Tips from Toy Fair 2017: Preserving Your Brand in the Age of Licensing

By: Jenna Walsh, Director, Brand Communications

This year, I had my first opportunity to attend Toy Fair as a spectator, which means I got to take in the sights and sounds of an expo I’d never been truly able to appreciate. It had been a few years since my last trip to Toy Fair and I expected for the show to be overrun with high tech toys, a situation for which I was fully expecting, and looking forward to, lamenting. 

Yet, the show wasn’t dominated by high tech toys; it was dominated by licensed toys. And that got me thinking. Are licensed toys a must-have for manufacturers? Is the cost of licensing worth the return? Or, does licensing come with at a different expense: the risk of diluting your brand?

The first two questions can only be answered by manufacturers, though if I had to guess based on the volume of licensed toys I saw at Toy Fair, the answers must be yes. The trickier question is how you preserve your brand in the age of licensing. Below are a few examples of brands that are navigating the waters successfully.

Highlighting Company Values with a High Visibility Launch
Tonner Doll Company chose Toy Fair as a moment in time to launch its new doll – Jazz Jennings – based on TLC’s transgender teen star. This one is a bit of a catch-22 because this doll is based off a real person, so technically it’s a license of sorts, but entirely different from the licensed products at Toy Fair. This doll stands out for a number of reasons, but for the sake of this blog post, I’m evaluating a brand’s ability to preserve its integrity in the age of licensing.

In the case of Tonner Doll Company and Jazz Jennings, this license wasn’t a “me-too” move; it was a message about what Tonner Doll Company stands for, what it believes in, and what it hopes to inspire: inclusivity, regardless of gender orientation. And because of the bold statement, a brand that’s been known primarily to collectors has catapulted to a broader stage - consumer base - seemingly overnight.

Making it Socially Acceptable to Collect “Action Figures”
Funko’s figurines are quite literally caricatures of our favorite movie and TV characters. I know, because I own dozens of Game of Thrones Mystery Minis (though they offer far more than just the mystery minis). And my brother is desperately trying to find some Series 1 figures that, according to a representative at Funko, are locked away in the “vault.”  

Funko has been able to preserve, and build, its brand identity by approaching its use of licenses differently, as you can see from its addicting, fan-obsessed figurines. Funko seems to have found a licensed toy for just about every trending pop topic – allowing everyone to embrace his or her inner child. Not every brand could pull this off, so you have to applaud Funko for its take on licensed toys.

Leveraging Proprietary Technology Advancements through a Household Name
Spin Master, the brand behind the hottest holiday toy, Hatchimals, caught everyone’s eye at Toy Fair but not for the egg-shaped reason you might expect. The brand is upping the ante on the licensing game – by showing how its proprietary technology advancements can literally bring a well-known character to life.

The latest innovation comes in the form of a very lifelike BB-8 droid, something even casual Star Wars fans would lust over. Editors at Gizmodo called it the “ideal robotic pet,” noting that it feels like a real Star Wars droid is following you around. While this little guy was kept behind closed doors, rumor has it that there’s a chance it may be out by the holidays, which may produce another record season for Spin Master.  

The Challenge for Brands
At the end of the day, brands are borrowing the equity of another person or likeness for the sole purpose of standing out among a sea of competitors. Licenses are expensive, and for them to pay off, brands need to be thoughtful about their choices, execution and communications strategies. Can you execute something better than your competitors? Does it (the license or however you choose to bring it to life) align with your brand? Does it create desire? And are you showing and telling why it’s exceptional?

That latter part is equally critical to the license you buy and how you execute it. In the toy industry specifically, your licensed toy can look very similar to your competitor’s version of the same licensed product. The key to impacting a consumer’s decision as to whether she buys your product or a competitor’s product is taking the guesswork out for her.