24 November 2013

Brand Licensing Europe or Surtex?

This blog post has been long due. Well, let's say a month. I'll keep to the old saying: better late than never. Anyhow, let's start. By the time part A of the MATS course (Make Art that Sells taught by Lilla Rogers) had finished I was sure that my style can have a future in the licensing market. I also got some additional validation of my work by making it to the GTS semifinals (Global Talent Search by the Lilla Rogers Studio). All that was fine, but I knew I had to make a good plan to enter the market. The most obvious step, at least to me, was to exhibit at a show (of course after building a respectable portfolio and bringing it online to life). There are two major international shows for the licensing market: Surtex – held annualy in May in New York, and Brand Licensing Europe – held annualy in October in London. Of course, there's also the sister fair of BLE (Brand Licensing Europe) in the States, the Licensing Expo held in Las Vegas mid June. I was aiming at BLE because its target is Europe as oposed to Surtex which is more USA market oriented. For the record, I walked Surtex last year while acctually visiting NSS (National Stationary Show) that's held at the same time at the Javits Convention Center. So I've got some insight into its look and feel. There are quite a lot of blog post about Surtex to be found. Artist who exhibited at Surtex telling their experience about building the booth, preparing promotional materials and handeling potential clients. Giving an insight into what they expected and how it all really played out for them. Not much info is to be found about BLE. So I decided to walk the show and check it out.

WARNING: This is a lengthy post containing lots of words, almost no images!!!

BLE2013 was held in the exhibition and conference center Olympia in London from the 15th to the 17th October. The show's fact sheet will tell you that they attract visitors from 69 countries, 9.537 total attendances, from which 7.244 being retailers, licensees, manufacturers and sales promotion professionals. Nearly 300 exhibitors are divided into 3 sections: Art & Design, Brands, Character & Entertainment. The concept of Art & Design is close to Surtex hosting freelance illustrators, pattern and surface designers, art agencies and independet design brands (Bell and Boo, Fatina dreams, Barbadango, etc.). The booth presentation and overall look is also aligned with what I saw at Surtex the year before. Everybody is friendly and open, willing to share their experience from past years. I contacted some of them prior to the show just to see if it's o.k. to stop by to introduce myself and ask some questions, keeping in mind that they aren't engaged in a conversation with a buyer at the time. We are all there for business. And first things first. I met Kate Knight, a wonderful lady and artist. She's doing BLE as well as Surtex. With these two shows she covers the European and the USA market. The same goes for Helz Cuppleditch a few booths down the aisle from Kate. It was a real pleasure to see her in action at her booth, making some new sketches for her gorgeous watercolor art. Me being more of a digital artist truly admire traditional art. I most certainly lack the patience for such immaculate execution. Uf, what would I do without the delete-erase-undo option. Not to talk about copy-paste. Helz also was the moderator at a very interesting panel held at the Licensing Academy Programme. I'll get back to that later in this post. Some exhibiting illustrators evolved their presence into brands. By that I mean, they are not presenting their name (the artist), rather the name of their products (the brands). How does that work? Instead of putting multiple alone standing images of cute bunnies and cats at the market, they come up with a story about the characters (not necessarily in the written form of a book, rather as a concept), give this story a name and thereby form a brand. One of the best examples at BLE, at least to me, is the Bell and Boo brand. Some additional highlights would be: Petite Frite, Barbadango and Fatina dreams. One artist/studio can have more than one story/brand. That's what differentiates BLE the most from Surtex. It's more brand oriented. Which makes sense since the major part of BLE is occupied by the big players of the industry at the Character & Entertainment section. Surtex interlaces with the National Stationary Show and therefore is more surface design oriented, while BLE has a more brand and character design base.

As soon as you enter the Olympia Center at the time of BLE you are visually bombarded by all the major international characters. Hello Kitty, Disney Princesses, Chuggington, Angry Birds, Spongebob, Ben 10, the Winx, etc. You name it, I saw it. That's the epicenter of BLE. All the big players in one place. Disney, Nickelodeon, Sanrio, 20th Century Fox, Turner enterprises, Mattel, Rovio, just to name a few. One, as a future exhibitor, could easily get intimidated by all these names and of course the numbers playing around them. But trust me, they are all after the same thing, the next hit. All the brands are consumer goods, and they get consumed, and the audience is always asking for something new and exciting. That's why there's always place for new ideas, stories and characters. Do you know which are the 4 top licensing brands in the last decade for the girl market? Barbie, Disney Princesses, Minnie Mouse and Hello Kitty. Those 4 brands are the best selling brands, and yes, licensees are eagerly looking for the next big thing to make their products sell faster. So far none of the other brands came even close to the top 4. The primary thing being – what makes your brand/art different and relevant to the consumer? Each month new generic brands and characters are brought to the market, who basicly all look alike, in character development and story wise. Big eyes, thin waiste and long legs. There you have the proof. Not much changed since Barbie was brought to life. Another Mattel example. As soon Mattel saw that its selling numbers of the Monster High brand was declining they came up with a new brand Ever After High, featuring the same look and feel, just repacked into a new story. 'New' being the magical word in marketing and sales. By now you may think, o.k. what do I have to do with these giants? I'm out of their league. Basically not. It's all about storytelling. The only difference is, they have a mighty communication channel – animation production, media coverage, distribution channels and of course endless financial resourses, while mine are limited to call it mildly. That's why this section of BLE is called Characters & Entertainment – those are brands emerging from the entertainment industry (movies, animated series & co). Yet, nothing is impossible. Just think of two brands: Angry Birds and the Moshi Monsters. These two fast growing brands are coming from a completely different industry – from the gaming industry. Times are changing. Angry Birds were created by Rovio an online game developer. And believe me, it wasn't a fast success for them. Prior to Angry Birds they created 53 games nobody has ever heard of, at least if you're not an online game addict. Their 54th game, the Angry Bird became an instant hit. Rovio didn't make a grandious plan to shift from the online game market into entertainment business. It just happend. They created a game and kept evolving it along the same story, had some great characters in it, and the rest is history. The best thing is, we are not talking about decades, we're talking about 4 years. And Angry Birds is to be found on everything, from food packaging to clothing and beyond. So, everything is possible. The same goes for the Moshi Monsters. Another brand born in the online gaming world. Cute little monsters entering the entertainment market and conquering the licensing world. What's my point? The same rulles apply to the Art & Design section and the Entertainment section of BLE. You've got to know your market and create a plausible story and character they can emotionally get attached to. Just to make one thing clear, I'm surely not going to exhibit at the Entertainment section should I decide to show up next year as an exhibitor at BLE. But, there's always a possibility to get the attention of a production company that could help you evolve your story and characters. You don't have to do everything on your own. At BLE you can meet companies who have the channels to get your story to a broader audience, while Surtex brings you direct exposure to the Stationary industry – paper and gift market. I'm not talking about the attendees, rather the industries exhibiting at the same place who support each other (not altruism, sheer business intelligence).

Let's hop over to the third section: Brands. At first I didn't understand what this section was all about. You'll find the Arsenal Foodbal Club there, as well as the British Museum, Playboy, NBA Europe, FIFA, Chupa Chups, etc. Well known and established international brands. But none of them coming from the entertainment world. You'll find a lots of sports brands here, but they don't see themselves as entertainment. They don't even want to be perceived as entertainment, rather as institutions. The tradition is what matters to them, what they feel makes their brands strong and powerfull. That's the opposite from the Character and Entertainment industry – disposable and fast changing environment. It's a whole different world. This is an additonal proof to there's place for everyone, but you've got to have your story straight, you've got to know whom you're talking to and where you want to go. These questions all come up at the time when you have to decide which show to exhibit at and in whitch section of it.

From what I saw at Surtex, the art presented addresses a variety of target markets – be it gender, age or industry; from kids to adults, male and female, and all different kinds of industries (paper, apparel, gift, home decor, wall decor, etc.). The BLE exhibitors are mostly targeting the children (baby, teen, tween) and young adults market, characters being their selling point. The children market is the most fruitfull part of the licensing world. There are many statistics supporting this statement. 3 out of 4 buyers chose products displaying licensed images (well known characters of course) when buying presents for kids. Can you even imagine how many presents a parent has to buy anually for all the kids his kid is invited to. It's huge. How do I know this? By attending the BLE Licensing Academy Programme. It's open to all exhibitors and attendees and packed with lot of interesting topics and info. I could write a blog post just about all the stuff I learnt there and most probably will. I have to get back to the panel Helz Cuppleditch held hosting the amazing brand Bell and Boo. And then, there's the License! This competition. All together it were 3 amazing days at BLE. It's not so much about who or what I saw or whom I talked to. It's about how I went home with a competely new perspective at the licensing business and where I see my work in it. All in a good way of course. After all, we're talking about London, and only good things can come out of there. Btw. I decided to exhibit at BLE next year in October. Leaves me enough time to get my portfolio and brands straight and all the pre-show promotion in time. And now I have the perfect excuse to come back to London.

Note: the shows' review has been put together only according to my own impressions and knowledge. It has no scientific back-up. It can easily be that another person at the same time would have come to another, maybe even opposite conclusion, to mine.