Designing Successful Licensed Brands from the Inside Out

There’s no denying the fact that licensed brands achieve greatness through great design. Of course, every great licensed brand must have a clear marketing strategy in place and be consistently managed by the brand owner, but it’s stellar design at every consumer touch point that makes superstars among the sea of licensed properties that often fail to live up to expectations.

Design is arguably the most crucial component of the marketing mix. It’s what gives visual expression to the brand and its core visual assets. Uncovering the visual assets most closely associated with the licensed brand; those that are most indicative of the brand and elicit a strong emotion connection among fan devotees, is the starting point. The unique brand story can then be captured and told through great design.

Too often, we see new licensed brands trying to leverage existing and emerging trends to align with the tastes of their target consumers. Including trend-oriented design themes as part of an established brand’s licensing program is not only good practice, it’s absolutely essential if the brand intends to remain relevant with its fans. However, relying on trends right out of the gate can prove costly for new brands entering the licensing game. Instead, new licensed brands need to first invest in building a creative strategy that will clearly differentiate it from every other brand in the marketplace. 

Differentiating a brand through creative strategy

To be successful in licensing, every new brand must first think brand-centrically. And the key to success here is brand deconstruction. By deconstructing a brand down to its DNA, its inherent visual cues will be uncovered. Those that are most dominant and emotive can then be leveraged in the development of a “visual hook” associated with the brand. Maybe it’s an icon or an architectural element that derives from a critical part of the brand story. Or a particular combination of colors and textures that are meaningful to the brand. Perhaps it’s a quirky personality attribute of the brand’s main character that can be interpreted visually. Whatever it may be, the visual hook can then become the basis of a strong creative strategy through which it is infused into every piece of artwork in the brand’s licensing program. When incorporated into its core consumer product licensing style guide, the licensed brand then stands alone and apart from every other brand competitive brand, whether licensed or not.

A unique and ownable visual hook will benefit a new licensed brand by:

  • ensuring that all products bearing the license will be immediately identifiable among the myriad of competitive brands vying for consumer attention within its key categories.
  • transcending trends, rather than being associated with a particular trend.
  • being able to accommodate any trend while maintaining its own creative aesthetic.
  • working across all consumer product categories that appeal to the brand’s target audience.

Ultimately, this brand-centric approach to creative strategy development – establishing a visual hook that derives from a brand’s own DNA – enables the licensed brand to become timeless and adaptable, and outlast transient pop cultural trends-of-the-moment. It will allow for design freedom, rather than being confining, while reinforcing the brand’s unique visual attributes. It will also have the ability to immediately connect the brand story to consumers on products and packaging. And it will have the power to become iconic to legions of fans.

Introducing licensees to the creative strategy

Once the creative strategy is established, the onus is on the brand’s style guide to convey its proper implementation to licensee partners. It should show various ways that the visual hook might be applied to consumer product concepts representing the brand’s key retail categories. It should demonstrate the clever ways that design assets can be leveraged “as is” or be manipulated to uniquely work for a particular product. These examples will not only help to inspire licensees as they implement the creative strategy, but they will illustrate the proper visual aesthetic that should be achieved through product development. Standardizing the use and implementation of the visual hook, while also showing how it can be stretched for various applications, will give licensees valuable guidance.

Once product is in the marketplace, consumers will actively seek them out and they’ll be surprised and delighted by the inventive ways in which the visual hook has been used. This is especially true for kids and their favorite brands. When branded products appeal at such a cognitive and emotional level, they influence consumer purchases. 

So, in the beginning of a licensed brand’s lifecycle, forget about trends. They’ll have their place once the brand becomes successful. Think, instead, in terms of establishing that unique, ownable visual hook. Build a creative strategy around it to serve as the basis for the brand’s core licensing program. Reinforce it with a well-conceived, well-executed style guide. Then succeed in making it exciting for consumers to actually seek out the brand’s licensed consumer products in their favorite retail categories. Generating excitement around a licensed brand, and keeping consumers hungry for more – through design – that’s how successful licensed brands are created.

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