The Brand Radar: The Snowman, Winkworth Arboretum and fresh approaches to ‘live licensing’

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at the world of experiential brand extensions, from art trails and charity walks to light shows and concerts.

When I first started working in licensing some 30 years ago, licensing life was much more predictable.

Licensee lists which outline which manufacturers were using a particular IP were remarkably similar, with the same companies and categories cropping up. Activity centred on core categories such as clothing, giftware, confectionery, toys, games and posters. There were stalwart licensees who were the go-to companies for certain categories and who generally dominated them.

There was also a certain predictability about retail uptake and coverage. In those days Woolworths was a leading player and you could generally have a second parallel licensing programme operating exclusively in M&S, who were big supporters of licensed products at the time.

That’s not to say that there was less creativity and commitment to new business development 30 years ago but we tended to see more formulaic licensing programmes. One particularly eye-catching deal around that time – and one that took licensing into new areas – was a partnership between Glasgow city council and Mr Men.

Glasgow used Mr Happy to promote the city to visitors and businesses under the banner Glasgow Smiles Better. Shuttle forward 30 years and one thing I have noticed when looking into licensing programmes today is that there’s much more diversity in terms of sectors that are using licensing.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar, The Snowman
One example of this is the proliferation of ‘collaborations’ in the apparel category. This has propelled licensing into new retail channels and opened up new consumer relationships. Of course there could be a debate around the long-term impact of some of these ‘collabs’ but they have certainly helped to disrupt the traditional licensing model.

Beyond this, areas of licensing activations and partnerships that seem to be gaining momentum are live events and marketing-driven partnerships, including ones linked to charities. As we approach the Christmas period there are a number of interesting examples of this kind in the market, illustrating how IP is being used in increasingly creative ways.

One side bar here is that the traditional retail channels that licensing was featured in are under pressure. In broad terms, it’s more difficult to get product on shelf. Opportunities that allow IP owners to deliver their IP and associated products outside cluttered and congested traditional channels are increasingly welcome.

On this, there are currently a number of noteworthy examples in the live events arena which really highlight the progress made with the creative use of IP.

Penguin Ventures’ The Snowman is currently appearing at Winkworth Arboretum, a National Trust property. Winkworth Arboretum are hosting a Snowman sculpture trail curated by public art experts Wild in Art. There are 12 Snowman sculptures placed around Winkworth that relate to the twelve days of Christmas. There are also other attractions such as carousel rides running at the same time and the art trail is included in the normal cost of entry to the venue.

I am sure the National Trust are using The Snowman to attract in more family groups and to help keep Winkworth on the map during a busy social period. Indeed, the event is described as Walking with The Snowman, which links in well to the National Trust’s position as curators of sites people can use for exercise and well-being.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar, The Snowman
For Penguin Ventures, activities like this have a commercial benefit but of course also help reinforce the link between The Snowman and Christmas. Rather like the Snowman stage show, I am sure there is an ambition to establish The Snowman 12 Days of Christmas trail as a ‘family’ Christmas tradition.

The Snowman and its companion property, The Snowdog, also have a partnership with the charity Support Dogs. Working in tandem with publishers Puffin, educational and fundraising resources have been created featuring the characters. This sort of partnership helps in building a brand and consumer relationships, while working with well-known brands helps charities raise their profile and amplify their messaging.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar, The Snowman
Another good example of a charity working with an IP owner around fundraising and campaigning is BRAKE’s use of Shaun the Sheep and Timmy Time. BRAKE ­­– the road safety charity – uses these characters around their Road Safety week campaign which is run in parallel with schools. In this context, the characters help deliver an important message, give the campaign a visual identity and help engage children in the campaign.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar, The Snowman
There are also a few Christmas-related activities featuring IP that demonstrate how licensing is shifting and new opportunities are emerging. One such example is Longleat’s use of The Wondrous Worlds of Roald Dahl within their Festival of Light event.

Well known characters such as Matilda, The Twits and Fantastic Mr Fox feature at the event along with other highlights such as Willy Wonka standing outside his factory gates and a five-metre tall BFG on show. In this context, the Roald Dahl IP has added a new dynamic to a long-standing attraction and event giving consumers a new reason to visit.

Whilst I haven’t seen it myself, I am sure there is plenty of Roald Dahl merchandise on sale in the Longleat gift shop underlining how these kinds of activations open up new retail opportunities for brand owners. They are also great for fans, providing a unique way of interacting with much loved characters.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar, The Snowman
Given the changes in broadcast and cinema-going, it’s increasingly difficult to build and maintain a relationship with consumers by just relying on these platforms. Events and experiences provide a valuable link to consumers and are a way of cementing consumer relationships in a cluttered media world.

It’s also interesting to note how IP owners are working creatively in this space to build new experiences. Aardman are working with Carrot Productions and their IP Shaun the Sheep and Wallace & Gromit to develop music concerts that are linked to film screenings. Carrot Productions have developed a live format that fuses film screenings with orchestral performances delivered in a fun and immersive way.

Recently, Carrot Productions premiered Shaun the Sheep: A Flight Before Christmas, a concert which sees Aardman’s 2021 festive special screened with a live orchestra accompaniment. This production will roll out to more venues in 2023.

A further example of innovation in this sector also comes from Aardman, with its partnership with the Royal Albert Hall. The Royal Albert Hall have worked with Aardman to create a special animated short entitled Fleece Navidad. The film is being released to help the Royal Albert Hall celebrate their first full Christmas season since before Lockdown, and you can watch it below:

The specially commissioned film features nods to highlights from the Royal Albert Hall’s seasonal programme and is a genuinely bespoke piece of work. It’s a really good example of how IP owners –especially those who are directly involved in the creative process – can work in a custom way with clients and partners. This kind of collaboration opens up a lot of opportunities for both partners and it is unique content which creates marketing momentum.

There have been some other noteworthy examples of ‘live licensing’ this year which underline the creative possibilities that well known IP delivers. For example, Horrible Histories features on a River Thames sightseeing cruise while Doctor Who has been used to create an immersive experience. New technology will open up fresh opportunities for licensing to feature in the live arena and to add value in the marketplace.

Companies like Aardman are investing in augmented reality to enhance their offering and to stretch their IP further. The factor that ties my early licensing experiences together with my contemporary ones is the value of a well-established IP and the potential it brings third parties.

Successful licensing campaigns and products were always built on well-loved and carefully curated IP being used in a responsible way, with care taken on design, product development and consumer experience. The big change over the years is that the opportunities for licensing are more myriad now…

IP owners have to be open to new opportunities emerging beyond the traditional licensing heartlands. I am looking forward to seeing how licensing embraces these new opportunities.

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