21 September 2017

Licensing Our Heritage

Anne Buky, Licensing Consultant and NKCC Associate, looks at how museums and heritage organisations have developed strong brand licensing programmes.


(c) IWM

Working with museums and heritage organisations is an immense privilege. When asked why I do so it is not hard to find the answers – breath-taking collections, beautiful buildings, experts with encyclopaedic knowledge and people who are committed to preserving and enhancing a heritage in which the UK is the world leader. And such an incredible and diverse heritage – from dinosaur bones millions of years old;  to paintings worth millions of pounds,  pilot’s notebooks written during the Battle of Britain, jewels worn by the Queen, Shakespeare’s gold signet ring, sculptures by world masters, record breaking trains and cars  – the list of course is endless – all of life is here.

The museum and heritage sector has changed out of all recognition in the way that it presents its collections.  Bright, interesting displays, immersive experiences and record-breaking exhibitions all show that great efforts have been made to explain the collections to a diverse audience.  And judging by the excited queues of visitors during the holiday period, these efforts have clearly paid off.

Developing Brands

In tandem with developing their content, Museums have also made strides in commercialising their brands and raising income through activities such as retail and brand licensing. Sometimes this has come about because funding from government, local authorities and other sources of income has been curtailed and it is has become necessary to develop other income streams. But the heritage sector itself has recognised the great interest and value that its brands and collections have and have made every effort to ensure that these brands are offered to the wider world.   It is not always an easy path.  Whereas the retail offer in a museum is driven by the visitors and specialist audiences, and bespoke products can be created for these audiences, licensed products have to appeal to the mass market which sometimes has different priorities. Brand Licensing is a large industry and in LIMA’s most recent figures of how the industry is divided, the not-for-profit sector occupies less than 1% of the total. Potential licensees are more familiar with, and more attracted to the ‘easy’ options of film and TV offers, fashion brands, sport and lifestyle etc.

Significantly, larger museums such as the V & A, Natural History Museum and the Science Museum and larger organisations such as The Royal Horticultural Society and the National Trust have resources to develop their licensing programmes. They have created strong programmes with clear messages. However, developing a strong programme is not only about resources. Museums with fewer resources or more difficult subject matter, such as the Imperial War Museum and the William Morris Gallery, have found their niche by playing to their strengths. Historic Royal Palaces have inspired Hobbs to create several ranges based on the fabric of their buildings. Sir John Soane’s Museum, a small yet iconic museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London,  based on one man’s personal collection,  has inspired no less a brand than Dr Martens to create special boots, inspired by William Hogarth’s series The Rake’s Progress in their collection – how marvellous is that!


(c) Sir John Soane Museum

Challenges ahead

The challenge for the heritage sector is to find licensees who understand the organisation and the cause and are happy to go a little further than usual delving into archives and developing products ideally that work well in both markets.  Museums help licensees in the following ways by:

  1. Developing a clear strong brand, understandable to all.
  2. Showing the ‘core purpose’. Museums, both large and small, have thousands, and in many cases millions, of artefacts and images – it is sometimes difficult for a licensee to know where to start in terms of developing products.  But museums that have identified the core purpose – the one thing that is recognised above all, can start with developing products around that idea before moving on.  For example Imperial War Museums (IWM) has 11 million photographs – an astonishing amount, but it is best known for its objects – in particular its Spitfires.  It also hosts popular air shows at its branch at Duxford – where Spitfires often feature.  The retail team at IWM know that anything with a Spitfire sells, and this is mirrored in the wider world where the authenticity of the brand helps retail sales.
  3. Exhibitions – Strong exhibitions are the lifeblood of museums and can bring in new audiences. Exhibitions can also bring in new licensees, as they see for the first time the opportunities that may be obtained, and a new audience or a new style. The V & A has been a trailblazer with its exhibition programme – queues around the building, evening openings and a superb retail offer mirrored in its licensing programme.
  4. Anniversaries – in the heritage world we are blessed with many historical anniversaries. By the nature of its subject matter IWM has several anniversaries a year – the challenge sometimes is to choose the most appropriate. Anniversaries can be a great bonus and licensees can be excited by the prospect of an event that will cause an increase in sales and interest.  However one must be cautious as well.  The anniversary of the start of the First World War (2014) has come and gone – it caused a spike in licensing activity – but the challenge is to grow a programme naturally so that it is not dependent on one-off dates. Luckily for IWM wars last quite a long time – and they are now looking at renewed activity geared to the end of the First World War in 2018, demonstrated in Remembrance and Legacy.
  5. Publicity – here the heritage sector struggles the most. The licensing world thrives on publicity and good news stories.  But with tight budgets and in many cases the use of public money, museums can only dream of the kind of publicity generated by the film and TV studios.  Each advertisement must be assessed and every PR campaign measured – it is difficult to get heard above the clamour, literally, of the big licensors.  At Brand Licensing Europe in October on the first floor where museums and brands are placed there is a quiet oasis above the hubbub below.

Taking all this into consideration, museums and heritage organisations punch above their weight in the licensing world.  There is much to be done and also much more to be discovered by licensees and retailers alike and benefits for all to be shared.

Text: (c) Anne Buky, 2017. All Rights Reserved.



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