Remember that cringing moment when, as a small child, you opened the card sent from Aunt Marg on your birthday? A quaint watercolour of a boy with a neat haircut playing with a toy boat, his father's tweed-clad arm placed firmly and proudly on his shoulder and in gold italic writing: "To a Dear Nephew on his Birthday." No? Well, you're too young then. If licensing has done one good thing it has been to signpost grandmothers, aunties and friends to a Power Ranger, Teletubby or a Groovy Chick; a more...
Licensing and the greeting card industry share a symbiotic relationship weaving in and out of shared territory with card companies acting as licensors, licensees and agents. Almost every design that appears on a greeting card (which hasn't been created by an in-house designer) is there as a result of some sort of licensing deal.
The UK greeting card market is mature, to say the least. In 2001 UK consumers spent £1.02 billion on cards. The value of the industry has been rising (by 15% over the last five years) while volumes sold remains little changed. Its an industry which accommodates one-man-bands as comfortably as industry giants and finds outlets in a mixture of specialist retailers, department stores, supermarkets and specialist high street stores. It's estimated that there are over 300 greeting card publishers in the UK.
Why is the greeting card so important for licensing? It's an old adage in the greeting card trade that cards act as barometers of taste. The industry in the UK is the most innovative in the world, inhabited by the newest looks and most experimental techniques. Fierce competition and advances in printing techniques ensure that thousands of frequently changing products are on offer at any one time. The flexibility of the industry coupled with its genuinely cutting edge offerings means that card ranges (particularly from small independent houses) really do set trends and that product lines can be easily tested. For Example, artists Dan and Lucy Good were the second signatures for a licence for Bagpuss. Their card company Lightweight Designs paved the way for what became the biggest nostalgia story of the last few years. Dan says it was such an obvious idea, they could hardly believe no one had done it already. In fact they were witnessing the emergence of a trend and card companies like Lightweight were perfectly poised to drive it.
No surprise then that the greeting card is often one of the first licensed products to hit the shelves. Lisa Shapiro at The Licensing Company summed it up: 'You can have 48 designs in hundreds of shops all over the country, ending up in tens of thousands of households. We are a nation of card senders, which makes the product very powerful. It's one of the best ways to build your brand, especially an emotional one.' And if volume and exposure aren't enough, it also helps the consumer experience your brand, especiallly an expression-based property such as Love Is.
As licensees, greeting card companies go through the same painstaking gamble as other licensees to choose a license.
The bidding is competitive and big sums go up front for the best properties. Why? Because with margins at 40% and huge distribution, a licensed greeting card range can make as much as £2m at retail.
In choosing a licence it's worth remembering that women purchase 80% of cards, so there are some properties which will be less popular. However, as Tim Clarke at Gemma points out, if you have a good licence it anchors the relationship between the end users - the purchaser of the card and the recipient. It's an easier purchasing decision and taps into the zeitgeist.'
Card companies are hot-beds of creativity and have been producing concepts people want to buy into for years. They have therefore naturally evolved into being licensors. It's hard to know when the first greeting card licence was designed but as far back as the 70s Holly Hobbie in the USA was driving sales of licensed products and in the 80s Strawberry Shortcake became a $500m property.
There are a number of reasons for the format succesfully spawning licensed proudcts. Greeting cards are associated with sentiment and are sent to express a message. A greeting card is one of the most carefully considered consumer choices of all and in the UK we receive an average 22 cards each year. When they hit the spot, they become immensely successful. Another reason is that card and gift giving go hand in hand. Retailer Birthdays recently announced its intention to become a 'celebration retailer' with the launch of a huge gift range in selected stores. Carlton Cards' Bubblegum licensing was driven by Clinton's demand for additional product in stores. And now, more and more licensing programmes are being described as 'gift and greetings led'. Hit, for example, has taken this approach for Pingu due to the character's wide age appeal.
Even smaller greeting card companies have evolved from licensees to licensors over the last five years. Medici, for example, is a licensee for The Royal Collection and for Punch cartoons. It has also recently dusted off its archive to present the work of certain of its artists for licensing, most particularly Margaret Tarrant who created the 'other' flower fairies. The Art Group, a successful card and poster licensee for lines such as classic Pooh and Vogue also represents some of the artists whose work it publishes as posters for licensing. Portico Designs is now so experienced at licensing characters from other companies it has formed a spin off company called HIP designs to create content specifically for licensing. The designs will, of course, first be tested as greeting cards. Lello and Candywrap are both two-man publishers with successful licensed ranges in retail now. The cost and time required for product development is prohibitive so they and others have sought partners through licensing to achieve this.
At the moment the industry suffers from accusations of producing too many copycat designs, most following the lead of Santoro's perennial success Bang on the Door. You can see how tempting it is; a good idea and a designer on the case can produce something fairly respectable quite cheaply. However, new looks are emerging and buyers seem responsive. Skate Betty and other properties from the San Francisco studio Inkmonster are taking graphics-based designs out of the 'girly cute' arena, for example, and Caroline Gardner found its more textile-inspired card range Pink Licorice attracted huge interest at the UK licensing show for being a totally distinctive look.
How far can a greeting card range be extended? Santoro's Flux Deluxe concept has been considered for animation and Glitter Monkeys has been signed up by Carlton for potentially wide application. The US property 2Grrls is now a major TV series from United Media and Advocate's cynical bear Newton's Law, is in production with Cosgrove Hall. Lisa Shapiro thinks the greeting card concepts can go right to TV. But the watchword is caution. Just because something is successful as a card or even a range of products doesn't mean it can be converted. It depends on the quality of the content.