the two white herons in its logo, whose legs are typically intertwined, away from each other. The reimagined take has been utilized across the club’s digital presence.
- Time Out London. The magazine changed its name temporarily to Time In, with the word “Out” crossed out and the “In” written over it in red. The publication covers bars, restaurants, live theater, movies, and events across the city, most of which are on hiatus due to the virus.
There is no licensing involved in any of these ventures (although there are plentiful examples of coronavirus- and self-distancing-themed products available on the on-demand marketplaces). This is simply a temporary and eye-catching shorthand to remind consumers of important information, while accruing some secondary marketing benefits, even as these businesses and their employees struggle to overcome the more fundamental challenges associated with the crisis.
We all certainly hope no situation like this one occurs again in the future. But on a broader level these examples illustrate how it is possible for marketers to respond, with creativity and authenticity, to global news, events, and trends of all types—both positive and negative—in a tasteful, effective, and on-brand way. The McDonald’s example, conversely, serves as a warning of the scrutiny all brand owners face when responding to a crisis such as this.
March COVID-19 Update: Short- and Long-Term Considerations for the Licensing Business
March 16, 2020: News about the global spread of COVID-19 seems to change hourly. Some observers are predicting dire long-term effects on business, the economy, and human behavior, while others continue to feel the whole thing is largely a made-up crisis. But there is no question that the virus is already having an impact on consumers’ daily lives, worldwide, and on businesses’ daily operations and future prospects.
We cannot add much to the conversation at this point, given the already-ubiquitous coverage, the difficulty of accurately predicting the future, and the fact that the situation is continuously evolving. Our take, therefore, is meant as a framework for thinking about the challenges ahead, to help guide licensing executives as they figure out how to move forward.
It goes without saying that the primary concern for businesses now is the safety of company employees and their families, as well as the customers and communities they serve. That said, following are some of the key topics to keep in mind from a business perspective:
Impact on Retail and Consumer Sales
During the peak of the virus’ spread in China in February, key global brands and retailers, such as Nike and Benetton, closed 50% to two-thirds of their stores across mainland China, which has grown to represent a significant market for these and other marketers. In the meantime, traffic at stores that remained open was significantly down—up to 80% in some cases, with accompanying plunges in sales—as customers preferred to stay safe at home.
The sportwear market and the luxury tier are two sectors that were hard-hit in China. In the latter, Chinese consumers account for 40% of the global business (per investment bank Jefferies). Adidas said it expected to take a $1 billion hit in sales due to coronavirus impacts in China; Capri, which owns Michael Kors, Versace, and Jimmy Choo, reduced its quarterly sales outlook by $100 million; and Ralph Lauren expected an impact of $55 million to $70 million. Many licensing programs beyond these segments are affected; properties from Disney and Garfield to the NBA to Westinghouse count China as a key market.
A similar pattern has emerged in other countries that have followed China into crisis. Armani and many others closed their stores in Northern Italy, even before the government required businesses nationwide to do so. France has shut down all retail stores, restaurants, bars, theaters, and other public gathering places across the country. Apple temporarily closed all of its locations worldwide, outside of now-recovering Greater China, C&A did the same in the U.K., and chains from Patagonia to Glossier, among more and more examples, are joining them.
Others have reduced hours (Walmart) or discontinued beauty services (Ulta) or food sampling (Target). Those that have remained open for normal business—as of this writing—have seen traffic and sales drop significantly. Exceptions include purveyors of essentials such as hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, rubbing alcohol, toilet paper, and frozen, canned, and shelf-stable foods, all of which are quickly disappearing from shelves across retail channels in the U.S. and elsewhere, despite frequent replenishment.
Even as sales overall are falling, retailers are incurring higher costs for everything from paid sick leave for employees with the virus, to wages for symptomless employees sent home to prevent the spread, to bulked-up cleaning protocols that require additional time and supplies.
Not surprisingly, marketers of licensed products are reporting that retailers are holding back on purchases, especially of newer or more niche products, due to cost-cutting, falling customer counts, and/or a general sense of uncertainty. That said, there are pockets that are doing well in the short-term. E-commerce and streaming entertainment are two examples where pundits expect to see strong sales as consumers look for products and services that allow them to stay home comfortably.
What to do? In the short term, retailers and the brands that work with them are trying to boost their online presence, cut costs, and keep inventories low, in line with weak near-term demand. They are also catering to customers’ needs by offering more delivery and curbside pickup services, and issuing coupons and special offers, especially for items that will help their customers get through the crisis.
Concerns About Inventory Levels and Material/Component Supplies
One of the first impacts of the coronavirus on the global licensing industry was the threat to supplies of raw materials and processed components (e.g., semiconductors, zippers, shoe soles, fabrics, plastics) used in manufacturing, not to mention finished products. This has been a concern since January, since China is a key manufacturing center for many industries. The closing of factories there has caused immediate shortages for companies such as Apple. It has also created concerns for fashion designers about their ability to meet demand in the fall/winter season and for toy companies about fourth-quarter toy availability.
After almost two months, manufacturing in China is starting to move back to normal, although not to full capacity yet in many cases. The lags in getting products to store shelves and online are likely to continue for a time, however, due to the logistics of bringing the ports, trucking, and ships back to full capacity. Securing space for air freight, some of which travels on now-cancelled commercial flights, will also be challenging.
Supply issues are not limited to China, of course. Estimates put 60% of Italian textile production, including for brands such as Versace, Gucci, and Armani, in the area surrounding Milan, an epicenter of the virus that has been completely shut down as of this writing. And many workplaces around the world, including in the U.S., are sending employees home, where possible, to prevent the spread of the virus. Most are trying to remain up-and-running, but the transition to a working-from-home model to prevent the disease is bound to have an effect, as is the growing number of people who are sick and cannot work at all.
The National Retail Federation, in its latest survey of U.S. port activity, found that 40% of U.S. businesses were seeing supply disruptions, as of early March, with 26% more expecting to see disruptions in the months ahead. The most optimistic predictions (to date) expect the challenges to continue through at least April, but the potential timeframe seems to lengthen daily and the impacts are felt worldwide.
It should be noted that the concerns about supplies and inventories, top-of-mind at the beginning of the crisis, have taken a backseat to the more profound issue of what will happen to consumer demand if the global pandemic lasts for a while.
What to do? In the early days many companies sought alternative sources of parts and materials in countries such as India, Malaysia, or Vietnam, although the global spread of the coronavirus means few countries will be immune from some disruption. Companies are also being creative about how they get products to their customers by considering new shipping and freight options. Meanwhile, they are trying to manage inventories so they can survive lower demand in the near future while being ready for a potential spike later in the year. Long-term, businesses are thinking about diversifying their manufacturing and sourcing to more locations to reduce the impact of future crises.
Changes to Day-to-Day Business Operations
Almost all trade shows through April, a large number in May, and even some in June, have now been canceled or postponed, or are going virtual. These include some of the biggest gatherings for the licensing business, including the Inspired Home Show, MipTV, and E3, among many more. Licensing-specific events are no exception, from the cancellation of Licensing China and the Bologna Licensing Fair to the postponement of Licensing Expo until August. Fashion weeks all around the world have been canceled as well.
Meanwhile, businesses are instituting travel bans on a global basis and “non-essential” employees are working from home. The U.S. government has shut its doors to non-Americans flying in from Europe, while the airlines have voluntarily stopped flying in and out of certain affected regions. And a general reduction of flights due to lack of demand—Delta alone has reduced its schedule by 40% to date—has followed, limiting travel for those who still need to fly on business (albeit against health organization recommendations).
To meet this challenge, some companies have invested significant funds in improving their platforms for holding virtual meetings. Many have incurred significant costs related to changing their travel plans and are racking up sunk costs spent on trade shows that will now not bring in any business. New properties and product lines have lost an invaluable launch window and are scrambling to change their plans and find alternatives that will be as effective. The trade shows themselves are also facing big financial consequences.
What to do? The first step has been to transfer individual and some group meetings online. Companies that have lost their primary opportunity to launch a new product or property are trying to find new ways to make a splash, whether through virtual presentations to the trade, boosting social media campaigns to the public, or rescheduling launch dates. Long-term, some observers see the crisis as a death knell for at least a percentage of business travel and trade shows, as digital alternatives are often less expensive and as effective. On the other hand, there will likely always be some need for face-to-face gatherings.
Disruptions to Marketing and Fan Engagement
It’s not just trade shows that have been canceled, but big consumer events as well. Music festivals scheduled for the next couple of months, such as South by Southwest and Coachella, have almost all been canceled, as have concert tours by everyone from Santana to Pearl Jam. Disney and other theme parks around the world are not welcoming visitors at the moment. Sports events and seasons are virtually all on hold or canceled completely until the crisis passes. Movie premieres have been delayed and TV productions shut down. Live theaters have stopped performances and some movie houses and restaurants are closing for now.
These decisions have an immediate financial impact, of course, with ticket sales and on-site purchases of food, beverages, and merchandise no longer occurring. Indirectly, they also have a big effect on licensing. A hiatus in sports events means less awareness and engagement, and likely less product sales. The stoppage of arena concerts means no merch sales on-site and less exposure to drive sales online and in-store. A significant drop in restaurant traffic could mean more sales of a chain’s frozen restaurant meals in the short-term; over the long haul, less engagement is likely to lead to lower sales for licensed goods at retail.
Licensed products tied specifically to an event such as a Formula 1 race, a concert tour, or a Broadway play face particular challenges, but concerns extend to any licensed merchandise that benefits from the awareness generated by either a big happening or regular exposure. Furthermore, events such as SWSX and March Madness serve as key launch windows for new consumer products initiatives, which are now on hold.
What to do? Brands are offering streaming entertainment (Disney’s early release of Frozen 2) and educational platforms (Scholastic), often for free, to help consumers manage the crisis and generate goodwill. They are working to keep in touch with their consumers online and through social media while their other marketing ventures are on hold. Some are creating new content to keep their fans engaged, such as musicians offering a streamed concert from their living room or releasing a surprise drop of a new song. From a long-term perspective, the crisis reinforces the need to reach consumers through multiple touchpoints so the conversation continues despite interruptions on some fronts.
Looking Ahead: Business Survival and Economic Uncertainty
Toy company Basic Fun recently announced that it had let go 10% of its employees, citing coronavirus-driven production delays. U.K. menswear brand Kilgour closed its high street showroom permanently, saying the coronavirus was the last straw in a difficult environment in general; the brand itself remains in business.
Even if this crisis passes relatively quickly, some of the ramifications will continue to be felt down the road. The toy industry and others could see a reduction in fourth-quarter sales due to a lack of inventory resulting from production delays this spring, for example, which could lead to more consolidation and closings for an industry still recovering from the demise of Toys ‘R’ Us and other challenges.
One big issue facing everyone is the difficulty of predicting and preparing for the future. No one knows how long the spread of the virus will continue or how severe it will be. In some cases, temporary closures could become permanent. New properties and products, as well as companies of all sizes that are already hovering on the edge, are likely to be most affected. Can fast-fashion retail chains or mid-tier department stores that are always in the bankruptcy conversation survive a long period of self-distancing? Will a new property recover if it spent significantly on its introduction before losing its planned launch window? Would a trade show without insurance be able to continue in future years after canceling in 2020?
Finally, the spread of COVID-19 is already having significant effects on the global economy and, while forecasts differ, more analysts everyday are starting to predict longer and deeper impacts than first expected. If the economy goes into recession, that will obviously be a profound long-term challenge for the licensing business as a whole, as the last recession in 2007-2009 and its aftereffects clearly showed.
What to do? There are no definitive answers here. But the licensing community can take several steps to move through this situation and position themselves to survive future challenges, some of which they are already doing in response to ongoing licensing and retail trends. These could include making more of an effort to ensure they have cash reserves for future emergencies such as this; diversifying their businesses to encompass more suppliers, transportation options, marketing channels, and retail outlets, online and off; and implement business practices that give them the flexibility to react to sudden changes in their fortunes.
Coronavirus: The Latest Challenge for Toy Makers—and Publishers
February 24, 2020, published in Publishers Weekly: February 24: The coronavirus was one of the main topics of conversation at the 117th edition of Toy Fair New York in February. Two weeks before this year’s event, show producer The Toy Association, in consultation with the China Toy & Juvenile Product Association, canceled the China Pavilion, the section of the show where Chinese manufacturers have traditionally exhibited their wares.
Many toy companies source 60% to 90% of the products they sell in the U.S. from China, and several of the 30-plus children’s book publishers exhibiting at Toy Fair New York (out of about 1,000 total exhibitors) say they also use Chinese factories to produce a significant percentage of their books. The virus, therefore, has the potential to significantly disrupt the supply chain.
Read the full article, from Publishers Weekly, here.