“The product has to be the hero”: Asembl’s Justin Watson on food brand innovation

Asembl MD Justin Watson discusses his licensing education, the Australian market and Violet Crumble cakes.

Justin, it’s great to connect. Most people we speak with say they fell into the licensing space. How did you find yourself working with brands?
When I graduated from college, I was interviewing for various marketing roles and I landed a role with Gaffney International. Gaffney International was managing all of the major entertainment brands, including Star Wars, Sesame Street, The Wiggles and Care Bears, as well as General Motors.

I had no idea what licensing was but I soon found out as I went through the ‘Fred Gaffney University of Licensing’. I went on to build up the corporate brand division and then moved to the US to head global marketing for Mighty Fine in LA.

You’re now the Managing Director at Asembl. For anyone new to the agency, talk us through what you guys do and the kinds of brands you represent?
Asembl is a specialist brand extension agency focused on Design, Lifestyle and FMCG brands. We work with brands including Coca-Cola, Unilever, Perfetti, Diageo and Shell for Australia and New Zealand. Plus, we have a growing design portfolio we are developing globally, including whimsical illustrator Fleur Harris, surface textile designer Ellie Whittaker and artist Jake Ross.

“Where an entertainment brand has content as its core driver, our clients have a core product or flavour.”

Is there a recent deal we can discuss that you feel typifies your approach?
We do a lot of work in food and one of the partnerships I love is with an iconic Australian chocolate bar we represent called Violet Crumble – it’s honeycomb coated in milk chocolate. Part of our strategy for Violet Crumble is to create smaller more bespoke partnerships which generate a lot of media buzz and general excitement for the brand.

We recently partnered with Tokyo Lamington, a high-end baker that makes Australia’s famous lamington cakes. The Violet Crumble edition sold out in one hour and there was a lot of media attention, as well as so much positive consumer sentiment for the brand and the collaboration. Based off this success, we have some other new food categories launching at grocery in the near future for Violet Crumble.

Justin Watson, Asembl

You look after lots of FMCG and lifestyle brands, which don’t necessarily have characters or films to help dictate which categories might ‘make sense’ when it comes to licensing. With that in mind, what’s your approach to crafting brand extensions for these kinds of IP?
Asembl does manage a lot of FMCG, Design and Lifestyle brands; where an entertainment brand has content as its core driver, our clients have a core product or flavour. So, we hone in on those familiar flavours or ingredients, along with how consumers are interacting with those brands… Maybe they are already cooking or baking with the core ingredient.

Have you got any recent examples of brand extensions for an FMCG client that shows how creative you can be with these kinds of brands?
Sometimes we are working with brands which already have a range of successfully launched categories globally. However, for some brands, we are building from the ground up.

Our work with Unilever / Streets / Walls is a great example of a client who is very well established in licensing globally for their global brands. Their local Australian brands however hadn’t been licensed, yet they had so much love and affinity from consumers. The Asembl team built style guides and branding guidelines which included artist interpretations of these much-loved Aussie iconic ice creams.

The program has been very successful across all tiers of retail from boutique, specialty to more volume retailers across food and non-food categories. We can see a direct positive correlation between licensed product launches and core ice cream sales.

Justin Watson, Asembl

How important is design to the success of a brand extension? Is a licensee’s approach to design a factor in who you look to for brand partnerships?
The product has to be the hero and the licensed brand is what makes it extra special or unique, but the base product has to have innovation and quality. Just adding a flavour into something doesn’t make a product great.

For readers outside of Australia, is there anything unique to the Australian market when it comes to looking at how licensors can secure successful brand extensions in the region?
We have opposite seasons to the Northern Hemisphere, and we do adopt a more relaxed fashion style. From a food perspective, almost 90% of fresh foods are produced locally and food manufacturing represents 32% of total manufacturing – so Australian Made is very important. And right now, iconic Australian brands and flavours are following the global nostalgia wave.

“Right now, iconic Australian brands and flavours are following the global nostalgia wave.”

Recently we’re covering lots of brand extensions in the live experiences, hospitality and NFT spaces. What sectors are exciting you at the moment? Where do you see some neat opportunities?
NFTs and the digital metaverse is probably the most interesting, but it’s a bit like the wild west right now. The interesting opportunity is how NFTs and the metaverse intersect with the physical product and retail world. The recent acquisition by Nike of RTFKT is super interesting and very well done.

Justin, this has been great. Thanks for taking the time. I have one last question: how do you fuel your creativity?
Our amazing clients are always a great source of creativity, but we look at all sectors and industries to gain inspiration and ideas.

Good answer! Thanks again; let’s tie-in again soon.

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