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The Year of Adaptation

By Marty Brochstein
SVP Industry Relations and Information
Licensing International

(This column originally appeared in the Autumn/Fall edition of Total Licensing)

For the world at large, 2020 is going down as the Year of the Pandemic. It’s the same for the licensing business. The coronavirus shut down retail, closed offices, shuttered large parts of the sports and entertainment businesses – touched everything. But as we move toward the holiday season, it’s apparent that 2020 is also the Year of Adaptation – for consumers, brand owners, manufacturers, agents, event and trade show organizers and, yes, trade organizations.

Think of it this way: before this year, nobody thought of cloth facecoverings as a licensing category, and the words “force majeure” were familiar only to attorneys. Work-from-home was an option for some, not a government-enforced imperative.

The change of circumstances forced everyone to rethink how they do business. At Licensing International, we increased the number of webinars we ‘ve staged and expanded their scope to include multiple formats – Virtual Roundtables, anybody? — work/life issues and professional skills, not just licensing-specific topics. The popular London-based Licensing Essentials Course morphed into an online version that drew participants from around the world. And the celebration of the Licensing International Excellence Awards turned into an online global mega-event. (Watch the video; it’s a hoot and shows off the industry’s Best and Brightest.)

And, of course, the industry was unable to gather in Las Vegas in May (Licensing Week Virtual was substituted), and October has been turned into a “Festival of Licensing.”

Trade shows around the globe have been either cancelled or are being restaged as virtual events. Some, such as the upcoming Frankfurt Buchmesse, are going to physical/virtual hybrids.

Retail, of course, has been knocked for a loop; several major chains – many of which had been struggling before the pandemic, have been pushed into bankruptcy and, in some cases, liquidation.

Merchants have extended the “holiday” shopping season this year to be longer than ever before. “There certainly will be a different rhythm to the shopping season,” said Target CEO Brian Cornell as summer was ending. It’s a change with major implications for licensors and manufacturers, and could affect the availability of certain products, as supply chain and shipping issues arise.

The concept of a Black Friday kickoff sounds almost quaint.  Many retailers are gearing up for an October holiday –Christmas, not Halloween! —  launch, kickstarted by the COVID-driven shift of Amazon’s Prime Day from a summer standalone to a new date in October.

British department store John Lewis opened its online Christmas shop on August 24. That’s 10 days earlier than last year, after it noted that searches for festive products had quadrupled from a year ago as consumers, after weeks of lockdown, have already started thinking about decorating their homes for the holidays.

Everyone is being forced to scramble, and the “partnership” between licensees and licensors is being tested as never before, with agreements renegotiated to acknowledge unforeseeable circumstances. Cinemas have reopened unevenly around the world and major films that had been scheduled for the summer have been re-scheduled (and re-re-scheduled), throwing film-based licensing programs into disarray. Sports were halted, and most resumed in empty stadiums, fraying the emotional ties that are at the heart of purchases of sports-licensed goods.

It has affected the licensing industry in ways large and small. The huge promotional platform known as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade will be staged as “a television broadcast-only production with staging for parade elements [i.e. balloons, floats and musical acts] focused solely in/around the Herald Square area of Midtown Manhattan.” The number of brands and characters that use the parade as a major marketing event could fill a good-sized hall at a virtual licensing show.

It’s been a tumultuous year – we’ve only mentioned a few factors —  but the licensing industry is a community of optimists. Here’s to a healthy holiday season, and a “New Normal” that offers new opportunities for success.

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