Licensing International’s Maura Regan on how creativity and storytelling fuel great brand extensions

We caught up Maura to find out more about her start in the industry and learn how Licensing International is looking to bolster its engagement with the industry’s design communities.

Licensing International is the leading trade organisation for the licensing industry and has been working to foster the growth and expansion of licensing around the world for over 35 years.

Maura Regan is President of Licensing International, joining the organisation back in 2016 following a 17-year career with Sesame Workshop where she oversaw the company’s international distribution and licensing business.

We caught up Maura to find out more about her start in the industry and learn how Licensing International is looking to bolster its engagement with the industry’s design communities.

Maura Regan, Licensing International
Maura! Welcome to Brands Untapped… Before we dive into all things Licensing International, how did you first come to work with brands?

I fell into licensing serendipitously, like so many of us do. I always refer to this as the ‘accidental career’, but hopefully we are doing things to change that by working with colleges and universities. But I really did fall into it through friends that I was meeting for Happy Hour. They worked at The Jim Henson Company, so I met them at the Muppet Mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

While I was waiting, I went to the bathroom – which was covered in Miss Piggy wallpaper – and then I peeked into the art department and saw that it was a creative, special place, and I fell in love. I then bumped into the woman who was heading up licensing, Isabel Miller, and a few months later she called me and asked if I wanted to work there.

The Muppet Mansion sounds like an incredible place to work… Was it as fun an environment as it sounds?
It really was. It was a beautiful mansion that had been a private residence, and then the Henson family bought it and turned it into the home for The Muppets. They had another space where they built a lot of the Muppets, but here, when you walked in, it was very magical and very Muppet-y!

Everything was amazing. The front desk was beautifully carved by Michael Frith, who was one of the writers and artists, and there was a big mobile that was hanging up that Jim and his son John had built. There was a marble staircase… It was the Upper East Side, so it was all very elegant.

Maura Regan, Licensing International
Yes, we’ve found a shot of the engraved desk, pictured above. It looks great. Did you have a much of an idea of what licensing was when you started?

I had no idea what licensing was! I had no idea what I was saying yes to! The way I’m raised is that if someone offers you a job, you say yes and figure it out afterwards, so I did. I loved it instantly. From there I went to MTV. I had actually worked in programming at MTV before I joined Jim Henson, and I went back there when they got into licensing.

You mention that you loved the work instantly – what was it about licensing that ticked all the boxes for you?
It’s a combination of so many disciplines. There’s the creativity where you’re involved in product design and product development. It’s also storytelling at its core. Then there’s the business side of it, which I was surprised to find I really liked – finding partnerships and crafting those partnerships.

The beauty of licensing is that it’s not ‘one and done’. You’re establishing what will hopefully be long term relationships. I learned early on that the first deal is often the easy deal. It’s all about how you turn that into a long-term relationship… That’s when everyone gets in their groove and you can think bigger and better together.

Absolutely… And from MTV…?
Well, I had my daughter while I was at MTV and I was probably the only person with a kid there at the time and I kind of needed different swag! A former colleague of a friend worked at Scholastic, and they offered me a job and I went there. And then a year later Sesame Street came calling for me. They’re in my neighbourhood so it was easy, and my daughter at the time was two, so it was a great, magical fit.

And I don’t want to say I chose my companies based on their offices, but MTV was amazing, Scholastic I loved – because I love books – and Sesame was a magical place.

“We want those people designing at companies – who aren’t within the company’s licensing division – to know that the licensing industry and its various events and initiatives is a great creative resource for them.”

Did your approach to licensing change much when you were on character brands like Muppets and Sesame Street, to when you were on a brand like MTV?
It’s a great question, but there really wasn’t a difference in terms of strategic approach. The key to successful brand licensing is understanding the core brand essence and creating smart brand extensions that enhance and expand the brand experience.

The value of licensing is brought to life when you really think about what a brand stands for. If a brand is character-driven, there’s an aura around those characters, so it’s not always about taking that tangible, literal interpretation. You also, especially with legacy brands, want to dig into what the brand stands for and represents.

Licensing is more than a deal transaction. When done right, you have begun a journey with new or existing consumers. We know through consumer insights that brands and what they stand for are hugely important as a purchase intent mechanism.

With MTV, in the early days it was a challenge to bring to life the essence of the brand because it wasn’t about being mainstream, but rather counter to it. The business of licensing is all about scale and about many to the masses, so the challenge was to embody the sensibility of MTV in a way that was authentic and relevant.

Ultimately, as with all licensing, it’s about identifying the right partners who can interpret that brand essence. It’s a key component to any licensing programme, whether that’s a corporate brand like MTV, or a traditional corporate brand like Ralph Lauren, or a character licence. You want to know what the brand stands for and where the consumer fits into that dialogue.

Maura Regan, Licensing International
Alongside consumers putting more emphasis on what brands stand for, have you noticed any other major shifts that have impacted how the licensing space operates?

The role of licensing in the life of a consumer has shifted. Early on, brands were set in stone. Now, consumers are in conversations with brand owners to help guide them when it comes to what the brand stands for. Look at fandom… When I was first starting, legal would’ve shut down so many things that we see today. Now brands owners know they are in a dialogue with consumers and they need to engage consumers in the journey of a brand.

On that, are we seeing more brand owners taking creative risks with what they do with their IP?
Companies are measured with risk, but consumer insights are guiding a lot of them when it comes to working out what makes sense for their brand. In the fashion industry, we’re seeing a lot of high/low collaborations that we probably wouldn’t have seen five years ago.

You’ve got to look at how consumers view these things and it’s not exactly church and state anymore. We’re seeing mashups of different characters and different brands, and there’s a few forces at play here.

One is that over 20 years ago, Martha Stewart really changed how consumers shopped. Typically, people were shopping horizontally. If you shopped at Walmart, that’s where you shopped. It was the same at the high end; you wouldn’t shop from high to low. Now – and I credit Martha Stewart with starting this – good design at many different price points can live anywhere. She launched a line at Kmart over 20 years ago that had great design and great quality at a very compelling mass-market price point.

Then along came Toy Story, which mashed up all these different characters from different universes. The consumer loved it and it led to more of these things to happen, all driven by the consumer.

Where brands draw the line when it comes to risk are things that are inappropriate for the brand, and, of course, health and safety. But consumers will also reject things that they see as being inappropriate for a brand. Brand owners are listening to their consumers and they know that transparency is important. And that extends to transparency in the supply chain. Back in the day, no-one really talked about it but consumers are keeping an eye on that now. It’s exciting.

“The role of licensing in the life of a consumer has shifted. Early on, brands were set in stone. Now, consumers are in conversations with brand owners to help guide them when it comes to what the brand stands for.”

On your point about Martha Stewart helping consumers go from shopping horizontally to shopping vertically; has licensing also helped that? A Muppets fan can buy everything from a pair of socks to a high-end pair of shoes…
Absolutely. The beauty of licensing is that it allows you to take your business into other areas that aren’t core to what you do, and allows you to do it with the best of the best. What’s driving these smart mashups are smart licensing executives who are able to bring these different entities together. The industry has been so successful at bringing brands to a larger swathe of consumers in a smart, respectful and engaging way.

Moving onto your work with Licensing International, am I right in thinking one of your first actions upon joining as President was to change the name? it was previously LIMA – the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association…
Yes, as our industry has grown and evolved, we needed a name that could reflect where the industry is today, and where it is heading.

When you said LIMA, people thought of Peru and a myriad of other things. Some people didn’t know what it stood for, and ‘international’ wasn’t a part of the acronym. From a search perspective, we were never going to come up top if you searched ‘LIMA’ – there was Peru, there was lima beans… So many things!

We didn’t go into the rebranding expecting to change our name though. We put it out to an amazing agency, they did all this research and came back with feedback from the global industry and the business community at large on how to take us forward for the next 30 years.

For anyone that hasn’t engaged with Licensing International yet, how would you describe the work you guys do?
Our mission is to advance our member’s businesses. We do that through thought leadership, must have market information and intelligence, and of course networking and matchmaking.

Thinking about your Brands Untapped audience specifically, it’s one of the areas that we haven’t serviced, frankly. We’ve focused on the business side, but – as we’ve talked about before Billy – the design and product development community is incredibly important. At the heart of every one of these deals is amazing, kick-ass creativity. Without that, the product doesn’t really take off.

We need to do a better job servicing the design community and bringing them into the fold and into the forefront. We’ve spoken about the business side often, about style guides, but we want to look more at the creativity that drives these programmes.

Elsewhere, we’re focused on diversity and inclusion. That’s an underpinning and a foundation to what we’re about – it’s not an initiative- it is business. Sustainability is also key and in the UK you have Helena Mansell-Stopher’s Products of Change – oh my goodness, it’s brilliant and so smart! We want to work with them more if we can.

We’ve also launched Women in Licensing Leadership for senior executives in the licensing industry. We do a lot for the newbies and those in mid-level careers, but we looked at women at the VP and EVP level and looking at how we can help them get towards running these organisations.

Maura Regan, Licensing International
Great stuff. One thing we’ve noticed with some designers we speak to is that they don’t see themselves as being in the ‘licensing industry’. They might design a licensed product one week, but then be back on other projects the next. Should we be doing more to encourage these designers to engage with the licensing space?

Yes, and we want those people designing at companies – who aren’t within the company’s licensing division – to know that the licensing industry and its various events and initiatives is a great creative resource for them. Look at Vans and what they are doing with brands, they’re knocking it out of the park. If you’re a designer at Vans, you’re going to be singularly focused, but I’d love them to come to our events and be involved in what we’re up to.

Do you think there’s a way of getting consumers to better understand how licensing works? Is there a value in that?
The consumer shouldn’t care. They care when something doesn’t make sense or is inauthentic to the brand, but everything is pretty much licensed today, whether it’s your dishwasher or your watch… The consumer shouldn’t care that their Michael Kors perfume isn’t made by Michael Kors itself – or himself. It should be irrelevant.

That said, one reason we do want the consumer to understand licensing is because we want to bring people into this industry. We do a lot of outreach with colleges and universities to really tap into folks who may not have thought about licensing as a career opportunity, but maybe they’re really into designing apparel. That’s where I want the consumer to know, but for the most part, if a product is done really well, it should be invisible.

We’ve spoken about apparel, perfume, footwear… is there an industry that brands could be doing more in?
There’s been some activity in hotels and hospitality, but I do think the role brands play in the hospitality industry will be really important post-pandemic. There are opportunities in health and wellness space too.

I also think the advertising industry should be doing a lot more with licensing. There is a huge opportunity with characters in that space; characters never misbehave but celebrities don’t always behave themselves, so there’s lots of opportunities to have fun in that sector.

E-sports is just starting to take off in licensing and there’s huge opportunities there too!

Thank you so much for this Maura. My final question is how do you fuel your creativity?
I studied Art History and I’m very visual, so I draw a lot of inspiration from museums, but also from so many of the great retail experiences and merchandising – online and physical. Being out and about- just taking it all in- whether in the city or in the countryside also fuels creativity. And I have to admit to armchair travelling courtesy of CN Traveller’s Instagram posts.

This has been great. A huge thanks Maura – looking forward to catching up again soon.

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