Licensing specialist Carl Lawrence on how to keep brands front of mind for retailers, licensees and prospective partners

Carl Lawrence talks fans, buyers and the lure of logos.

Carl, thanks for making time. Can you tell us about your career in licensing and the roles you have had so far?
I have been fortunate enough to have worked within licensing ever since I graduated and have spent 15 years continuously learning, working on a number of brands and meeting a wide variety of global and local businesses.

Most recently I was at WWE and led consumer products and licensing Internationally. Prior to this I was at IMG working on brands such as PGA Tour, Volkswagen, Ferrari, Pele, Muhammed Ali and I started off at IBML, a subsidiary of Sports Direct, working on brands including Slazenger and Dunlop.

You helped put WWE on the licensing map in the UK – and keep it there! What lessons did you learn there in regard to keeping a brand front of mind in licensing?
With such a competitive and growing licensing landscape, it’s very important to keep your brand in the minds of retailers, licensees and prospective partners. Sharing information is key – and something I personally need to improve on.

“NBA products have always been fashionable in the UK – I see that trend continuing.”

LinkedIn, trade publications and direct contact to partners are all vital as so many licensees work on multiple brands. It’s therefore critical that if you want your brand presented well, they need up to date with easy to consume and relevant data to give your brand the best chance of success.

WWE had so much activity in any week that it wasn’t difficult to relay brand news. I would often send at the very least monthly reminders about storylines, live events, new product releases, TV and social engagements to retailers, licensees and prospective licensees. It meant that any licensees, account managers, buyers and key stakeholders had up to date information to present.

We also invited many clients to the live shows – it was a great way to remain engaged but also interact with other licensees.

Carl Lawrence, Sports, Film & TV

As you mentioned earlier, you’ve also worked in the sports licensing sector. If you were pitching sports licensing to a licensee or retail buyer who hasn’t tapped that market yet, what would be your pitch?
There are so many sporting events around the world; there’s never a week that goes by that doesn’t have a significant event to follow. Ashes cricket is ongoing, the F1 is mid-season… The FIFA Women’s World Cup, The Open, Ryder Cup, Rugby World Cup, Cricket World Cup and Premier League are all to follow in the next few months. Not only are there so many, but the vast majority also sell out huge stadiums and most are easily accessible to watch through your TV.

The easy persuasion is the number of followers, the high levels of engagement, the passion of the fan base, the integrity of the sport and the demographics of the fan base. You can present a good case study using these touch points.

The hardest question for a buyer is ‘Why this sport?’ and ‘What will it add to my business?’ A lot of the mentioned events only last a couple of weeks… If they are over in a flash, it can become difficult for a retailer to go big on an event that can be over so quickly.

As with any licensed pitch, tailoring it with a set customer or specific retailer in mind is a must. Matching demographics to the sporting fan base to the retailer customer is essential data. I would personally always look to start with exclusivity and offer a retailer a full package that not only includes licensed products but ways to engage with the sport. That can include tickets, coaching, sponsorship opportunities; it gives a retailer a 360-degree approach.

“There are so many football fans out there, but very few action figures of footballers are in the market.”

Smart. Conversely, if you were talking to a sports brand who aren’t currently in licensing, what would you tell them to persuade them to enter the market?
At the top of my list is their fan base – they owe it to their fans to offer merchandise in some capacity. Whether that’s at a live event, their own e-commerce store or at a retailer, an engaged fan base demands merchandise.

From the many events that I have worked on, an average spend can per head at an event can range from £10 to £50 per head – even small events have the chance to generate revenue. Merchandise and licensing collaborations can then also be used in many other ways – including marketing, promotional giveaways, charity support and brand extensions – that can lead to sponsorships. All of the above creates further awareness of the sport.

Design-wise, have you seen changes in how sports brands are presented to the market? Have we moved on from just using a logo and slogan?
Logos are still very key to any core licensed range and, of course, some product categories limit freedom. Particularly in sport, fans want the official badge so if it’s a country, team or sport, the high majority of merchandise uses the core logo. If you attend the sporting events, you often want a memento from the day and the event logo or team name to be seen as you’re proud to wear your purchase.

Going away from the core assets normally occurs when fashion comes to play. Apparel is an obvious example… There are a few sports that do it well and create additional assets that remain core to the brand and tell a story. The Open used the seasonal weather expected on any Links golf course to add depth to their assets, while Wimbledon have used vintage images to offer a different look.

Carl Lawrence, Sports, Film & TV

Can you highlight some examples of retailers who are getting sports licensing right?
Primark and NBA. American sports are on the rise in the UK, with the likes of NBA and NFL coming to stadiums as part of their seasons. It’s a smart move to grow an international fan base. NBA products have always been fashionable in the UK and I see that trend continuing. I know many UK retailers are growing this space and looking to utilis the NBA and NFL to offer a sporting yet fashionable apparel range.

Carl Lawrence, Sports, Film & TV

Aldi Olympics is also an interesting licensing example currently being run by TLC that does not involve a physical product. This summer, Aldi customers who spend £30 in-store can get a free sports lesson for their child. I checked this out the other day and I have swimming and martial arts all very close to my home that I intend to use with my children.

Over the last few years, Fanatics have been growing at a rapid pace and securing deals for many of the global sports rights. Those rights often come with official physical store rights, e-commerce rights, trading cards, memorabilia – but in the background they are growing their own e-commerce store to become the destination for sports fans.

Another example is Smyth’s Toys and WWE. While WWE may not necessarily be a sport, what they have achieved in action figures over the last 30 years is extremely unique and Smyths Toys offer the best placement; they have become the go to destination for WWE fans.

Carl Lawrence, Sports, Film & TV

There are so many football fans out there who adore Mo Salah, Erling Haaland or Bukayo Saka, but very few action figures of footballers are in the market. WWE has a unique advantage of owning their IP versus the complexity of teams, third party IP and so on, but the whole concept of WWE is storytelling that lends directly to action figures. When I think about these comparisons, there must be a relaunch of Subbuteo or similar type of football figural play pattern out there somewhere!

Last question! What sporting events should our readers be aware of licensing-wise in 2023 and 2024?
I will focus on UK and Europe – otherwise the list will be too long! – but for me, the big ones for the rest of this year are the FIFA Women’s World Cup, Rugby World Cup, Ryder Cup and Cricket World Cup.

Then in 2024, there’s the Six Nations, Grand National, Olympic Games, Paralympic Games and Tour De France.

Huge thanks again Carl.

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