Design on Demand

The increasingly important role of print on demand in art licensing was one of the topics discussed in the “Spotlight: Art Licensing” session at Licensing University in late August. Licensing U was produced by Licensing International and took place alongside Licensing Expo Virtual.

Print-on-demand platforms have had an ever greater impact as the technology has expanded over the last five years into more and more categories. POD can produce not just mugs, t-shirts, cell phone covers, and the like, but everything from cosmetics and credenzas to jewelry, dishes, shower curtains, and coffee tables. Here are some of the ways POD has transformed the art-licensing sector, according to the panelists, by reducing risk and expanding opportunities:

  • No need for inventory. “It flips the whole model upside down,” said Steven Heller, president of licensing agency The Brand Liaison. Rather than designing and producing thousands of products and hoping they sell, artists or their manufacturer-licensees can create a website and post mockups of any product, with the printing of the physical item completed only after the sale is made. “The customer may be unaware that it’s not a product until they order it,” Heller added. The costs of making each unit are a little more than for mass production, but that is balanced by the lack of inventory cost.
  • Testing for success. POD serves as a tool to test new images, a new collection, new product categories, or an entirely new style. Artists and their licensees can assess performance on a POD platform as a potential indicator of which items could work at mass retail, which should remain available through POD for a niche consumer base, and which should be retired entirely.
  • Expanded range of offerings. Artists (or manufacturers) can make available dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of products on their own website or through one or more third-party platforms, for sale direct-to-consumer or business-to-business. “Traditional manufacturers are embracing it too,” said Debra Valencia, artist, surface designer, and entrepreneur. They can offer designs for niche audiences, for example, such as region-specific products that can be shipped in small, customized quantities to boutiques from Florida to Cape Cod.
  • Extending the life span. Valencia started selling her images on POD cell phone cases and a few other items a decade ago, and some are still selling. “I got an order today for one from 10 years ago,” she said during the session. This creates an ancillary revenue stream, potentially long-term, for designs that mainstream manufacturers have retired or are not interested in using.
  • Freedom to create. Valencia noted that lots of artists experiment with multiple styles, but their names or brands are associated with only one consistent look. She posts art on POD platforms that is completely off-brand. While it is not part of the Debra Valencia look-and-feel, it can sell well. This ability to experiment generates additional revenue and allows artists to flex their creative muscles without harming their core brand. And it could ultimately lead to a separate brand that lends itself to traditional licensing.

POD has developed into a unique and complementary channel of distribution, co-existing with other channels of trade. Just as property owners can offer differentiated products at both mass and specialty retail, they can also create a unique offering for POD. “It’s not taking away from traditional art licensing that will work in Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and CVS,” Valencia said. Her focus when it comes to POD is on providing products for niche audiences who like something different from what is available through a traditional mass-market licensing program.

As POD has grown in importance, artists and their agents are likely to include it within a broader channel management strategy, to ensure different tiers of trade, including POD, are not competing with one another. “Up to this point, none of the licensees are threatened by a Zazzle site, but we’ve gotten a little bit of questioning,” said John Haesler, partner at agency MHS Licensing. A mug manufacturer might ask how much business an artist is doing on Zazzle, for example, and is more likely to want exclusive designs.

The session, which also touched on a number of other trends in art licensing, was moderated by Marty Brochstein, SVP industry relations and information, Licensing International.

For a deep dive into all of the trends noted at Licensing Expo Virtual, including in the Licensing University sessions, the on-demand and live content produced by show organizer Informa Markets, and the virtual booths, read our in-depth coverage here. You can also check out our previous article on the Licensing U session “Spotlight: Sports Licensing,” which ran in RaugustReports last week, here. It has a focus on licensing of collegiate athletes’ names, images, and likenesses (NIL).

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