Top Trends

Top 16 Licensing Trends of 2016

Here is RaugustReports’ perspective on some of the key licensing trends of the past year:

1. A sense of belonging. Membership- and subscription-based distribution channels have become important means of selling and promoting licensed products. Star Wars and Kate Spade merchandise is sold through flash sales sites such as Zulily, Gilt Group, and Joss & Main. Warcraft novelties and Christian Siriano fragrances are featured in subscription boxes from Loot Crate to Birchbox. Chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Fabio Viviani, along with other types of properties, are forging deals with meal kit services from Chef’d to Hello Fresh.

2. Smoke signals. While traditional cigarette brands remain taboo for licensing, it looks like that will not hold true for the young and growing cannabis and vaping industries. Brand extension into smoking accessories, edibles, topical lotions, strains of pot, and e-liquids for vaping, not to mention lifestyle licensing into apparel and the like, are all on the rise. Musicians (Snoop Dogg), chefs (Mindy Segal), adult brands (Hustler), and lifestyle brands (THC) are among the properties involved to date.

3. Behold beauty. While the fragrance industry has become saturated with licenses and the number of new deals has declined, other parts of the health and beauty industry have been active in 2016. Properties from the TV series Outlander to designer Isaac Mizrahi have been among the many to inspire agreements for color cosmetics. Men’s grooming is on the rise, with IPs such as Ryan Seacrest and Elvis Presley in the mix. Celebrities who made their name as makeup artists, such as Pat McGrath and André Walker, continue to lend their names to signature beauty products. And HBA brands from Edge Shave Gel to Short & Sassy have recently launched outbound licensing programs.

4. Merchandising moments. Increasingly, licensing initiatives and collaborations are focusing on very specific themes, experiences, or marketing “moments.” These might include a musician’s album (Beyoncé’s Lemonade collection), a common history or geography (Polaris and Red Wing), a phrase (Liverpool football club’s “The Normal One”), or a character from a commercial (Mountain Dew’s Puppybabymonkey), among others. While none of these tactics are new per se, together they have become a go-to strategy for adding interest to, or testing the waters for, a broader licensing program.

5. The “Internet of Things.” Connected products have become almost the norm in many categories. Toys feature artificial intelligence or augmented reality. Fashion labels’ licensed apparel or accessories give the weather report, facilitate communication, and monitor wellness. Appliances, furniture, and décor are positioned as part of the smart home. There are still challenges, ranging from privacy concerns to figuring out how to effectively mine this fast-evolving sector. But connectivity is here to stay and is having a critical impact on many key categories for licensing.

6. Summer of Go. The launch of Pokémon Go, the augmented-reality gaming app that brought monster hunting into the real world, immediately started a craze that extended to malls, hiking trails, and tourist destinations. The retailers that were able to capitalize the most, from a licensing perspective, were those that already had Pokémon merchandise in inventory at the time. While the craze has faded from its peak, many observers expect the rejuvenated Pokémon to remain a strong property across all retail channels this holiday season, and perhaps beyond.

7. Pop-ups. Experiential initiatives are a way of life in licensing these days, and pop-ups have been a particularly common configuration in 2016. Properties from Kanye West and The Weeknd to M&Ms to Powerpuff Girls, Captain America, Smiley, and Thomas & Friends have popped up with shops, cafés, experiences, and destinations. The phenomenon is global.

8. Thinner slices of celebrity. Licensing continues to spread into new nooks and crannies of the celebrity landscape. Manufacturers and retailers are forging collaborations, limited editions, and even traditional licensing deals with trick sports specialists (e.g. Dude Perfect), cosplay artists (Yaya Han), high-profile e-sports players (Johnathan Wendel), transgender models and reality stars (Caitlyn Jenner), social media-driven male makeup artists (Manny Mua), and fantasy football experts (Matthew Berry).

9. Gender equality and identity. More licensing deals, involving properties from Popeye to B.U.M. Apparel, are incorporating unisex fashion items. Target launched a new Cat & Jack brand, meant to appeal to both boys and girls, removed gender-specific signage in the toy aisles, and took steps to make transgender shoppers feel welcome. Girl-centric remakes of films like Ghostbusters, Oceans Eleven, and Splash offer a new perspective, even while generating controversy among some fans of the originals.

10. Smart girls. More properties and products are meant to appeal to and inspire young females with “smart girl” themes. Those focusing on building interest in science and engineering, for example, are gaining traction at retail. Toy-based properties such as Project MC2 and GoldiBlox are signing licensees, while IPs such as Barbie are being featured in science-based activity kits. Meanwhile, high-profile female superhero properties, such as DC Superhero Girls, Miraculous, and Barbie Spy Squad, not only feature strong girl characters but give the girls the same action-adventure-driven powers as the boys’ heroes have always had.

11. Available in all shapes, colors, and sizes. Diversity has long been a topic of conversation but 2016 brought concrete initiatives along these lines at mass retail. Mattel introduced its multicultural, multi-body-type line of Barbie dolls and introduced a fashion doll inspired by plus-size model Ashley Graham. Many of the top children’s entertainment properties highlight a diverse group of main characters, allowing kids to pick a favorite with which they can identify. Fashion and sports brands continue to increase their assortments of plus-size and big-and-tall apparel, and some are starting to sign licenses for ethnic clothing items such as hijabs.

12. The universal language of emojis. From branded emoji sets—and their subsequent outbound licensing activities—to emoji-related brands and character properties available for licensing, to myriad products based on open-source designs, to unlicensed items, emojis commanded a significant amount of awareness and retail shelf space in 2016.

13. Coveted collectibles. Collectible toys such as Shopkins and Num Noms have been top sellers in their core category and have spurred licensing activity. Blind bags and other collectibles, often based on character, video game, and toy properties, outpaced other sectors of the toy and licensed product landscape. Toy-and-collectible hybrids from the likes of Oyo, Bleacher Creatures, and Funko were a growth area within sports licensing and other property sectors.

14. Buy it now. Major League Baseball sent an ecommerce-linked text to fans the moment the Chicago Cubs won the World Series and sold lots of jerseys and other championship merchandise. Clicking on an NFL Players Association-branded emoji in a text message takes the customer to Fanatics’ ecommerce page to view products featuring the same image. Atom Tickets and Disney/Lucasfilm sold merchandise and movie tickets for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story simultaneously. These are just a few of the initiatives creating a stronger connection between product purchasing and daily activities such as texting, social media, and entertainment.

15. Hotels and hospitality. Karl Lagerfeld announced in November that he would launch a chain of hotels, with the first to open in 2018 in Macau. He joins fashion labels such as Armani, Missoni, Versace, and Dior that already have branded hotels around the world, as well as a growing number overseeing room designs in luxury hotel chains. Meanwhile, Edgewell Personal Care signed a license with Hotel Emporium for the latter to develop personal care products for guest rooms featuring the Hawaiian Tropic brand and scent. And CBeebies is among the latest character licensors to launch branded hotels and hotel rooms (at Alton Towers Resort, in this case), among other hospitality tie-ins.

16. Fan-first focus. Companies across consumer products are integrating user-generated content into their merchandise, mining fans’ Instragram and Pinterest accounts for product-development ideas, and relying on fan-focused innovation programs, crowdsourcing, and crowdfunding to gauge fans’ desires. “Maker” themes remain a big part of the toy and stationery landscapes. Handbags, athletic shoes, jerseys, and figurines are customized and personalized through print-on-demand and 3D printing technologies. Although the particulars will evolve, fan-first initiatives are cemented as key components of licensors’ and licensees’ strategies going forward.

It is worth noting that most of these trends, many of which are short-term in nature, are a fit with the longer-term, overriding developments that characterize today’s licensing business. These are detailed in 15 Licensing Super Trends for 2015 and Beyond, published by Raugust Communications last year; click here for more information. And sign up for Raugust Reports to stay on top of current licensing trends as they happen.