Licensing for Growth: Sharpe Co.’s Boutique Approach

“There is so much more potential for growth in licensing, especially in retail, because there are still so many brands and retailers who’ve so far kept away from licensing,” said Charlie Day, president and founder of the 10-year-old boutique brand management firm. “We have so much experience in this industry and in a wide variety of licensing genres and ventures, so we’re the perfect organization to help new players in the field, both owners of brands and intellectual properties, and retailers and manufacturers, try licensing out.”

Day said in the last few months, Sharpe began working with a major T-shirt and apparel printing company. It was well known for manufacturing attractive sportswear, and its products were already found in most major retailers, but it had never taken on licenses before. Sharpe helped it win an agreement with a major entertainment company, which he said is opening a whole new world of growth opportunities for the business.

“Some manufacturers shy away form licensing because they think they create their own artwork with which to brand their merchandise, but the beauty of licensing is you’re able to take an already successful brand that consumers recognize and integrate it with your products,” he said. “Licensed products can provide that key point of difference that everyone in the retail industry is looking for these days.”

Two good reasons

Sharpe, he said, is uniquely positioned to help newcomers to the process for two main reasons. First is that the company is a boutique licensor, with a team of just six highly experienced professionals. That means all of Sharpe’s clients communicate directly with the people managing their brands and relationships instead of with a network of middle managers. It also means the firm can move fast in a highly transient business, taking advantage of all opportunities that arise for its clients.

Second, of course, are the decades of experience that each member of team has in all kinds of brand management, like representation of the legacy estates of well-known personalities, and development of movie, toy, TV, and art-driven properties. Day also said the company operates on a truly global basis, both bringing international properties to North America and exporting North American properties around the world. Few boutique firms provide such comprehensive service, Day said.

Both of these reasons contribute to the firm’s reputation in the industry, which Day said is paramount.

“This business is still largely driven by word-of-mouth, which is why, from the beginning, we’ve exhibited at the International Licensing Show every year since the firm was founded,” he said. “Our clients have the advantage of a huge network of relationships we’ve fostered over the years.”

Proven properties and performance

There are a number of examples of how experience and relationships have brought Sharpe’s clients success. One of its newest classic properties, Rubik’s Cube is launching in many new product categories.

That brand, which had some experience with licensing over its 30-year run, is getting a reboot to take advantage of two big trends. The first is nostalgia, with baby boomers and Gen Xers eager to relive glory days with favorite, old products. The second is the increasing popularity of simple, classic toys and games.

“We’re seeing video games dominate, of course, but there is also a backlash against high-tech computer games that Rubik’s Cube taps into perfectly,” explained Day, who added that media coverage about the up-and-coming generation breaking Rubik’s Cube speed records (the world record for doing the Cube is now seven seconds) and generally falling in love with the toy are fueling interest.

But Sharpe is moving on many fronts with this and all its properties: it released a high-tech version of the Rubik’s Cube puzzle called Rubik’s Touch Cube at last year’s Toy Fair and is releasing Rubik’s Slide at retail now, following the Rubik’s Revolution, which was named Game of the Year by the Toy Industry in 2007.

Similarly, even though many are saying TV is dead as a marketing tool targeting children, with the web and video games being the future, Sharpe is expecting tremendous success with a fun preschool, action-adventure television series “Animal Mechanicals.” It will launch in October on The Hub, a new TV channel, a joint venture between Discovery and Hasbro Toys.

The show has nearly 100 episodes already and is extremely popular abroad; Day said American parents on vacation in Mexico recorded and uploaded episodes to YouTube to take home for the kids. He said there is ongoing interest from potential licensees to see how this highly anticipated show performs in the US.

Another property Sharpe will be launching is a feature-film: “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus.” Based on the classic children’s novel by L. Frank Baum, this animated film will hit theaters for the holiday season 2011, and Day said the quality of the animation presents an excellent opportunity to introduce a new brand to holiday consumers.

“If you create quality products that are a hit with your target audience, it doesn’t matter what the experts say: TV and film are a reliable medium capable of reaching as many eyeballs as the web or a video game,” he said.

Like in every marketing venture, there is risk in licensing, Day said. When over-licensing a single brand or concept so that it appears in every category for the same age group, consumers can be overwhelmed by the same choices and avoid all the products in a category using that brand. But, he said, as long as retailers and manufacturers are focused on using licensing as a point of difference for their brand in the long term, and not a fast moneymaker, that risk is limited.

“The power of licensing when it is used effectively is immeasurable; retailers shouldn’t be afraid to try what might appear to be limited, niche licensing opportunities because the opportunity today to reach consumers with a passion for a brand is unlimited,” Day said. “And myself and my team have the tools and the knowledge to make that happen.”