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Museums Exhibit Growing Interest in Licensing image

Museums Exhibit Growing Interest in Licensing

Museums are not new to licensing, but they are exhibiting a broader appetite for it.

Institutions like The Natural History Museum in London and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have well-established licensing programs. In recent months, however, many museums have expanded their efforts into new categories that are unexpected compared to standard gift-shop fare.

These licensed products are designed to spark viral engagement on social media as much as they are to raise a museum brand’s profile as a revenue driver. That strategy became especially important when the pandemic led to widespread closures of these facilities and engagement was limited to online platforms. For example, Mondelez International’s Oreo brand collaborated with China’s Forbidden City three years ago to market new flavors with packaging that featured designs from the museum’s art collection. More than 760,000 boxes were sold the first day they were available.

In recent months, this approach has only grown. The British Museum in London is weighing licensing its collection for Web3 blockchain technology and for gaming in addition to the more standard items like limited edition coins, said Craig Bendle, Product Licensing Manager. Paris’ The Centre Pompidou licensed Swatch in China for watches, while The Met had a deal with the beauty brand Perfect Diary for lipstick that produced sales of 800,000 units during China’s Singles Day sale event. And Eichholtz and Abner Henry, furniture licensees for The Met, have each launched high-end collections.

“Licensing is an innovative way of bringing our collection out to new audiences globally,” Bendle said. “We will continue to look at opportunities to create successful commercial partnerships across a number of categories and build a sustainable and diverse portfolio, not just in more traditional product categories, but also Web3 and gaming.”

The journey into unique pairings for museum licensing will be critical to sustaining the momentum gained during the pandemic when museums were closed, and licensing became a major revenue generator.

Visitor figures at the top 100 art museums declined 77% at the height of lockdowns in 2020, creating a hole in budgets that, to that point, had relied heavily on admissions revenue. While sales of museum-licensed products have softened from the pandemic peak, several institutions said there is no turning back on the revenue and brand momentum gained from licensing during that time.

The British Museum’s Tmall eCommerce store receives 20 million visitors per year, four times the amount that go through the physical version. In China, cultural merchandise rose from less than 2% of licensed sales to as much as 18% in 2020. Shanghai museums posted $16.1 million in merchandise revenue in 2021, led by The Memorial Hall of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China ($4.9 million). These Shanghai museums had 72,150 licensed products available in 2021, the majority of which were new.

“Licensing promotes museum brands, which helps make the public aware of them,” said Angell Xi, an IP licensing partner at the Beijing-headquartered law firm Jingtian & Gongcheng. “Foreign museums tend to seek categories that are not customary [for museums] in the U.S. and U.K.”

This focus on unique offerings is spreading to museums around the world, however. Licensees like Eichholtz and Abner Henry previously had limited experience in licensing, but executives at the furniture companies said they see overlap between museum patrons and customers of their product lines. Eichholtz, for example, will sell some of its 90-piece Met-themed collection at Al Thayer Group’s licensed Bloomingdale’s location in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“For us, it’s all about potentially attracting a new customer and that is something museum brands are capable of,” said Mike Beke, Head of Collaborations at Eichholtz, which has distribution through Macy’s. “That person may not recognize the Eichholtz brand, but they more than likely are familiar with The Met.”

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