Licensed apparel that connects through iconography

The Power of the “Secret Handshake” in Licensed Apparel.

It may not be appropriate for all licensed brands, but there’’s no denying the desire that can be generated among fans of certain entertainment properties when licensed apparel is designed with a discreet, subtle approach. I’’m not just talking about products designed with a limited color palette or a small, strategically placed brand identity. I’’m talking about those that leverage symbolism or iconography to tell the brand story in a way that can only be understood by the brand’’s most loyal and hard-core enthusiasts.

This approach is most successful for entertainment properties with a more mature and discerning target demographic –– particularly those that have a cult-like following who view themselves as part of an elite group. Fans of these types of entertainment properties aren’t interested in the barrage of mainstream products that hit the market during the hype of the latest superhero movie release. They want products that are designed with a sense of authenticity and an attention to detail that accurately speaks to the brand’’s heritage. They want to wear apparel and accessories designed with the understanding that the brand is more than just a source of entertainment –– it’’s an integral part of their lifestyle. Products like these serve as a “secret handshake” between fans who share a deep affinity for their favorite entertainment properties.

Being discreet with a pop culture phenomenon’s design elements

Even if you’re not a hard-core Star Wars fan, it would be impossible for you to be unaware of the hit series, The Mandalorian. An instant pop culture phenomenon from the moment it premiered on Disney+ in November of 2019, the series captured the hearts of everyone with “The Child” (or the “baby Yoda” named Grogu). It didn’t take long for the market to become saturated with products featuring The Child and the Mandalorian himself. However, fans who are not particularly interested in looking like a billboard promoting the series could purchase apparel featuring something much more subtle – the Mythosaur skull icon, which appears on the Mandalorian’s shoulder armor. Unless you’re paying very close attention, you may not even notice the icon while watching the series. So, a t-shirt emblazoned with the skull of the city-sized reptilian beast that dominated ancient Mandalore would only resonate with uber-fans who are completely up to speed on their Star Wars lore.

Speaking of the Star Wars brand, the team-up between Lucasfilm and watch-maker, Nixon, produced a handful of Star Wars-themed watches that are the epitome of refinement and subtlety in licensed product design. In a previous post, you can check out the Nixon 51-30 Boba Fett watch that’s designed to represent every Star Wars fan’s favorite bounty hunter. The olive green and burgundy rotating bezel, Jaster Mereel’s insignia and Fett’s carbine rifle in the sundials, and his kill stripes in the dial ring are such subtle hints that it’s truly an “if you know, you know” scenario.

Leveraging visual language to iconically tell the brand story

We employed this approach when we developed the first-ever licensing program for Magic: The Gathering, the world’’s premiere trading card game. In collaboration with key members of the Wizards of the Coast team, we established a visual aesthetic for the program that imparts a sense of smart sophistication. All of the design elements we created were based purely on imagery of the key Planeswalker characters, their color associations, their magic powers and symbolism associated with the card game. None were overly designed or garish. It was truly an exercise in subtlety and simplicity in an effort to capture the appropriate tone that would resonate with Magic fans.

Visual language tells brand story

One of the most successful series of design elements in the Magic: The Gathering licensing program is based on the “crest” icon found on every Planeswalker character card, which contains the character’’s “loyalty” number. Each of our designs for this series features an individual Planeswalker’’s crest and loyalty number, which appears on a background of the character’’s magic color. The crest in each design is “affected” by the character’’s magic power. These designs connect powerfully with the Magic fan base because of their authentic depiction of a key aspect of the card game.

The “cool” factor? Only Magic players know the meaning of the symbology. Owning apparel emblazoned with this imagery tells other Magic players that you’’re one as well –– in a visual language that only they will understand –– while showing your affinity for a particular Planeswalker character.

Questions:

  • These are just a couple of examples of entertainment properties that leverages symbolism and iconography to tell their brand story among hard-core enthusiasts. What are some others?
  • Which licensed products can you identify, whether apparel based or not, that generate desire among fans through the “”secret handshake”” approach.

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