The Brand Radar: Birmingham Stage Company, Horrible Histories and the importance of knowing your brand history

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at how the Horrible Histories brand has expanded into live experiences, with the most recent being a Terrible Thames river tour.

A few weeks ago, my 27 year old son came to stay at my house. I mentioned to him that now he owned his own flat, could he sort through the books he had lodged with us to see which ones he wanted and those that could maybe be donated to a charity shop. He carried out this task diligently and kept a number of books to one side. These included three or four Horrible Histories paperbacks that he had first read when he was seven or eight.

I was quite surprised as they had been well read and – given Daniel has a degree in history – he may now have access to a range of other history titles! I quizzed him as to why he wanted to retain the Horrible Histories books and he explained that a couple were signed by the author, Terry Deary, and he remembered meeting Terry, albeit briefly.

He also mentioned how much he had enjoyed reading the books and what good memories they evoked. Quite a testimonial for a book series and certainly one that has made a favourable impression on one of its readers.

The Horrible Histories series is published by Scholastic, written by Terry Deary, illustrated by Martin Brown and debuted over 28 years ago. Daniel was probably part of the second cohort of Horrible Histories readers. The original books have a hybrid feel to them – part reading book, part quiz book and part comic.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

Brown’s illustrations have helped give the books, and dare I say the brand, a distinctive look. Of course, Terry Deary’s words play a big part in the books’ success, and he has a very original style that manages to deliver facts in a fun way that stick in the memory. He is witty and wise at the same time.

This year, Horrible Histories has been re-launched with a new design style described as a ‘read all about it’ newspaper look coupled with a brand-new publishing strand of Secret Diaries featuring the likes of Henry VIII. This is a big move by Scholastic but also a leap of faith that reinforces the success of the series.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

Indeed, Scholastic describe Horrible Histories as ‘the world’s best-selling children’s history series’ and it’s clearly an important franchise to them. Industry title The Bookseller reported late last year that the series had sold 6.3 million books with a reported value of £32.3 million through Nielsen BookScan’s Yotal Consumer Market, which has measured sales since 1998.

The brand itself has been developed beyond the books regularly over its lifetime. Many years ago, there was an animation series which I suspect wasn’t regarded as a great success – but this was swiftly consigned to history with other more successful TV and film formats coming to the fore.

Confident brands learn and evolve. In film and TV, the focus has more recently been on live action formats, including a feature film Horrible Histories: The Movie – Rotten Romans and a BAFTA award winning TV series which is swiftly approaching its ninth season.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

A real bulwark of the brand has been a series of theatre shows, created and performed by the Birmingham Stage Company who have been a licensee for 16 years. The stage-shows have toured the country and become a really effective way of engaging consumers with the brand. At a local and regional level, theatre shows like this can create great PR and encourage retailers to develop product displays and to re-order books.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

For a long running book series, having partnerships like the one Horrible Histories has with the Birmingham Stage Company can really help invigorate the brand and helps the brand grow. Indeed, throughout the pandemic, Horrible Histories stage shows continued to perform to audiences around the UK with partner Car Park Party.

Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain Part 5 is reported to be the longest running children’s theatre show in the West End. Some achievement! The theatre company haven’t stood still though and appear very proactive in looking at new ways of working and delivering the theatre experience.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

It was recently announced that the Birmingham Stage Company had partnered with Woods Silver Fleet on the River Thames to create Horrible Histories: Terrible Thames river tour experience. Leaving from Tower Bridge Quay, the branded riverboat takes an audience of passengers along the historic Thames with actors from the theatre shows delivering stories and anecdotes inspired by London’s history and landmarks.

One can imagine the sort of tales told as the boat passes Traitor’s Gate and goes under bridges like London Bridge. This is a really refreshing and imaginative use of IP. Given the theatrical pedigree of Horrible Histories, the standard of this theatrical tour looks set to be high and is destined to be an entertaining experience. It’s good to see licensing finding new ways of reaching audiences and a company like Woods Silver Fleet being prepared to give a branded tour like this a go.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

Horrible Histories is no stranger to the tourist, visitor and experiential markets though. Clearly it has been recognised that the heritage sector is fertile ground for the Horrible Histories franchise. I understand that there is a Horrible Histories themed audio tour in Edinburgh as part of the Big Bus Tours offer. Warwick Castle have been a long-term licensee and recently opened a Vile Victorians addition to their Horrible Histories maze.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

Given the themes and subject matter of Horrible Histories, it lends itself well to partnerships like this which have a bespoke feel to them. From Scholastic’s point of view, this opens up new sales channels for books and becomes an inspiration for new books. I believe there is a Horrible Histories Edinburgh book for example which I am sure is a great seller in the city.

Author Terry Deary was recently quoted as saying: “Children and adults will always be interested in the horrible side of history and we can learn a lot from it. I am glad to be able to shine a light on the terrible truth about historical times through my books. These new partnerships take my stories to new places and open people’s eyes in new ways.”

Horrible Histories has also had licensing success in areas like magazines and partworks that makes sense for a content driven brand. There have also been tie ups with licensees who supply products to heritage sites and deals with brands such as Top Trumps. It’s a publishing brand that is embedded in the book trade and acts as an anchor point for other products that are good sellers through that channel.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

Top Trumps is a great example of this as this brand has feature areas in book shops within which the Horrible Histories products will feature. Likewise, Paul Lamond Games have developed a board game which sits well in bookshops but also fits into the toy and gift retail channels.

Ian Downes, Brand Radar

One can imagine further developments in the heritage and live events sectors as leisure operators seek to use branded entertainment as a way of bringing back visitors. Seemingly Scholastic, Deary and Brown are accommodating brand partners who recognise that a bespoke approach to licensing can bring rewards.

There is a good lesson here that sometimes it pays to focus on activities, distribution and opportunities that play to your brand’s strengths. There is a lot to be said for being the dominant player in a significant niche. Clearly Horrible Histories is a brand that has been well managed and refreshed to introduce it to new audiences but it is also one that has been developed on firm foundations.

Daniel’s Horrible Histories books remain on my bookshelves and bring back some great memories. It is quite fitting for a book series focused on history that they have created their own history and are building a brand legacy that is set to last for many more years to come.

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