School’s Out

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.

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