The Brand Radar: Hornby, The Beatles and the flourishing world of band brands

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at band brands, deliving into why the likes of The Beatles, David Bowie and Queen are soaring in sectors spanning toys to socks.

I saw a photo of my three year old great niece at her birthday party last week. It was great to see her enjoying her birthday, but the licensing geek in me also noticed she was wearing a Kasabian t-shirt. This piqued my licensing curiosity and I found out the t-shirt she inherited from her brother was bought from Sainsbury’s.

Rock t-shirts for toddlers was confirmation to me that band brands are now a firmly established part of the licensing landscape. It also appears to be one that is growing in size and stature. That said, music and licensing have long been intertwined… I remember a whole section in the Miller’s Antique Guide to Collectables on Beatles memorabilia. Licensed products that were developed when The Beatles were at the height of their popularity that are now modern-day collectables.

In my early days in licensing, I was involved in licensing the Elvis Presley brand into the publishing world. I remember a high spec illustrated book that was a tour of Elvis’ Graceland home. It became a bestseller and was part of a worldwide programme of official Elvis licensed products.

We also represented a roster of music acts on behalf of a music management company Brockum. The big licensing highlight from this was a range of leather jackets featuring Guns ‘n’ Roses. I imagine these jackets are now proving very popular in vintage shops. Yes… I have worked in licensing that long!

In the current market, The Beatles is firmly established in the licensing market. Core areas of activity include apparel, with the full spectrum ranging from deals with fashion retailers like Next through to more specialist suppliers like Spike Leisurewear, who specialise in supplying independent stores, tourist outlets and heritage sites.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

In The Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool, Spike supply to a lot of the gift shops that celebrate The Beatles in a city that is very proud of the Fab Four. Interestingly, having an official licensee like Spike who supply smaller outlets is worthwhile revenue-wise, but it’s also a way of policing the marketplace. Having official suppliers in place who are happy to supply independents helps close the opportunity for unlicensed products to be supplied. In the world of music licensing this is very important.

I also read this week that one of The Beatles licensees Hornby have been nominated for a Licensing International Award for their Beatles Eurostar Yellow Submarine Model Train Set. This is a great example of how music brands like The Beatles are now having an impact outside of traditional areas like apparel. It also highlights how by working with specialists like Hornby can help brands reach new consumers.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

A key challenge when licensing a classic brand like The Beatles is keeping product authentic and developing products that fans will buy into. It would be easy to lose focus and engage with opportunities in an unstructured way. An often overlooked skill in licensing is knowing when to say no.

A further challenge is a design one. I imagine working with a band brand like The Beatles presents some challenges with regards to the availability of artwork and reference material. Here it’s important to work with licensees who have strong design capabilities and can contribute ideas design-wise. The Hornby product is a good example of this, as is The Beatles’ partnership with Happy Socks.

Happy Socks created a sock collection that features classic Beatles works like Yellow Submarine in a fresh design style, utilising assets from the animated film.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Other bands that are gaining a strong profile in licensing include The Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones Lips design device is now a fashion icon and features on a range of apparel. It has become a classic licensed design. A measure of how things have changed in the music licensing category is that retailers such as M&S now stock Rolling Stones t-shirts.

One feature here is that the design is refreshed with different colourways and treatments so that a range of retailers and licensees can get involved and differentiate their products to an extent.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Specialist licensed apparel e -commerce retailer Truffleshuffle is a good benchmark for the growing relevance of music in licensing. They have a dedicated section on their site for music as a genre alongside other categories like movies, cartoons and gaming.

The bulk of Truffleshuffle’s products are apparel and accessories, but there are other lines such as jigsaws and fridge magnets, tapping into the demand for music related product. Featured bands include the likes of Oasis, Nirvana, The Cure, Queen and Led Zeppelin. Design-wise a lot of products are centred on band logos, idents and names, but increasingly other design options and sources are being pursued including photography and old tour posters.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

It’s difficult to gauge at what point a band becomes a brand in licensing terms and what factors are influencing this. I am guessing there are lots of factors at play, ranging from the band’s exposure through touring and record releases to other factors like being featured in films either as the ‘stars’ of biopics or as featured music artists on a soundtrack.

Seemingly the consumers buying into this merchandise aren’t simply the bands’ original fanbase; younger consumers are buying into these band brands for their own reasons. Undoubtedly a big motivator are fashion trends and how products like t-shirts have been positioned in the market. Another factor that may have spurred things on is the growing popularity of vinyl. Music lovers are buying into vinyl again and this may have helped younger consumers connect with older bands.

A further measure of the fact that music is now a well-established part of the licensing mix is the fact that organisations such as the Royal Mint and the Royal Mail have tapped into the genre to create new products and collections. The Royal Mint have established a regular series of music themed releases under a Music Legends banner. These have included The Who, Queen, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Elsewhere, the Royal Mail recently issued a stamp collection to celebrate Paul McCartney’s life and achievements. Previously they have developed collections celebrating Queen and David Bowie.

Organisations such as the Royal Mail and the Royal Mint select the licences they work with very carefully and the chosen brands have to fit a set criteria. They also have to hold strong commercial appeal. Being part of licensing programmes like these is a measure of how mainstream music is in licensing terms now, but also how much commercial credibility the bands have. This will filter through to other categories of licensing.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Music licensing also seems to create an impact in product categories that have traditionally used licensing sparingly. This is an indication of the unique appeal and status of band brands. Bands can motivate consumers in ways other licensed properties can’t. There is a strong emotional connection to bands, their music and the lifestyle around them coupled with the memories they evoke.

A good example of this breakthrough ability is to be found in the brewing sector. Brewing firm Robinsons have developed a range of Iron Maiden beers that have become a success in retail and in the pub trade. These include Trooper IPA. Another brewer, Camerons, has developed a range of Motorhead beers.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

In both cases, the breweries have tapped into key parts of the band’s design identity and used these to good effect on their products. This type of licensing would not suit all bands, but it fits the profile of these two acts. In turn, the beers have inspired a range of ancillary products including Beer Buddies wall mounted bottle openers.

It will be interesting to see if this licensing trend continues to grow and flourish. Given the longevity of band brands like The Beatles, there is every reason to believe it will. The challenge will be keeping things fresh from a design perspective and also engaging new generations of consumers. Here it will be important to manage the licensing programmes well, with a focus on doing the right thing in the right way.

I look forward to seeing what my great-niece will be wearing on her fourth birthday!

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