The Brand Radar: Woodmansterne, Tom Gates and how book brands thrive in the greetings cards space

Fresh from a trip to PG Live, Start Licensing’s Ian Downes looks at the opportunities for brands to thrive in the greetings cards space.

This week I felt a sense of progress in my business and the licensing business in general as I attended my first ‘live’ tradeshow for some time.

I visited Progressive Greetings Live at the Business Design Centre in Islington. This was the first trade show I have attended since February 2020. While Zoom and Teams have helped us get through recent times, it was refreshing to be able to attend a real-world show and to re-join the licensing network. There has been a strong connection between licensing and greetings cards for many years and PG Live has always been a very worthwhile show to attend. It creates a good forum for licensing, and tradeshows are a valuable part of the licensing business.

The licensing and greetings cards industries have generally operated in two distinct ways. On the one hand, rights have flowed from card companies into the licensing market. Two great examples of this are the Forever Friends and Me To You properties. Both started life as card ranges and have managed to jump into other product categories through licensing.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Greetings cards are a great source of design artwork for licensing and they tend to have broad and highly visible retail distribution. They engender a lot of consumer loyalty and interaction. As a starting point for licensing programmes, they can have a head-start as there is retail distribution in place and licensees can develop complementary products such as stationery, ceramics, and other giftware. Licensing in this context can help retailers build ranges of product.

There also tends to be a lot of key messages and sentiment behind greetings card ranges which helps in other licensing categories, such as apparel and book publishing. Greeting card brands are content rich properties which helps in sustaining a licensing programme. In some ways, it’s surprising that more best-selling card ranges don’t cross over into licensing.

The other side of the licensing relationship in the greetings card industry is the way that card companies use licensing and licences to create ranges. Licensing is an important source for greeting card developments. There are several specialist licensee companies who use licensing for almost their entire output, such as Hype and Danilo. Giants of the card industry – such as Hallmark – use licensing as well. It should also be remembered that a lot of artwork used by greetings card companies is licensed from artists and illustrators.

Indeed, PG Live helped promote licensing conversations by adding a note in the show directory to flag up exhibitors who are licensing friendly – either receptive to buying licences or having card designs that they would be happy to license out to other categories. Companies like Danilo and Hype dip into licensing across a lot of genres and age groups. For example, Danilo has a healthy selection of licensed cards targeting younger consumers using popular TV shows, while Hype use brands such as The Beatles to reach older consumers.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

For card companies, there is a balancing act to be achieved in creating greetings cards that work well in the market, are on trend and are engaging design-wise, whilst working with a rightsholder. There can be design challenges on both sides.

Card companies can be design hungry and use up a lot of design work, not least as they seek to keep ranges refreshed. Sometimes style guide artwork supplied by licensors may not fit the greetings card market. A good t-shirt design may not be a good greetings card design. But, of course, a successful licensed card range can be rewarding financially for the rights owner and can create significant visibility at retail – so it is a product category that gets a good deal of focus from IP owners. It can be an important component of a licensing programme.

There were numerous examples of licensed card ranges at PG Live, but one range that caught my attention in particular was Woodmansterne’s Tom Gates card range; a collection that was being launched at PG Live.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates greetings cards are based on a successful book series by Liz Pichon. Liz Pichon writes and illustrates the books. Her illustrations have a very distinctive style and have no doubt been a major contributor to the book’s success. They are also great inspiration and design resource for licensing.

The series is reported to have sold 11 million books worldwide and is being developed as a TV series by Sky Kids. Woodmansterne have developed a range of eight cards described as everyday cards featuring illustrations from the books and developed in keeping with the brand tone. The cards include messages such as The Best Birthday Card Ever and Hope Your Birthday Rocks, coupled with little asides that help maintain the brand personality well.

Woodmansterne have also added some activities to the cards giving them an extended life and each card includes a bookmark. Woodmansterne have had success before with book-based properties, so they have a sense that this kind of licence works well in their category. Woodmansterne have clearly spent a lot of time in getting these cards right from a design, message and added value perspective.

Licensing is also a new venture for Liz Pichon and it is clearly something that has been undertaken with care. The relationship between an author and their readers is a special one. I am sure Liz Pichon wants to ensure that the licensing programme is well received by her readers and Tom Gates’ fans. The programme must fit with the books but also enhance the reading experience.

Ian Downes, The Brand Radar

Book brands are naturals for greetings cards, as long as there is plenty of artwork to use and develop from. One upside of licensing from the book world is that there is ready made distribution into bookshops and there’s a logic in buying cards to use alongside book gifting. Of course, there’s also scope for the book publisher to build new distribution on the back of card sales – it may open up new retail sales opportunities for books.

It will be interesting to see how this range develops and succeeds at retail. Woodmansterne are a safe pair of hands and an experienced licensee. They have a real commitment to design and great distribution. They use licensing sparingly but when they do take licences, they seem to get things right and build successful programmes. Clearly Tom Gates is a brand with lots of momentum and awareness, but it also seems to be one that has a good supply of artwork that will ensure there is scope for regular design refreshment.

PG Live was a great place to launch the range and of course, even more so that retail buyers were able to see the range in person. It will be interesting to see if this range encourages more authors and illustrators to think about licensing as a way of building equity in their book brand.

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