We’ve been developing style guides for licensed entertainment brands for the last 20 years. During that time, we’ve generated more than 10,000 pieces of original art for countless licensing programs representing just about every entertainment genre, with licensed consumer products appearing in almost every retail category. Thousands of hours of marketplace and trend research, creative strategy development and design execution later, what have we learned?
We’ve learned that licensees rarely work with the design assets we create in their purest form. So rare, in fact, that we can walk through a mass market retailer after the release of a major motion picture for which we’ve developed the licensing program style guide, and not see a single consumer product with our imagery on it in the exact way it was published in the guide.
When we initially turned our interest in licensing program design development into a formal discipline and revenue stream for our design consultancy, we were enchanted by the novelty of seeing our work on consumer products at retail. As you might imagine, we were extremely disappointed when we saw that licensees were altering our work, sometimes subtly, other times quite dramatically. I mean, why stray from what’s provided in the style guide? Why make more work for yourself if the design assets are “ready to use”? What’s the point of developing standardization guidelines for a brand if they’re not being strictly adhered to by licensees?
Since that time, we’ve come to understand that licensee partners want to take some ownership of their licensed product lines. They want to express a bit of uniqueness and individuality rather than take the chance that their products may leverage the same piece of art as other licensees in exactly the same way. A slight alteration can easily achieve some ownability without veering from the brand’s visual aesthetic.
Evolving into more versatile licensing style guide design development
Our approach to style guide design development has evolved considerably as paradigm shifts have taken place in licensed product development methodologies. Transmedia storytelling has changed the landscape of licensed consumer products quite dramatically, with new product forms being introduced in new categories through completely new channels. As a result, the purpose of a licensing program style guide has shifted from strict standardization of artwork to the standardization of a visual aesthetic.
Style guide design assets now need to be as versatile as possible to accommodate a variety of product forms. In fact, the modification of style guide artwork by licensees is often encouraged by the licensor, as long as it remains aesthetically on-brand and on-trend. The inclusion of product application concepts as part of a licensing program style guide has become paramount. It is through these fictitious products that trend themes and the appropriate visual aesthetic for the licensed brand are portrayed. To illustrate the versatility of a licensing program’s design assets, they’re often altered as they are applied to a variety of products concepts.
Empowering licensees to successfully modify design assets
There are certainly challenges in allowing, and even encouraging licensee partners to alter a property’s design assets. Not all licensees have the savvy or creativity to make good design decisions. With this in mind, our clients are now beginning to look for ways for licensees to become more successful during the product development process. A potential emerging trend: the inclusion of a “how to” section within the style guide that illustrates, in a step-by-step fashion, how licensees should approach the creation of their own design assets. Shifting from strict standardization to the standardization of a visual aesthetic requires some nurturing and a new approach to guidance. In this case, a little bit of education can go a very long way.
If you’re seasoned in the development of licensing program style guides for entertainment properties, if you’re responsible for brand assurance, or even if you’re a licensee partner, we would love to hear your thoughts on the manipulation of a licensed brand’s design assets. We would also be interested in hearing your thoughts on standardization trends.