Emma Saunders and Jenny Smyth on putting quality design at the heart of Historic Royal Palaces’ products programme

Historic Royal Palaces’ Senior Licensing Manager Emma Saunders and Licensing Manager Jenny Smyth discuss brand values, innovation and the importance of storytelling.

Emma, Jenny, thanks for taking time out to chat today. Can you give us a little bit of background to Historic Royal Palaces, your portfolio and the thought process behind your licensing endeavours?
Historic Royal Palaces is an independent charity that looks after six of the most wonderful palaces in the world: the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace and Hillsborough Castle and Gardens in Northern Ireland.

Our charitable purpose is to ‘stir every spirit to inspire and provoke change’. We aim to be open, colourful, provocative and personal, always evolving and improving to appeal to our diverse and growing audience. The licensing team delivers on this purpose by reaching consumers through branded licensed product worldwide.

We run an inspired design programme and encourage our licensees to be innovative when representing our palaces, gardens and collections. We only work with partners who share similar brand values to us in terms of quality of design and craftsmanship – as well as being committed to sustainable and ethical production.

Licensees feel confident that our final ‘stamp of approval’ will protect and enhance product, endorsed by the Historic Royal Palaces’ brand.

Emma Saunders, Jenny Smyth, Historic Royal Palaces

Given the range of palaces in the portfolio, do you take an individual approach to licensing them and develop specific campaigns for them?
Each palace has a unique rich history and individual ‘personality’ which lends itself to inspire certain product categories. For example, the Tower of London stories relate a lot to children’s toys and games, while the magnificent interiors and gardens of Hampton Court Palace and Kensington Palace provide inspiration for homewares and fashion.

Licensees are also granted the right to develop product under the full remit of the Historic Royal Palaces brand, which incorporates all palaces and enables partners to tap into the wide scope they offer to roll-out across an entire product range.

To better communicate this to licensees, we have recently launched our new licensing brand guidelines which outlines how partners can make the most of the HRP portfolio across product and packaging.

In a competitive market, how do you manage to stand out? What makes HRP unique?
By working with us, licensees are able to tap into and associate with a royal British brand and with globally recognised buildings – including a UNESCO world heritage site. But what licensees tend to be really excited about in terms of working with us is our ability to help ‘tell the story’.

With over 1,000 years of history – and the support of expert curators such as Dr Lucy Worsley and Dr Tracy Borman and their teams – we are able to help licensees create product with an interesting, authentic provenance and unique backstory, which even the most avid history buffs might not know!

I imagine that HRP has access to some wonderful assets and archives. How do you identify what to use for licensing from those archives?
We have created five key themes: Architecture, Interiors, Gardens, Fashion and Collections. Licensees work with images and patterns that sit within those themes and are inspired to develop innovative, commercial products. For example, an 18th century stunning mantua dress, doesn’t just inspire another dress, but the design could be rescaled and coloured onto a range of chinaware.

Great. And how do you overlay this with market trends?
We work closely with licensees to help them identify areas of the palaces that can tap into current trends and enable their product to be appealing to their own customer base. This includes not only sending a range of assets, but also tours of the palaces and behind the scenes collections with our curators and specialist teams. Our licensing deals across fashion and homewares – ranges with Hobbs, GP & J Baker and Cole & Son have all worked in this way ­– offering a unique experience which design teams really appreciate.

We continuedly wish to evolve and are currently working on a new style guide to create assets which will make our brand easier to interpret and more accessible to a wider number of licensees across the product categories.

Emma Saunders, Jenny Smyth, Historic Royal Palaces

Are there some new design directions you are taking into 2024?
We’ll be tapping into upcoming exhibitions and have one on the horizon which will focus on our magnificent dress collection. Regular events at the palaces such as the Tulip Festival, and significant anniversaries that we’re celebrating, can also provide opportunities in terms of design direction for current and future licensees.

And looking ahead, are there priority areas for licensing?
Yes, we are currently focusing on prioritising our Homeware and Fashion categories as well as Gifting. We are also very aware of the growing interest and success in the Food & Drink licensing sector… We are about to sign up some key new licensing partners in this category too, which we will be able to announce soon. Toys and games – and our offering for children – is also an area we are looking to grow.

Speaking of children’s products, you do have some lovely items in that space already. How do you make yourselves relevant to the children’s audience?
We have developed licensed product for the children’s market including kid’s pyjamas inspired by the Yeoman Warder uniform and Henry VIII’s suit of armour. We also have jigsaw puzzles, chess sets, children’s chinaware as well as card games and a successful publishing programme.

“Each palace has an individual ‘personality’ which lends itself to inspire certain product categories.”

Licensees have been inspired by iconic elements from the Tower of London, such as the Beefeaters, ravens, crown jewels and related stories. Hampton Court Palace is synonymous with tales of the various kings and queens that have lived there and Kensington Palace, as Victoria’s childhood home, provides a lot of inspiration for key themes such as Christmas.

Away from the kids’ market, can you tell us a little bit more about some other recent licensed product launches?
With the King’s Coronation, we were able to create some wonderful licensed product inspired by this great historical royal event – with existing licensing partners and to also sign-up, and work with, new companies under license. This included our long-standing tea licensee Harney & Sons, who we have worked with for 18 years.

Harney & Sons produced an Organic Darjeeling – the King’s favourite tea – and a beautifully designed collectible tin. And our new licensing partner, Gin In A Tin, created a Coronation Gin which sold in John Lewis and other independent retailers. It also continues to sell well in our own shops.

Emma Saunders, Jenny Smyth, Historic Royal Palaces

Inspired by the hugely successful Crown to Couture exhibition held at Kensington Palace, the brand Olympia Le-Tan created three unique limited edition clutch bags. We have also renewed our successful partnership with The Royal Mint and five more coins are due to be released, all inspired by the Royal Tudor Beasts at Hampton Court Palace.

Emma Saunders, Jenny Smyth, Historic Royal Palaces

A fantastic slate there. How do you work with licensees in terms of NPD and design? Is there a set process for how licensees get to know the brands?
We follow a process and work case by case on an individual licensee’s requirements and needs for new product development and design, but it’s very much a collaborative process with our licensing partners.

With six palaces and gardens and a wealth of assets it can be overwhelming how much inspiration could be used. Our five key themes make it easier for licensees to be focused and inspired. We also give private tours around each of our palaces and gardens, and also go behind the scenes to view our collections housed in the archives.

We also have an extensive image library and provide the historic reference and stories with authentic provenance behind each of the design inspiration and development of product, packaging and marketing campaign materials.

HRP have had a lot of success with events and exhibitions like Superbloom. How do you capitalise on these from a licensing perspective?
We have held some very successful and memorable events at our palaces and have a great programme planned to roll out in the years ahead. We work with our licensing partners to see which of these key events or exhibitions would be commercially viable to inspire new licensed product development – and which ones have appeal beyond our palace gift shops and onsite space.

It can be very beneficial for our partners to benefit from the marketing that surrounds these key events, especially when they are launching a new inspired collection in collaboration with the Historic Royal Palaces brand.

Emma Saunders, Jenny Smyth, Historic Royal Palaces

And finally, do you have a favourite object from the HRP or maybe a couple?
Emma Saunders: Gosh that is really a tough one as I love so many objects, as well as the palaces and gardens! I do love the iconic Chapel Royal ceiling at Hampton Court Palace, which Henry VIII commissioned for the christening of his son Edward VI – and in particular the vibrant Tudor paint colours, including Byce Blue decorated with gold stars.

Emma Saunders, Jenny Smyth, Historic Royal Palaces

I also love our Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection with so many exquisite objects, but in particular the Spitalfields Silk Mantua which has inspired our Fashion and Homeware licensed collections.

Emma Saunders, Jenny Smyth, Historic Royal Palaces

Jenny Smyth: I love interpreting our stories onto product… Many people don’t know about all the animals kept within the Tower walls as part of the Royal Menagerie – all in the best conditions known possible for that time period. We have records of their names, which includes a lioness and a panther, both called Jenny! This has been beautifully represented across fabrics before and children’s chinaware.

Emma Saunders, Jenny Smyth, Historic Royal Palaces

Our wonderful Georgian ceilings are also my other passion, particularly at Kensington Palace which features the Presence Chamber and the Cupola room. Both were painted by 18th century artist William Kent. His distinctive visual style and use of optical illusion and architectural effects has been credited as the moment the art of interior decoration, as opposed to painting, was born.

Emma Saunders, Jenny Smyth, Historic Royal Palaces

Great stuff. Thanks again guys!

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