At 10:30 a.m. on the second day of the annual Licensing Expo in Las Vegas, mascots from a wide variety of beloved brands line up at a small stage in the back of the convention center at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, preparing to march around for a character parade. Sonic the Hedgehog was there, as were several Teletubbies, a Smurf, Peppa Pig, the Elf on the Shelf, and Geoffrey, the Toys “R” Us giraffe. Also present: a Dole pineapple with big eyes and supple pink lips, and a Dole banana that looked very happy, but lacked the pout of its pineapple friend.
After being held virtually for two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Licensing Expo was live again this year. The annual event connects intellectual property owners with people who want to license that property, giving the two groups a space to show off their latest characters and products, network with each other and ultimately make deals. From May 24-26, more than 10,000 people in Sin City were looking for new partnerships (Las Vegas is, after all, the perfect place to quickly strengthen a union), and more creative ways to convince consumers to buy whatever those in attendance were selling. .
All the famous brands seemed to be there. A huge Pikachu hovered over the Pokémon booth. Warner Bros. showed costumes from the latest Batman movie, the sweater Michael Jordan wore in “Space Jam” and other pop culture artifacts. At Mattel, there were several human-sized cardboard cutouts of Barbie, decked out in Balmain, standing in front of a metal backdrop.
At the booth for Moonbug, the company that produces the popular children’s show ‘CoComelon’, stood a grown man dressed as Blippi, the star of Moonbug’s other flagship. Brands for adults were also present. There were stalls for the artists Keith Haring and Norman Rockwell. Shell had an exhibit of its electric scooters and Legendary Entertainment had a setup promoting the movie ‘Dune’.
Phil Sklar, co-founder and chief executive of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, attended the conference as a licensee. His museum has a shop that sells a wide variety of bobbleheads, ranging from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to Gritty, the internet-famous mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers, to Jesus Christ (the latter of which requires no licensing fees).
“Here at Licensing Expo, let’s say we’re talking to a brand, we’re getting to know them, they’re getting to know us,” explained Mr. Sklar out. “They see our product. We have samples so they can touch, feel and see the quality of our work, which is obviously very important to them. Brands want to ensure that their brand image is preserved.”
Outside, in the adjacent casinos, the license did not end. Branded machines were everywhere: a perpetually busy “Crazy Rich Asians” machine; too many “Wheel of Fortune” machines to count; and ones with themes such as “Game of Thrones”, Monopoly, “The Wizard of Oz†The voice† and the ever-popular Facebook game Farmville. When a slot machine has an IP address, “casino operators see a significant increase in revenue,” said Jason Lim, the general manager of digital and online gaming at Ainsworth Game Technology, a slot machine company. “Machine X can generate, say, $10,000 per day. Put a piece of IP on it, it generates $100,000 a day.”
Every year, branded products are becoming more and more popular. In 2019, people worldwide bought $292.8 billion worth of licensed merchandise, up 4.5 percent from the previous year. Licenses also account for a large portion of media companies’ profits: A 2022 study found that licensed products made up nearly 21 percent of Disney’s revenue. (The company posted $56.2 billion in licensed retail sales in 2021, according to this year’s Top Global Licensors Report.)
Branded products are usually sold at a premium — a 2009 study found that “the average licensed item is 32.9 percent higher than an unlicensed equivalent.” But people continue to be drawn to licensed products.
Amanda Cioletti, vice president of content and strategy at the Licensing Group, the company that hosts the Licensing Expo, said she thought people were attracted to branded products because “it’s one less thing to think about. It’s an automatic response.” like, ‘OK, I’m comfortable with this line of products, I’m comfortable with this logo, so I’m going to leverage that confidence and grab the other set of things that are branded the same way.’”
Licensed products are ubiquitous, creating the texture of our consumer lives. Walk down the aisle of your local grocery store and you’ll notice the produce: Scooby-Doo fruit snacks, Marvel-branded Dole celery, and Pixar Ziploc bags. But many licenses are inconspicuous. For example, while the flagship products from Mr. Clean, like the Magic Eraser, come straight from Procter & Gamble, are a pair of rubber gloves from Mr. Clean is basically a license, the result of a deal between a rubber glove manufacturer and P&G.
“Kids say, ‘Oh yeah, I want that banana for breakfast because it has a Shrek sticker on it.’ Adults are the same way,” said Stu Seltzer, president of the Seltzer Licensing Group, a talent agency for brands like Checkers, Popsicle, the American Red Cross, NBC, and Miracle-Gro. (The group also represents one human being: basketball player Jeremy Lin.)
“You go to Walmart and you see the number 1 brand of chips there is Checkers,” said Mr. Seltzer. “It was made by a company called Lamb Weston. Nobody knows the Lamb Weston brand, nobody. Lamb Weston is one of the largest potato companies in America.” Consumers see Checkers and the frozen chips seem more reliable, reassuringly familiar, he added.
TGI Fridays was “one of the pioneers” in this area, according to Frances Alvarez, the vice president of brand management at Beanstalk, another licensing agency whose clients include P&G, the US military and Cheez-It crackers. “The whole idea is to take the Fridays brand and put it on frozen potato skins and sell it in a supermarket,” she said. (Yes, that’s right, the box of TGI Fridays frozen mozzarella sticks you could buy is indeed licensed and not made by the restaurant itself.)
When TGI Fridays first started licensing its name to frozen food companies, the “franchisees said, ‘Wait a minute, nobody goes to a Friday restaurant, because now they can buy potato skins at the supermarket,'” Ms Alvarez said. “Well, that theory has been completely debunked. It’s a completely different experience if you go to a Friday with your family or friends.” The product is not intended to mimic the experience of a restaurant visit. Rather, it’s about “capturing the idea of the restaurant experience at home,” Ms. Alvarez said.
TGI Fridays frozen snacks are made by Kraft Heinz and have been on the market for about 15 years. After licensing the restaurant chain’s brand, Mr. Seltzer: “Heinz went from a very small market share to suddenly a category leader.” Debra Restler, senior vice president of business development and marketing at Beanstalk, estimated that the frozen snacks brought in annual sales of about $200 million.
These frozen foods use licenses in a way that’s undetectable to the average consumer, and that’s part of the reason they’re so successful. The face of Emeril Lagasse, the star of the Food Network, on a salad dressing in the supermarket, or the Chick-fil-A logo on a bottle in the spice department, makes consumers feel safe. It’s hard to know who and what to trust, but brands are known and consumers know what to expect when they buy something with a logo on it.
Products with more obvious licenses are of course also popular; they just have a different kind of appeal. When you wear an Iron Man T-shirt or a Miller Lite baseball cap, you’re sending a signal to the world that this particular piece of IP matters to who you are.
Pam Lifford, the president of consumer products at Warner Bros., said she thought branded products were so successful because of the emotional connection consumers felt with the stories they saw on television and in the cinema.
“You sit down and look at something and there’s an emotional tug, a sense of belonging as the story is being told,” Ms Lifford said. The content we view “helps us identify how we feel about ourselves, the kind of people we associate with. It’s a way of bringing people together and it’s a way of expressing yourself.”
Mike Becker, the founder of the toy company Funko, which licenses a wide variety of IP for its very popular bobblehead-style products called Funko Pops, said the company’s success stems from the idea that “everyone is a fan of something. “. (At the convention, the company promoted its latest collaboration with LeBron James.)
“There’s a lot of noise in our world now,” Mrs. Cioletti remarked. “You used to be able to form an identity in a smaller echo chamber.”
Pam Kaufman, the president of consumer products and experiences at Paramount, said the licensing business “only continues to grow,” and that while Paw Patrol was the company’s most popular piece of IP, branded products had “multigenerational” appeal.
“Nostalgia has been a really interesting trend,” Ms. Kaufman noted. “Not to go back too far, but I would say that after 9/11 the world was really shocked, everyone was scared and just started squatting. The same thing happened during the pandemic: you begin to identify with and feel tremendous comfort from the things that bring you joy. Many of them are characters or brands that you identify with.”
Speaking at a keynote event at the expo about the many opportunities available to intellectual property holders, entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk told Ms. Kaufman that “the delta between religion and the Marvel universe is smaller than people realize.” Not to say that Spider-Man has taken the place of God in our culture, but rather that it’s possible (and not particularly strange) to feel a cosmic connection to your favorite content. Maybe your grandfather identifies as Protestant or Catholic, but as people become more attached to the media, it’s only natural for younger generations to identify as Marvel or DC fans instead.
Collecting Funko pops or liking the same IP as someone else can make someone feel like they are part of something bigger and provide them with a community, something many have found more difficult in this age of social distancing. and social media.
Jason Taylor, a 37-year-old inventory management specialist from Lapeer, Michigan, who recently started doing Marvel cosplay — his favorite character for dressing up like Thor — said his new hobby made him feel less lonely. He was not at the Licensing Expo, as it is only open to businesses, but is the kind of consumer that convention attendees hope to reach.
“It’s amazing to find a group of people who share the same creativity and passions,” said Mr. Taylor. “I grew up with an obsession with Superman. I have collected everything. A lot of people thought it was weird and I was laughed at for it. To find so many people with the same obsessions, it feels like a sense of belonging.”