The Brand Radar: The Ashmolean Museum, Conway Stewart and the potential of museum collections

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at how museums are being more and more proactive when it comes to brand extensions, focusing on a partnership between The Ashmolean Museum and Conway Stewart.

One of the challenges facing rightsholders when entering the licensing market is to stand out, develop momentum and gain traction in the market. Licensing is an increasingly crowded and competitive marketplace.

Certain categories of licensing have a ready-made licensing network to plug into. Heritage licensing is one of those and a number of the brands who are operating successfully in this category share common licensees. These licensees have been great supporters of the heritage category and have helped the category grow. Very capable licensees such as King & McGaw, Flametree Publishing and Star Editions are frequent flyers heritage-wise. Because of this, they have to take a measured approach to taking on new licences from the category.

Equally, rightsholders have to consider how they can differentiate themselves in the sector. One way of doing this is to supplement the core licensee base with licensing partnerships developed with companies who are less frequent users of licensing. This mixed economy approach can help deliver fresh creative thinking and open up new distribution opportunities.

One of Start Licensing’s clients is The Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean Museum is located in Oxford and is the University of Oxford’s Museum of Art and Archaeology. It first opened its doors in 1683 and was the world’s first public museum. It has a rich and diverse collection, and a healthy licensee list already – which includes companies like Flametree Publishing, Woodmansterne and Surface View.

The Ashmolean Museum
Since working with the Ashmolean, part of our role has been to find new partnerships and to establish The Ashmolean Museum as a brand in new categories. With this in mind, we have been working with the Ashmolean team on a range of new design work directly influenced by the museum’s collection. This has sparked some great conversations, including ones with apparel and home decor companies.

We have also taken a step back and tried to coordinate licensing opportunities with wider Museum activities, including exhibitions. Of course, in recent times, coordinating activity with public exhibitions has been very difficult, but things are changing and the Ashmolean is set to re-open on May 17th.

The Museum is also getting back on track with its exhibition programme. It’s worth noting that exhibitions are a vital part of the museum economy, with income derived from ticket and merchandise sales. They are also a vital part of museum’s publicity and marketing efforts.

The first exhibition that will be open to the public is a Pre-Raphaelites one due to open on May 18th. The exhibition will feature a range of artworks sourced largely from the Museum’s own collections. Thinking about the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition – and the associated publicity the exhibition will deliver – our thoughts turned to product opportunities.

The Ashmolean Museum
We approached a company called Conway Stewart to float the idea of a partnership with the Ashmolean. Conway Stewart are a British company who hand-make all of their pens in England with precious metals and featuring English hallmarks.

When we were able to, we invited Conway Stewart to visit the Museum. This was a very effective way of immersing them in the Museum’s culture and collection and fired up lots of creative thinking and ideas. Having the opportunity to develop a pen connected to a core element of the Museum’s collection was attractive to Conway Stewart, while knowing there was an exhibition on the horizon was a further spur to action.

Conway Stewart were attracted to the authenticity of the opportunity and the fact they could use original source material in their product development. Seeing elements of the collection in situ inspired their creative and commercial thinking.

Following a series of meetings conducted over Teams, a creative direction was agreed. Conway Stewart undertook to develop a series of pens in an ongoing collection. Each pen would be part of a limited edition of 200, and each would feature the title of Museum founder Elias Ashmole’s hand-written Statutes Orders and Rules of the Museum on the pen barrel.

The Ashmolean Museum
The first Ashmolean pen in the series – which is finished in Oxford Blue with a 9-carat gold trim – is a tribute to John Ruskin, a world-renowned writer, artist and philosopher. He is closely connected with Oxford and the Ashmolean. He studied as an undergraduate at Christ Church and went onto establish a drawing school in Oxford in 1871. The Ashmolean collection now holds a significant portion of Ruskin’s diverse collections, including works by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Conway Stewart’s pens are made to order and are packaged in a presentation box with a booklet about the Ashmolean, a copy of the Museum’s statutes Orders and Rules, a numbered certificate of authenticity, a bottle and cartridges of ink. The Ashmolean have promoted the pen via their social media platforms and in their members’ magazine, the Ashmolean. Conway Stewart are also promoting it to their database of pen collectors and advertising it in specialist publications.

The Ashmolean Museum
Working with Conway Stewart has opened up fresh distribution opportunities for the Ashmolean and created a platform for them to reach new consumers. The pen will also feature in the gift shop for the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition, providing Conway Stewart with a unique opportunity to reach a very targeted audience.

Conway Stewart are also looking at partnerships with the Guild of St George, a charity established by Ruskin in 1871 and the Isle of Man Post Office. The latter have launched a Pre -Raphaelites stamp issue to tie in with the Ashmolean’s exhibition.

In a fast-developing licensing category like heritage licensing, it is sensible and appropriate to work with expert licensees who are established in the category. However, it’s also important to establish alliances in new categories which provide fresh impetus.

Like all forms of licensing, it’s also sensible to cultivate partnerships that can work on a multi-partner level, particularly in regard to direct marketing and promotions. Joint initiatives and efforts can deliver stronger results.

Heritage brands are ones which are well suited to direct marketing, limited editions and products with original design. Museums like the Ashmolean have rich and varied collections which can be developed from a design perspective in focused ways that fit into specific product categories. Museums have recognised that they need to be proactive in the marketing of their collections in the licensing sector and are becoming ever more efficient at delivering targeted commercial opportunities inspired by their collections.

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