The Brand Radar: Aardman, Electric Gamebox and the evolving world of licensed live experiences

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at the world of licensed live events – from farm trails and immersive experiences to exhibitions and interactive escape rooms.

One of the most dynamic sectors of the licensing market is the live and experiential sector. Just ask Boris!

Despite the challenges that lockdowns have brought the live events industry, there are numerous examples of IP being used to good effect in the category – and in diverse ways.

Licensing isn’t an industry that is data rich, so it’s often difficult to present a statistically solid argument but my hunch is that over the last few years ‘live licensing’ is a category in growth. Anecdotally this is borne out by the fact that many IP owners have created standalone business divisions focused on the category, staffed by experts in the area.

My own client, Aardman, is a very good example of this. They have a dedicated team that oversees their live events business – indeed the scope of their activities gives an insight into the diversity of activities with the sector.

Aardman have partners such as Land’s End who host Aardman Presents: A Grand Experience – an interactive experience featuring a range of Aardman characters – and they also have a programme of model-making classes delivered by Aardman model-makers which can be booked by companies, festivals, schools and colleges.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Other partners and activities include exhibitions, musical concerts, AR trails and costume character appearances. Live licensing operates at different levels and scales.

During BLE I visited one of Aardman’s newest attractions. I joined the Aardman team at the Electric Gamebox at Waterloo. We were able to sample the Shaun the Sheep Championsheeps event. Essentially this is an interactive experience based around teams taking on a range of challenges. These are all based around Mossy Bottom Farm and make full use of Shaun’s world.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Aardman were able to lean on past experience in the gaming and interactive space to develop this concept with Electric Gamebox. Electric Gamebox were able to add their category expertise to develop a product that worked in their environment and alongside their other games.

The Shaun the Sheep content is delivered in an engaging and easy to use way within bespoke gameboxes or rooms. The Aardman game is designed to appeal to a family audience and based on my experience, I can imagine families really enjoying it.

You can play in groups and compare your performance after playing, making Electric Gamebox a perfect venue for friendship groups. It is a really good example of IP being used in a new way and making the most of new technologies as well.

The world of live licensing is one that is full of variety. To this end I was also lucky enough to have a tour of the set of Dr Who: Time Fracture recently. My tour was just after Lockdown had been lifted but before the venue was re-opened to the public.

Dr Who: Time Fracture is located in London’s Mayfair in a purpose-built set featuring Dr Who environments and settings. It is an immersive theatre experience where visitors become part of the experience as they are lead around the attraction, becoming active participants in the evolving storyline.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Whilst my visit took place without the immersion, I was shown round by one of the creative team who really brought the experience alive for me. The sets and props are fantastic and authentic. I believe the BBC have loaned them a number of original props which add to the experience.

One can imagine that Dr Who fans will find the experience a really good one and a great opportunity to indulge their passion, but it will also work well for visitors seeking a different kind of live experience with friends or colleagues. Rather like Electric Gamebox, the operators of Dr Who: Time Fracture have made the most of the IP they have licensed and worked hard to create a really authentic experience.

In this kind of licensing, authenticity is really important and delivering a quality ‘on brand’ experience is essential. IP owners will always be anxious to ensure that their brand is developed well and in line with their expectations.

The reviews for the Dr Who experience have been really positive. For an IP owner like the BBC, this kind of opportunity allows them to extend the brand experience beyond standard merchandise and develop a deeper relationship with consumers. There is, of course, a retail opportunity as well as there is a gift shop which stocks licensed products, but it also has some experience specific merchandise.

But activities like this are much more than merchandise sales opportunities – they are about building the brand and enhancing the brand experience. It builds longevity. They also allow IP owners to build a licensing business beyond traditional licensed merchandise and create international opportunities.

There are some good examples of other types of ‘live licensing’ in the market which reinforce the point that there are different types of opportunity open to IP owners. Dorset Museum is currently hosting an exhibition called Elmer & Friends: The Colourful World of David McKee.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

The exhibition celebrates 30 years of Elmer and includes original artwork from David McKee. It also showcases some of his other characters such as King Rollo and Mr Benn. The exhibition was originally developed by Seven Stories in Newcastle and has been touring the country.

It is not uncommon for a museum such as Seven Stories to create an exhibition and then develop it into a touring exhibition. This gives the originating museum a commercial upside and allows other museums to effectively rent a proven exhibition with less risk to them. In this context, it’s easy to see the value of a well-established IP – particularly one that is content rich. A well-chosen IP takes out a lot of the risk from running an exhibition. It delivers an identity, content and an audience.

Aardman have a travelling exhibition called The Art of Aardman which showcases Aardman’s characters and creativity. It has featured in museums and galleries in countries such as France, The Netherlands, Germany, South Korea and Australia. Aardman’s experience shows how a well curated exhibition can open up international opportunities. It can also be a spark for wider activities and stimulate product development… There is an Art of Aardman illustrated book for example.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

It’s interesting to see how IP owners are engaging with locations in creative ways to bring their IP alive but also to allow venues to access IP that helps them stand out in a crowded market.

Farm attractions are well established and prove popular among families, but it is a competitive sector. Farm attractions are increasingly seeking out new ways to achieve a point of difference and give consumers fresh reasons to visit.

Big Sheep in Devon recently collaborated with TOMY’s Britain’s Farm Toys brand to deliver a themed activity trail to visitors, whilst Farmer Palmer’s Farm Park have introduced The World of Dinosaur Roar! trail.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Launched in June 2021, this trail features life-size dinosaur models based on the characters in the Dinosaur Roar and World of Dinosaur Roar! books. These include Munch the Diplodocus and Flap the Oviraptor.

The books are good sellers, well known and recognised by parents, and have been produced in association with the Natural History Museum. From a visitors’ point of view, this is a real added value attraction and one that may well sway them to visit when comparing farm attractions.

Clearly, it’s a significant investment for Farmer Palmer’s, so they would have been careful in choosing the brand and will have focused on a brand with longevity. The capital investment in a trail of this kind will be significant in relative terms and the operator would have looked at other factors such as potential merchandise sales. The brand owners, Nurture Rights, have developed two other trails with other farm parks – this gives them traction in the market and is a useful platform to build other activity from.

It is also worth noting how shopping centres use live events to pull in shoppers and add an extra dimension to their offer. Costume company Rainbow Productions are past masters at developing shopping mall tours and activations. Costume characters are an effective way of bringing entertainment to shopping centres and malls.

Recently Rainbow Productions developed a roadshow for the Elves Behavin’ Badly brand with costume characters Elfie and Elvie visiting a number of shopping centres throughout the UK. The shopping centres promote the visits as a free to attend event which will drive footfall, while I am sure brand owners PMS will be working with shops in the centres to make sure they are carrying Elves Behavin’ Badly product.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Rather like farm attractions shopping centres and malls are fighting for footfall. Activations like the Elves Behavin’ Badly tour are a way that shopping centres and malls can create a point of difference. It also creates a story for them that they can use in PR, on social media and advertising.

Live licensing is an increasingly important part of the licensing mix. It allows IP owners to bring their IP alive in a range of ways, with the potential of good commercial returns and to operate at different scales of business. There is a variety of applications and activities open to development; it can range from costume tours through to immersive worlds.

There can be any number of these activities on the go at the same time and this can create a lot of momentum for IP owners. It can also work in parallel with more traditional forms of licensing while creating new retail opportunities. Many attractions will have dedicated brand themed shops. For example, at Blackpool Pleasure Beach where there is a Wallace & Gromit ride, there is also a dedicated Wallace & Gromit shop.

It will be interesting to see how things develop over the next year. Leisure and retail operators seem to be more comfortable using IP in their businesses and have recognised it can deliver them added value in a competitive market.

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