Tinderbox’s Dave Tovey on crafting creative collaborations for gaming brands like Xbox, Halo and Sea of Thieves

Dave Tovey – AVP of Brand Management and Head of Digital Representation at Beanstalk’s Tinderbox arm – discusses fandom, creativity and left-field licensing.

Dave, it’s always great to catch up. To start us off, how did you get into licensing?
I fell into it… Back in 2008, I had just finished Sixth Form, and I knew I wanted to work in the media but didn’t really know what that meant! I then stumbled across an opportunity at Entertainment Rights – some of you will remember that company! – working on their brands such as Postman Pat and Where’s Wally. I instantly knew I wanted to be in this industry, and I was lucky enough to land the role. I spent three great years there across multiple departments, and it really opened my eyes to licensing, rights management and more. I’ve never looked back!

I do also remember as a kid noticing that all of my action figures were made by Kenner, so maybe it was just meant to be…

An eye for brands as a kid – it was never in doubt! Now you’re now AVP of Brand Management and Head of Digital Representation at Beanstalk’s Tinderbox arm. Talk us through the sorts of brands you work with.
Well, if you look at the broader range of client brands at Beanstalk, we have amazing long-term and successful relationships with some of the biggest corporate and lifestyle brand properties in the market. Then, with our Tinderbox division, we specialise in extending digital-born brands – including gaming, esports, streaming, web3 and the metaverse – into the world of consumer products.

“The team are all avid gamers, so we understand the market, know what players want and the correct retail channels for the consumers.”

We are honoured to work with some of the most successful video game companies, such as Microsoft, Activision, Ubisoft and ESL, managing licensing programmes for Xbox, Call of Duty, Halo, Just Dance, Sea of Thieves, Crash Bandicoot and more.

The Tinderbox advantage stems from many sources – crucially, the team are all avid gamers, so we understand the market, know what players want and the correct retail channels for the consumers. We also benefit from the back-office support of Beanstalk, such legal and finance, which allows us to offer a full-service solution to our clients.

Dave Tovey, Tinderbox

How do you get to grips with these kinds of brands, Dave? Are you grabbing a controller and playing the games?
Absolutely, you’ve got to. Thankfully, these are all great games, so it’s a joy… If only there were more hours in the day though!

It’s an impressive line-up of brands. Are there any deals that you think highlight how creative you can be when working on brand extensions for gaming properties?
When we first started planning the Xbox licensing rollout, we knew we’d do apparel – it was an obvious choice to lead that programme – but where else could we go that would still be true to the brand? We wanted to take it into new aisles and really extend that Xbox experience.

One of the ideas came from the fact that lots of kids were having gaming-themed birthday parties and at the time, only very generic options were available. This gave us a great opportunity to create the ultimate themed Xbox party experience.

We partnered with Finsbury Foods for an Xbox-shaped controller celebration cake, which quickly became the number one selling cake in the UK. The cake even caused quite a stir with the fan community online after some of the images were previewed by the Xbox team on social media. I’m pretty sure that’s never happened for a licensed celebration cake before!

Dave Tovey, Tinderbox

For our other client, Ubisoft, Just Dance presented us with a unique opportunity to expand gaming into the girl’s fashion space, an area which is sometimes overlooked. In partnership with the client, we developed a strategy from the ground up focused on self-expression and movement, assisted with style guide direction and established a product rollout focused on the trend-driven athleisure and fitness category.

Product is now in retail across Europe and the early signs are looking very promising!

Dave Tovey, Tinderbox

We’re seeing lots of licensed product launches that come with codes which then unlock things in-game. How important is that digital crossover when it comes to launching physical product for gaming brands?
It adds real value for fans and allows them to show off their love for these brands, especially when the in-game content is well crafted. It’s also a key marketing hook for retailers as it allows them to truly get behind the offering – You can expect to become more and more relevant.

As an example, for the Call of Duty: Vanguard fashion collection at Zavvi, product came bundled with an exclusive in-game downloadable charm. This was heavily marketed across the Zavvi network and was well received by the fans.

Dave Tovey, Tinderbox

For Halo, GAME, also supported the launch of Halo Infinite last year with a digital cross over, offering exclusive downloadable content alongside the purchase Halo products in-store.

Our client Ubisoft have also taken digital crossovers to the next level; earlier this year they launched a collab with Reebok that had a branded in-game stage in Just Dance to complement the trainer launch at retail. It featured four coaches whose avatars are wearing the Reebok x Just Dance shoe collection.

Dave Tovey, Tinderbox

Gaming brands have incredibly knowledgeable, passionate fanbases. Does this have an impact on how you craft brand extensions at all?
It does have an impact – and our work with the Xbox game studio Rare is a good example of this. They have a rich history of much-loved IP – such as Sea of Thieves and Banjo-Kazooie – with a very engaged fanbase who Rare are actively in touch with via social media. When we explore brand extensions, we need to ensure that they’re going to be loved by the fan community and are truly authentic to that brand.

On Sea of Thieves, it’s such a popular game, and one that fans really love the world of. How have you approached consumer products for that IP?
With the highly engaged fan base of Sea of Thieves, we have established a dedicated e-store for this game and the rest of the Rare portfolio. This acts as a central hub for many of the products and allows us to launch collections day-in-date with major in-game updates and events. It also acts as a place of exclusive product launches that delights the fanbase, such as apparel, a branded Monopoly set or limited-edition Youtooz vinyl figurines.

Dave Tovey, Tinderbox

We’ve also been able to expand the rich and diverse universe of Sea of Thieves through licensed partnerships. As an example, we recently partnered with the gaming cold brew coffee company Madrinas, who replicated a portrayed in-game flavour with their branded offering. We have also expanded the world of Sea of Thieves with novels that have taken franchise characters and themes in whole new directions.

Dave Tovey, Tinderbox

On that, are you seeing licensors embrace more playful ‘left field’ brand extensions? And what are some of the benefits to a brand opening up in this way?
Absolutely, there have been so many great examples of gaming collaborations over the last 12 months alone, the likes of Xbox x Gucci, Call of Duty x Alpha Industries, Minecraft x Lacoste, and Just Dance X Reebok have all been highlights.

Naturally, these kinds of extensions generate great marketing awareness, and increasingly more, these collaborations are being featured in-game via exclusive downloadable content or areas within gameplay.

Dave Tovey, Tinderbox

I think on the playful side, the fan community enjoy it when brands don’t take themselves too seriously. A great example of this is the Xbox Mini Fridge; on the announcement of the Xbox Series X, the internet joked it look like a fridge… So naturally, Microsoft launched a licensed mini-fridge, which looked exactly like a Series X. The fans got the joke, and it was a sell-out last Christmas!

Dave Tovey, Tinderbox

We also had a lot of fun with G Fuel for their Crash Bandicoot energy drink. Naturally, they chose and created a flavour based on Crash Bandicoot’s favourite food, Wumpa Fruit. On launch, G Fuel and Activision marketed this on social media in a very humorous way which was perfect for the fanbase.

The flavour has been a massive success and has helped elevate the awareness of the brand with placement in drink aisles and chilled fridges in major US retailers.

Dave Tovey, Tinderbox

Before we start to wrap up, where do you see some exciting opportunities in licensing at the moment?
As the world emerges out of lockdown and money becomes tighter, it’s clear that people are looking to experiences over material items. The UK has become a hub for immersive theatre with branded shows such as Stranger Things, Doctor Who and Tomb Raider making the jump into this space. With a wealth of real estate readily available and fans wanting more, you can expect more brands with a diverse universe to enter this space.

Then there’s Web3; it’s in its infancy and changing every day, but it’s exciting for us to explore. Our vision for Tinderbox, and for Beanstalk, to establish and activate strategies for clients across all different types of brands.

Looking at the wider company, Beanstalk celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. What’s the secret to the agency’s sustained success?
I think there are many – from our diverse talent to our strong client roster of world-leading brands. One key factor is the agency’s ability to evolve and innovate, whether that be by establishing new divisions like Tinderbox and Beanstalk’s auditing division or opening new offices where our clients need us to be – like our most recent openings in Mexico and Brazil to serve LATAM.

We are also always mindful of consumer and marketplace trends and this both informs and drives our creativity. And just recently we established our global sustainability unit – the first licensing agency to do so – to answer the growing need to implement sustainable practices with our clients and licensees.

One last question: What fuels your creativity?
Well, I struggle to switch off – in a good way! I think it’s because I genuinely enjoy what I do. It’s a fun industry. And these kinds of discussions – talking about brands and the industry – helps spark ideas. Having these kinds of chats is a real source of creativity for me.

I also enjoy looking at product and trends at retail. It drives my wife crazy as I disappear down different aisles when out shopping, but it’s important to see what’s going on and what other brands are up to.

Great stuff. Dave, this has been fun. A huge thanks again for taking time out for it.

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