Looking Back at Licensing in 2017

From Amazon's move into new categories to DHX's acquisition of Peanuts, a swathe of executive moves and more, these are the top trends, companies and brands that defined 2017.

This past year showcased an impressive number of headline-worthy events, including a series of acquisitions and consolidations, executive shake-ups at the top tiers of all sectors of the industry and collaborations that prove licensing is alive and well.

Meanwhile, retailers are looking to new ways to deal with recent shifts in the industry, with some companies restructuring and others opening new brick-and-mortar locations as well as altering their business plans.

Responding to Retail Realities

Faced with substantial debt and increased competition from big box retailers and e-commerce, Toys 'R' Us made headlines this summer when it announced it would reorganize its U.S. and Canada operations, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the U.S. and seeking protection under the Companies' Creditors Arrangement Act in Canada. The company plans to use the bankruptcy proceedings to restructure its debt and "establish a sustainable capital structure that will enable it to invest in long-term growth."

Amazon, meanwhile, continued to flourish. In May, the retailer opened a new Amazon Books location in New York City's Columbus Circle. The Manhattan location follows physical book stores in Seattle, Wash., which it opened in late 2015, and locations in San Diego, Calif., and Portland, Ore. Eight stores have now launched across the country, with five more planned for the near future. Then in June, Amazon made another major move into brick-and-mortar with the purchase of U.S. grocery chain Whole Foods Market in a transaction totaling approximately $13.7 billion.

Funko also expanded its presence this year with its first retail store, The Funko HQ. The 17,000-square-foot retail space features immersive experiences inspired by Marvel, DC Comics, Star Wars, Harry Potter and other fan-centric properties, as well as a host of licensed collectible products. Jumbo-sized Funko figures adorn the location, providing entertaining photo opportunities for visitors.

Fashion brands not to be excluded, Authentic Brands Group re-opened more than 500 Aéropostale retail locations across the U.S.

While companies like Amazon are breaking into the brick-and-mortar space, many brands are continuing to improve their e-commerce presence.

The world's largest licensor, Disney, introduced a new e-commerce destination, ShopDisney.com, that features an assortment of Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel products. The new product assortment aims to reflect the company's commitment to creating merchandise tailored to different demographics and features a score of categories including on-trend fashion and accessories, toys, home goods and collectibles. It also features co-branded products and high-end collaborations with the likes of Coach, Le Creuset, Spyder, Steiff, Rag & Bone and more.

Meanwhile, Hudson's Bay Company, owner of Hudson's Bay and Lord & Taylor, unveiled new initiatives to make the company more responsive to the changing retail landscape. Part of the company's plan includes integrating digital functions throughout the organization to deliver a better online experience, optimizing in-store services and more. Most recently, the Lord & Taylor brand partnered with Walmart to launch a flagship digital shop-in-shop on Walmart.com, set to debut next spring.

Supercell, the company behind the mobile games "Clash of Clans" and "Clash Royale," also made moves in the e-commerce space. In April, the company teamed up with Brand Access to launch an official e-commerce store that features a host of exclusive items from licensees like Dark Horse, Kotobukiya, PhatMojo and J!nx, among others.

Consolidation Continues

One of the largest acquisitions of the year was perhaps DHX Media's decision to take over the entertainment segment of Iconix Brand Group, including an 80 percent controlling interest in the Peanuts brand and 100 percent of the Strawberry Shortcake brand, for $345 million.

The acquisition will most certainly impact DHX's ranking on License Global's Top 150 Global Licensors report, where it currently stands as the No. 60 licensor in the world with $700 million in retail sales of licensed merchandise in 2016. The company recently reported its first quarter earnings for fiscal 2018, which saw revenues increase to $98.6 million, compared to $53.8 million in the year prior, primarily driven by acquisitive growth from both Peanuts and Strawberry Shortcake.

Meanwhile, CPLG and Tycoon, two of the world's leading entertainment and brand licensing agencies, formed a global strategic alliance that leverages their respective strengths in their regional markets. The alliance created a combined network across EMEA, North America and Latin America, and covers all aspects of content, brand development, retail management, live events, branded promotions and more.

Looking at the fashion sector, the BCBG Max Azria Group sold the vast majority of its assets (including its IP, inventory and retail store leases) to Marquee Brands and Global Brands Group. Marquee will work to grow BCBG and related brands into new product categories, distribution channels and geographies, while GBG will market, promote, sell and distribute products bearing the BCBG brands. GBG also took over the brand's wholesale operations, select retail stores and its e-commerce platform.

Authentic Brands Group purchased a majority interest in the Neil Lane fine jewelry and accessories brand. The brand management firm has made nine acquisitions over the past two years–including the brands of basketball stars Shaquille O'Neal and Julius "Dr. J" Erving, the American heritage brand Frye and teen retailer Aéropostale–and has more than doubled its retail sales of licensed products worldwide to $5 billion over the past several years.

In a completely different category, Ferrero International completed its acquisition of Fannie May Confections Brands and the Harry London chocolate brands from 1-800-Flowers.com.

Several licensees also expanded their businesses with consolidations. Funko acquired the contemporary fashion accessories company Loungefly; Rubie's Costume Company bought Wisconsin-based costume manufacturer BuySeasons; Fashion. U.K. and Global Licensing entered into a merger agreement to extend the reach of both businesses; and Bioworld Merchandising finished its integration of BWI Merchandising and re-branded the newly combined company as Bioworld International.

Executive Shake-Ups

Similar to years past, 2017 saw a number of executive change-ups across all sectors of the industry. Possibly the biggest switch of the year was at Universal Brand Development, the world's No. 7 largest licensor, which saw Manuel Torres step down from his position as executive vice president of worldwide consumer products this summer. Joe Lawandus stepped in as Universal's senior vice president and general manager of consumer products in North America, and Marc Low's was promoted to senior vice president and general manager of international consumer products.

Meanwhile, Fox Television Group and Twentieth Century Fox Film appointed former DreamWorks Animation executive Jim Fielding to head its consumer products and innovation division. Shortly after, Fielding brought on five executives to help lead the company's consumer products division–Kirk Bloomgarden as senior vice president of international operations, Ann Buckingham as senior vice president of global creative and product development, Tim Erickson as senior vice president of global licensing and operations, Erin Morris as senior vice president of global retail business development and Eva Steortz as senior vice president of global brand business development.

Other major executive appointments in 2017 include:

  • Tim Kilpin, a veteran Mattel and Disney executive, joined Activision Blizzard as chief executive officer and president of the company’s newly-formed consumer products division.
  • In March, National Geographic Partners tapped Juan Gutierrez to serve as the company’s senior vice president of consumer products and live events, overseeing global licensing and location-based entertainment.
  • Dollar General appointed Jason Reiser as its executive vice president and chief merchandising officer.
  • Michelle Hagen joined Universal as senior vice president of consumer products and retail development.
  • Warner Bros. Consumer Products named John Louie to the position of senior vice president of international.
  • In May, Phil St. Jean, founder and chief executive officer of Trends International, stepped down after 30 years of leading the company. Bruce Morrison, president and chief operating officer, assumed CEO responsibilities of the company.
  • Electrolux, the world’s No. 20 largest licensor, promoted Lars Hygrell to the position of chief marketing officer.
  • Jennifer Dodge returned to Spin Master to serve as the company’s executive vice president of Spin Master Entertainment.
  • In August, BuzzFeed hired Eric Karp to serve as its first head of licensing.
  • Yehuda Shmidman stepped down from his positions at Sequential Brands Group, and appointed Karen Murray as its new chief executive officer.
  • The Kirby Organization tapped Terri DiPaolo to head its new licensing, endorsement and sponsorship division.
  • Sanrio named Simon Gresswell to serve as chief operating officer of Sanrio GmbH, MML and SGA.
  • Margaret Georgiadis joined Mattel as chief executive officer.

Other Top News in 2017:

  • WBCP, Hot Topic Win Big at LIMA Awards–The LIMA International Licensing Awards, which took place during Licensing Expo in May, saw Hot Topic taking the top honor of Retailer of the Year for its Suicide Squad program and Warner Bros. Consumer Products walking away with three awards, including Best Character/Toy Brand for its “DC Super Hero Girls” property. Additional award recipients from the evening included Victoria and Albert Museum, “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” “Paw Patrol,” Star Wars, Corona and the NFLPA, among many others. LIMA also inducted three to its Hall of Fame in 2017: Allan Feldman, chief executive officer and founder of LMCA; Dell Furano, chief executive officer and founder, Epic Rights; and Cyril Speijer, former chief executive officer, Wavery Productions, and current co-principal, BN Licensing.
  • Global Merchandising Signs Mariah Carey–In October, American singer-songwriter Mariah Carey appointed Global Merchandising Services to serve as the exclusive worldwide merchandise and brand partner for her brand Mimi. Through the agreement, Global Merchandising will create and extend the singer’s brand across the lifestyle and fashion sectors. The agent will also create tour ranges and merchandise programs for retail and e-commerce.
  • “Looney Tunes’ Steps into Converse”–In March, WBCP and Converse teamed up for a sneaker collaboration featuring classic characters from the “Looney Tunes” franchise. The Chuck Taylor All Star “Looney Tunes” collection includes high- and low-top options featuring Bugs Bunny, Tweety and the Tasmanian Devil. The collaboration is also an example of the recent nostalgia trends, which has seen a resurgence of classic brands across multiple categories.

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