Wildlife art comes to life in the hands of this wholesaler due to its artists-first approach to production. The founder of Wild Wings Licensing got his inspiration to start his business from duck stamps. Having collected the stamps for years, he developed an extensive network of wildlife artists because he had to approach them directly to obtain new pieces for his collection.
In the late ’60s, he realized that wildlife art was not as accessible to the average person as it should be; it was almost entirely found in original paintings and rarely as reproductions. His discovery became an epiphany as he realized he had a business plan that could give people access to wildlife art at more affordable prices.
Although Wild Wings Licensing was incorporated in 1968, it wasn’t until 1970 that its first limited edition art print, featuring an image of quail by an artist named Owen Gromme, was published. “Owen did the painting, and the founder produced a print, got a list of names from the Ducks Unlimited Conservation organization, and did a postcard mailing,” said Randy Eggenberger, president. “That constituted our first foray into direct mailing.”
In 1971, Wild Wings produced its first full-scale catalogue, which featured limited edition prints and original paintings. Three years later, Eggenberger started as a 19-year-old high school graduate. At that time, the company was producing several print editions per year and was selling to both retail and wholesale customers. Wild Wings popularity had grown to the point that rather than searching them out, frame shops and art galleries were contacting the company to purchase prints.
Throughout the ’70s, Wild Wings continued to grow by acquiring more artists and publishing their prints. In the late ’70s, the company published its first gift catalogue, which included both art images and what Eggenberger calls dimensional products. “We brainstorm ways we can leverage the art on additional products,” he said.
“The glue that holds our concept together is our artists’ imagery. Almost anything for the home is fair game if we can tastefully apply art to it.” From tabletop sculptures, sofas, tables, and chairs to mugs and tin signs, Wild Wings produces items that make the company look more like a general merchandiser than an art publisher.
Wild Wings’ target audience is the outdoors activist who values the natural world and likes to surround him or herself with products and representations of the great outdoors. And whether they live in rural locations or in a tower in New York City, their connection to nature is more than a passing phase.
“Our end consumers enjoy nature, they’re inspired by it, and it’s what they do when they get a chance to get away,” Eggenberger said. “They like to bring those images into their ordinary day-to-day lives. They’re who we think about when we merchandise.”
Although Wild Wings is a multichannel retailer and uses e-commerce to reach its audience, its catalogues are its primary marketing tools. In addition to its catalogue and web businesses, Wild Wings sells products through several thousand North American art and gift dealers who sell the products in their own retail stores.
Wild Wings also owns the domain names for several websites, including WildWingsLicensing.com, which is a portal for its licensing customers; WildWingsDealers.com, which is for its dealers; and WildWings.com, which is where end-consumers can purchase any items from its catalogue.
“We were somewhat pioneers in the web business when we first launched our site in 1997,” said Eggenberger. “By 1999, we had a full-scale shopping cart site. Although we mail 2 million catalogues per year, about 30% of what we call our catalogue business originates through the web.”
Eggenberger said he and his team use web and catalogue semantics interchangeably because of how closely related they are as channels of distribution. “We merchandise for both of them simultaneously,” he said.
In 2009, Eggenberger bought back Wild Wings, which was sold to Cabela’s in 2002. The reacquisition gave Eggenberger the chance to fine-tune the quality of Wild Wings’ catalogue, which he says boosted the company’s response rates almost immediately.
“We do our own merchandising product development and catalogue production inhouse, and we work with a studio called Gamut One Studios in Edina, Minn. for the photography,” he said. “We have to reflect the quality of the end product in the presentation to the customer, and our process ensures that.”
Catalogue and presentation are important to Wild Wings, but its success is contingent on the relationships it develops with its artists. The company currently represents more than 50 artists exclusively, and of that 50, 20 have been with Wild Wings for more than 20 years.
“Artists are central to our success; they define our company,” said Eggenberger. “Art is what we are and have always been about. Our ability to maintain longstanding relationships with artists is absolutely essential. It’s job-one for us.”
The key to keeping artists happy, said Eggenberger, is giving their art a chance to express itself to a broad population, and it’s a role Wild Wings happily accepts. The company does very little art direction, instead enabling the artists to chase their inspirations.
Some artists specialize in certain genres while others are broad in their styles and subject matter. Wild Wings lets each do what comes naturally to their talent but is always mindful that they need to make a living. “We’re focused on how we can maximize their income,” said Eggenberger.
By diversifying its portfolio of art, including prints and dimensional products, Wild Wings gives artists more chances to generate royalties. In addition, Wild Wings licenses its artists’ imagery to other manufacturers in categories or channels of distribution the company doesn’t have a strong presence in.
“We license our imagery to third parties, which creates an additional revenue stream and more exposure for artists,” Eggenberger said. “We look at the artists’ royalty stream as a combination of prints, dimensional products, and licensing, and they’ve all given artists some nice growth over the years.”
Focusing on its artists’ growth has enabled Wild Wings to grow and maintain a steady business for more than four decades. “It’s not easy to stay in business for 42 years,” said Eggenberger. “We’re proud that we’ve been able to, but every day is a new set of challenges. You can’t stop swimming or you’ll quickly go downstream.”
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