The Brand Radar: The perks – and potential pitfalls – of personality licensing

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at the rise and rise of personality-based licensing – and why it’s a route worth navigating carefully.

From a research perspective, brand licensing can be a little bit frustrating at times. There isn’t a lot of ‘go to’ research available – nor an industry standard reference point that is acknowledged as a research benchmark.

As an industry we often rely on hunch, instinct and trend watching. With all three in mind, my feeling is that there has been a rise in the use of brand personalities by licensees, retailers and manufacturers recently.

Deals featuring personalities can range from endorsements through to fully developed product ranges, and in-between are activities such as influencer campaigns. For brands, working with well-known personalities can accelerate the product development process, enhance their credibility in a category and – in the fractured modern media market – help them find an audience.

While there seems to be more activity in this sector at the moment, it’s by no means a new thing. A quick scan of supermarket shelves shows this… Brands marketed under names such as Ainsley Harriott, Lloyd Grossman and Paul Newman all remain on shelf many years after their initial launch. The fact that these products are still on shelf points to the longevity that a deal with a personality can deliver manufacturers.

That said, manufacturers have to tread carefully when working with personalities. Popularity can wane and the brand fit can shift over time. For example, a personality’s career path can change and what they may have focused on in their career can change… There can be serious ramifications when things go wrong.

The Sunday Times recently reported that investors in the sportswear firm Adidas are suing the company because of its alleged failure to disclose the risks associated with Adidas’ partnership with Kanye West. Adidas ended their partnership with Kanye West in October following antisemitic remarks that West was reported to have made. The investors are alleging that Adidas should have been aware of the risks associated with a partnership with the musician.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, Start Licensing

The Sunday Times report that Adidas were left with a substantial amount of unsold stock of ‘Yeezy’ trainers which will impact the company’s profits this year. The inference here is that companies need to do their due diligence before entering into partnerships with personalities. Arguably due diligence can only go so far as personalities are people and, as we all know, people change. From a reputational point of view, it only takes one moment to change the public’s perception of a celebrity. In the modern age where there are more citizen reporters, it’s very hard to keep indiscretions out of the public domain.

Another well-known personality brand with mixed fortunes in the brand licensing world is Jamie Oliver. Jamie Oliver recently appointed Kevin Styles to be the new Chief Executive for the Jamie Oliver Group. In press stories announcing Styles’ appointment, it was also reported that the Jamie Oliver Group have signed a lease on a restaurant site in central London and are due to open a branded restaurant later in the year.

This follows on the collapse of the Jamie’s Italian restaurant chain back in May 2019. This collapse was widely reported and very visible. At its peak, Jamie’s Italian had 36 sites, many of which were located in city centres. After the restaurant chain closed, many of the sites sat empty but still had their original signage – a visible reminder of the fact that things can go wrong for personalities when they put their name to commercial ventures.

Jamie Oliver spoke publicly about the collapse of the restaurant chain at the time. It was widely reported that he tried hard to save the restaurant chain financially, but nevertheless its closure would have had created some negativity around his brand. That said, the Jamie Oliver brand has ridden out the storm and remains one of the most prominent personality brands in the market. Deals with the likes of Tefal have been very successful, while he remains one of the UK’s most successful authors and has a number of successful FMCG lines in distribution.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, Start Licensing

Styles’ appointment as CEO will no doubt be a catalyst for further developments. In recent interviews, it seems that he will be taking a focused approach to building the Jamie Oliver brand further. This suggests that there will be a considered approach to licensing and partnerships. A key to Jamie Oliver’s appeal and success is his personality, his connection with consumers and the passion for his subject. Arguably this is what commercial partners are seeking to tap into.

Given Jamie Oliver is reported to have 32 million followers on social media and 5.8 million subscribers on YouTube, he has a substantial consumer following he can ‘influence’. As noted earlier, in a media marketplace that’s more fragmented, a personality with an audience is a valuable commodity.

The power of personality in licensing was further emphasised at the recent Brand and Lifestyle Licensing Awards – ‘The Bellas’. Personality driven licensing campaigns and products featured throughout the Awards nominations, including the likes of John Whaite, Amy Winehouse, Billie Faiers and Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen.

There were also nominations for designers who have developed lifestyle-led brands focused on their design work, such as Eleanor Bowmer, Sara Miller and Emma Bridgewater. Nadiya Hussain was recognised with an award for her cookware and bakeware range from Prestige. Prestige picked up the award for Best Brand Licensed Homewares, Kitchen and Tabletop Product or Range.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, Start Licensing

Further recognition for the rise of this kind of licensing was provided by the fact that there is a dedicated award for Best Licensed Fashion or Talent brand – finalists included Amy Winehouse, Eleanor Bowmer and Alice Temperley. The award went to designer Sara Miller; itself a recognition that design and personality can be intertwined in licensing.

Indeed, The Bellas was kicked off with a talk from influencers The Style Sisters who are developing a licensing programme with agency Lisle Licensing. They have partnerships with licensees such as Poetic Brands, Galerie Wallcoverings and Turner Bianca. Their attendance at the event underpins how personalities have recognised that licensing and licensees can give them a rapid route to market that they can’t find independently.

The power of influencers in selling product cannot be underestimated. Trade magazine The Grocer recently reported on the soft drinks brand Prime in a special report on Soft Drinks. Prime’s founders are YouTubers KSI and Logan Paul. The Grocer reported that “two YouTubers with zero experience in soft drinks are responsible for the industry’s biggest ever launch.” Prime’s launch was so successful that Asda rationed sales of the product last year. KSI and Logan Paul have harnessed their online reach and influence effectively to drive sales. This is a measure of how the influence and endorsement of celebrities can drive sales.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, Start Licensing

Interestingly, it’s not uncommon these days to see celebrities becoming investors in new brands in categories like FMCG. Their involvement in new launches can help build consumer confidence, raise awareness and put new brands on the retail radar. Cano Water recently secured multi-million pound funding from investors including comedian Ricky Gervais. In this case, it may be that Gervais liked Cano Water’s approach to recycling. Celebrity endorsements of this kind are welcome and useful calling cards for brands.

Other personalities who are currently appearing on a shelf near you include Paul Hollywood, who has a range of ‘ready to bake’ products. The Hairy Bikers are being used by Knorr to promote their range of stock pots while TV chef Monica Galetti is promoting Scotch whisky The Singleton in Waitrose.

Further to this, chefs are working with retailers in a range of ways. For example, Waitrose have a cookery school which features a number of well-known chefs regularly. The chefs contribute to podcasts, promotions and features in the Waitrose newspaper. This level of involvement creates consumer engagement and also builds confidence among consumers. This in turn encourages them to try new ingredients and recipes.

Celebrities aren’t just featuring in the product aisles these days. Companies like P&O Cruises use celebrities on board their cruise ships to enhance their entertainment offering. Recently TV talent including Jay Blades, Helen Skelton and Ross Kemp featured in P&O’s advertising, and it’s not uncommon to see celebrities undertaking theatre tours generally in ‘An Audience With’ style formats.

It’s also possible to see brand personalities featuring in other categories. A great example of this is in the seed category in the gardening market, a category that often features well known gardeners, while TV naturalist Simon King has a range of products including nest boxes and bird baths.

The Brand Radar, Ian Downes, Start Licensing

One common bond here is that all the featured personalities are category experts and, as such, help manufacturers deliver a clear message in categories that can be dominated by well established brands. Celebrities can also help bring in new consumers to a category and can be particularly useful in reaching younger consumers.

An interesting use of a personality in product development recently has been the plethora of products marking the Coronation of King Charles III. These commemorative products focus on the King and cover a range of categories, including high end items such as coins. Rosland Gold have worked with the Tristan Da Cunha mint to develop gold proof coins, sovereign sets and silver coins.

Brand personalities can be strong drivers of sales for high end or limited edition products. Indeed the Royal Mint and the Royal Mail have dipped into this pool a lot recently, specifically taking rights from the music world including Queen, Rolling Stones and Elton John to develop collectors’ products. In the world of pop culture and fan merchandise, it is not uncommon to see special edition products developed with talent from cult films and TV programmes. Indeed talent from these kind of films and programmes often appear at conventions, at signings and develop their own tours.

It’s clear that personality brands are a growing feature in the licensing market. It doesn’t appear to be a passing fad, indeed, on the contrary – it seems to be a category of licensing that will become more prominent in the market. Consumers, licensees and retailers are growing to trust this kind of licensing and it’s becoming a regular feature in the marketplace. It’s a sector which is maturing, but one where there are lessons to be learned – good and bad – from recent campaigns.

Personalities can be proactive partners that make a really positive contribution to a product, including within the NPD process, but it’s a licensing route that needs to be navigated carefully. In this category of licensing – even more than others – there needs to be thought to risk management and detailed research into the opportunity. The rewards can be high but there are also risks.

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