The Giftware Association’s Sarah Ward on creativity, innovation and opportunities for brands

The Giftware Association CEO Sarah Ward discusses the licensing industry’s evolving relationship with gifts – and what we should expect from the upcoming Gift of the Year Awards.

Sarah – it’s great to connect. To kick us off, how did you find yourself in the gift business? What was your route in?
I have been in retail since I left school at 18. I had a rapid rise to store manager at Next, area manager for Arcadia and then Head of Retail in my twenties before moving into giftware. Most people in the industry will remember me from heading up Penny Kennedy and taking that business to a multi-million-pound turnover.

In my role at Penny Kennedy, I knew The Giftware Association well and am passionate about the industry. My whole working life has been in retail, wholesale and gifting, so when The GA approached me to take over the Association as CEO, I knew it was the right move for me to make. I knew I could make a real difference.

The Giftware Association, Sarah Ward

For anyone new to The Giftware Association, what are some of the initiatives you drive?
What makes our association unique is our role in being the voice for our industry at the highest level of decision making. We are change-makers and when our industry is facing more challenges than ever before, there has never been a more vital time for an association like ours.

Our team spend a good portion of the year visiting every appropriate trade show in the country, speaking to our members, understanding what their needs are, offering advice and encouraging them to take on some of the further retail opportunities provided by the organisation. We exist first and foremost for our members, providing resource, advice, and connectivity so that, no matter what we face in the future, we not only survive but thrive.

We have been on the front line of retail now for over 75 years and totally understand the challenges faced by our members. The need to be constantly innovative, to keep customers coming back and attract new customers in the process is clearly not as easy as it sounds. That’s why collaboration and education are key – driven through organisations such as ours, determined to provide opportunities for learning and inspiration via our seminars, workshops and blogs and opportunities to meet buyers and understand market trends via our Meet the Buyer events.

Now more than ever, we recognise how vital it is for us to engage, support and drive growth in the industry we care so passionately about.

Let’s talk about licensing. How has this industry’s relationship with brands evolved over the years? Do you see an influx of fresh brands getting into giftware?
The giftware industry’s relationship with licensing brands continues to evolve and play a huge part in the growth and resilience of the industry. Indeed, developing a branded licensing portfolio can be an excellent way of suppliers and manufacturers tapping into changing consumer demands.

There is an art to making the most of a licence however, and consumers are increasingly more selective about the quality and communication of that brand partnership. Brand values remain at the heart of any success in this field. In many ways, this is why those managing licenses often find it hard to find the right brands to work with.

The Giftware Association, Sarah Ward

What do you think is the appeal of getting into licensing for giftware firms and retailers?
Independents absolutely recognise the value of household brand names and know that they will be a draw for customers. Any large brands will be successful in an independent as there is less risk.

A lot of our members want to get into licensing to boost their brand and they know that it will be licensed across different brands so will have a stronger presence in the industry.

The Giftware Association, Sarah Ward

Are there any specific areas within the gift space you’ve seen have real success with brands?
Stationery remains one of the most popular sectors for branded licences, so everything from notebooks and notepads to pens and pencils. And, with the rise of the wellness trends, lifestyle gifts like water bottles are also very popular.

Toys and licensing also go hand in hand, from big movie tie-ins to popular TV shows and children’s series; these will always be popular for retailers following media trends.

The Giftware Association, Sarah Ward

How important is great design when it comes to crafting successful licensed giftware lines?
A gift, in concept, is reciprocal. The gift of design is as well. I have seen many design-led gifts – licensed or otherwise – that have made a real impact on the industry, triggering trends, changing perceptions and delivering joy.

As I have discussed, consumers are increasingly more selective about the quality and communication of a brand partnership; if consumers are going to spend money, they demand good design, quality craftsmanship and a story that they connect with. So yes, in answer to your question, great design is hugely important when it comes to crafting successful licensed giftware lines.

And on that, are there any recent launches that you think sum up how creative design can be in this sector?
Pencil & TIE are a stand-out company for us currently; a recent finalist in the License This competition, and a shortlisted company for Gift of the Year. Their Big Eyes Bags have clean design that stands out, as well as being super functional. I think brands that think outside the box like this really capture the essence of good design and reflect the innovation and creativity of our industry.

The Giftware Association, Sarah Ward

Great example. We’ve covered quite a few left-field gift launches recently… Things like Campbell’s launching soup-scented candles. Do you think one of the gift space’s biggest strengths is that it gives brands the opportunity to be playful?
Yes, I would agree with this. Another great brand that has captured people’s hearts by being playful with good design is Marmite. Their early advertising with their Love / Hate campaigns played on people’s emotions and got them talking about a product that they didn’t even like. But it’s because Marmite come across as a playful brand and especially with the different product launches across the gift sector with jigsaws, mugs, and other kitchen items, though I am yet to see a Marmite scented candle!

Give it time!
Ha! Being playful and creative is what our industry is all about! We are so vibrant and forward thinking; it’s a massive strength. You only need to look at other industries, like the luxury jewellery market, and although there’s a huge amount of creativity and talent that go into the pieces and designs, they tend to keep within the lines. The home and gift industry likes to bend those lines.

The Giftware Association, Sarah Ward

The pursuit of joy is also a key consumer trend in 2022/23. It’s been a rough couple of years for us all, not just in retail, so a key factor for consumers is products and retail experiences that provide joy. Lots of brands, therefore, are recognising the importance of uplifting people either through the products, the social media, or the physical retail experience.

It’s a great point. Now, your Gift of the Year Awards are only a few weeks away, and there are some brilliantly creative finalists in the Branded Gift category… TfL, Battersea, Peter Rabbit, Wetland Wildlife – a really eclectic mix of IP! Does this category highlight how exciting – and varied – the opportunities are for brands to embrace gifts?
It really does, and it’s great to see suppliers that primarily focus on gifts and give those gifts a branded feel. Clockwork Soldier, for example, have adapted a lot of their products to be licensed for museums and it’s great they are now working with wildlife charities and offering an educational aspect to their gifts.

The Giftware Association, Sarah Ward

A lot of creativity goes into a product and it’s not always transferable to branded products, so to see companies like Gibsons create a London Underground range including puzzles and quizzes – and then a separate company like Just Trade creating knitted tubes and the famous red London buses for the same IP – is brilliant and really shows the creativity of our sector.

The Giftware Association, Sarah Ward

Are there any sectors within the giftware industry that you feel more brands could be getting involved in?
Currently we are seeing a lot of companies take their first steps into the world of sustainability and this is great to see. We don’t like to talk about sustainability as a passing trend as it’s something that all business should be placing at the heart of their product development and applying to their product. Sustainability is one of the fastest growing categories in our Gift of the Year competition, which proves it’s growing and here to stay.

In terms of brands getting involved in giftware, I think the homeware sector has a lot of scope. Having recently seen Anglepoise’s National Trust range, there are some great avenues and opportunities for brands to research and I think a lot of creative partnerships can be created this way. There’s a definite space in the home for more well-designed licensed products.

The Giftware Association, Sarah Ward

For anyone wanting to ensure they don’t miss the winners of this year’s awards, what form is it taking this year? And how can people come along?
Marking a significant unified step forward for the UK gift industry, the GA’s Gift of the Year awards and The Greats gift retailer awards are to join forces, with the winners of both awards programmes to be announced at a shared lavish black tie evening event on Thursday May 12th 2022, held at the Royal Lancaster Hotel in London. I can’t wait!

The two award programmes will see both gift product excellence and retail prowess recognised and rewarded at an awards event to make the whole industry proud, attended by hundreds of gift suppliers and retailers.

The ownership and running of the Gift of the Year product awards, now in their 45th year, will remain under the stewardship of the Giftware Association while The Greats gift retailer awards, now in their 20th year, will continue to be wholly owned and run by Max Publishing, publishers of Progressive Gifts & Home magazine and

Both parties will work closely together to create an enjoyable and uplifting evening event that will truly celebrate the industry’s achievements, both on the product and retailing fronts.

Tickets for The Gift Awards can be booked using the link here or on the website or by contacting our awards’ organiser – Createvents. Details here –

Beautifully plugged! Sarah, this has been fun and insightful, a huge thanks again for taking the time. And I look forward to seeing who triumphs at the Gift of the Year Awards!

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