At 10:30 a.m. on the second day of the annual Licensing Expo in Las Vegas, mascots from a wide variety of beloved brands lined up by a small stage in the back of the convention center at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, preparing to march around for a character parade. Sonic the Hedgehog was there, as were several Teletubbies, a Smurf, Peppa Pig, the Elf on the Shelf and Geoffrey, the Toys “R” Us giraffe. Also in attendance: a Dole pineapple with huge eyes and supple pink lips, and a Dole banana who looked very happy, but lacked the pout of its pineapple friend.
After being held virtually for two years because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Licensing Expo was back in person this year. The annual event connects owners of intellectual property with people who want to license that property, giving the two groups a space to show off their latest characters and products, network with each other and, ultimately, make deals. From May 24-26, upward of 10,000 people were in Sin City in search of new partnerships (Las Vegas is, after all, the perfect place to quickly solidify a union), and more creative ways to convince consumers to buy whatever the attendees were selling.
All the familiar brands seemed to be in attendance. A massive Pikachu floated above the Pokémon stall. Warner Bros. displayed costumes from the latest Batman movie, the jersey Michael Jordan wore in “Space Jam” and other pop culture artifacts. At Mattel, there were several human-size cardboard cutouts of Barbie, decked out in Balmain, standing in front of a metallic backdrop.
At the stall for Moonbug, the company that produces the popular children’s show “CoComelon,” there was a grown man dressed as Blippi, the star of Moonbug’s other flagship property. Brands for adults were also in attendance. There were stalls for the artists Keith Haring and Norman Rockwell. Shell had a display of its electric scooters, and Legendary Entertainment had a setup promoting the movie “Dune.”
Phil Sklar, co-founder and chief executive of the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum in Milwaukee, Wis., attended the conference as a licensee. His museum has a store that sells a wide variety of bobbleheads, ranging from President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to Gritty, the internet-famous mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers, to Jesus Christ (the last of which does not require a licensing fee).
“Here at Licensing Expo, let’s say we’re talking to a brand, we get to know them, they get to know us,” Mr. Sklar explained. “They see our product. We have samples, so they can touch, feel and see the quality of our work, which is obviously really important for them. Brands want to make sure their brand image is maintained.”
Outside, in the adjacent casinos, the licensing did not end. Branded slot machines were everywhere: a perennially occupied “Crazy Rich Asians” one; too many “Wheel of Fortune” machines to count; and ones with themes such as “Game of Thrones,” Monopoly, “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Voice” and the once-popular Facebook game Farmville. When a slot machine has I.P. attached to it, “casino operators see a significant rise in revenue,” said Jason Lim, the general manager of digital and online gaming at Ainsworth Game Technology, a slot machine company. “Machine X can generate, let’s say, $10,000 a day. Put a piece of I.P. on it, it’s generating $100,000 a day.”
Every year, branded products become more and more popular. In 2019, people bought $292.8 billion in licensed merchandise worldwide, up 4.5 percent from the previous year. Licensing also accounts for a huge amount of media companies’ profits: A 2022 study found that licensed products made up nearly 21 percent of Disney’s revenue. (The company recorded $56.2 billion of licensed retail sales in 2021, per this year’s Top Global Licensors Report.)
Branded products tend to be sold at a premium — a 2009 study found that “the average licensed item is priced 32.9 percent higher than a nonlicensed equivalent.” But people remain drawn to licensed products.
Amanda Cioletti, vice president of content and strategy at the Licensing Group, the company that organizes the Licensing Expo, said she thought people gravitated toward branded products because “it’s one less thing to think about. It’s an automatic response, like, ‘OK, I am comfortable with this line of products, I am comfortable with this logo, therefore I’m going to leverage that trust and grab the other range of things that are branded likewise.’”
Licensed products are ubiquitous and create the texture of our consumerist lives. Walk through the aisle of your local supermarket, and you’ll notice the products: Scooby-Doo fruit snacks, Marvel-branded Dole celery and Pixar Ziploc bags. But much of licensing is inconspicuous. For example, while Mr. Clean’s flagship products like the Magic Eraser come straight from Procter & Gamble, a pair of Mr. Clean rubber gloves are, in fact, licensed, the result of a deal between a rubber glove company and P&G.
“Kids are like, ‘Oh yeah, I want that banana for breakfast because it has a sticker of Shrek on it.’ Adults are the same way,” said Stu Seltzer, the president of the Seltzer Licensing Group, a talent agency for brands including Checkers, Popsicle, the American Red Cross, NBC and Miracle-Gro. (The group also represents one human being: the basketball player Jeremy Lin.)
“You go to Walmart, and you see the No. 1 brand of French fry there is Checkers,” Mr. Seltzer said. “It is made by a company called Lamb Weston. Nobody knows the brand Lamb Weston, nobody. Lamb Weston happens to be one of the biggest potato companies in America.” The consumer sees Checkers and the frozen French fries seem more trustworthy, comfortingly familiar, he added.
TGI Fridays was “one of the pioneers” in this space, according to Frances Alvarez, the vice president of brand management at Beanstalk, another licensing agency, whose clients include P&G, the United States Army and Cheez-It crackers. “It’s the whole idea of taking the Fridays brand and putting it on frozen potato skins and selling it in a grocery store,” she said. (Yes, that’s right, the box of TGI Fridays frozen mozzarella sticks you might buy is, indeed, licensed, and is not made by the restaurant itself.)
When TGI Fridays first began to license its name to frozen food companies, its “franchisees were saying, ‘Wait a minute, nobody’s going to go to a Fridays restaurant because now they can buy potato skins at the grocery store,’” Ms. Alvarez said. “Well, that theory has been totally debunked. It’s a totally different experience when you go to a Fridays with your family or friends.” The product doesn’t aim to recreate the experience of going to a restaurant. Rather, it’s about “leveraging the idea of the restaurant experience at home,” Ms. Alvarez said.
TGI Fridays frozen appetizers are made by Kraft Heinz, and have been on the market for about 15 years. After licensing the chain restaurant’s brand, Mr. Seltzer said, “Heinz went from having very little market share to all of a sudden being a category leader.” Debra Restler, senior vice president of business development and marketing at Beanstalk, estimated that the frozen appetizers grossed around $200 million in annual sales.
These frozen food products use licensing in a way that is imperceptible to the average consumer, and that’s part of why they are so successful. Putting the face of Emeril Lagasse, the Food Network star, on a salad dressing at the supermarket, or the Chick-fil-A logo on a bottle in the condiment section, makes consumers feel safe. It’s hard to know whom and what to trust, but brands are familiar and consumers know what to expect when buying something with a logo on it.
Products with more obvious licensing are also popular, of course; they just possess a different sort of appeal. When you wear an Iron Man T-shirt or a Miller Lite baseball cap, you’re signaling to the world that this particular piece of I.P. is important to who you are.
Pam Lifford, the president of consumer products at Warner Bros., said she thought that branded products were so successful because of the emotional connection consumers felt to the stories they watched on television and at the movies.
“You sit down and watch something and there’s an emotional tug there, a sense of belonging as the story is being told,” Ms. Lifford said. The content we watch “helps us identify how we feel about ourselves, the kind of people we hang out with. It’s a way to bring people together and it’s a way to express yourself.”
Mike Becker, the founder of the toy company Funko, which licenses a wide variety of I.P. for its very popular bobblehead-like products called Funko Pops, said that the company’s success could be traced to the idea that “everyone’s a fan of something.” (At the convention, the company was promoting its latest partnership with LeBron James.)
“There’s a lot of noise in our world now,” Ms. Cioletti observed. “You used to be able to form an identity in a smaller echo chamber.”
Pam Kaufman, the president of consumer products and experiences at Paramount, said that the licensing business “only continues to grow,” and that, while Paw Patrol was the company’s most popular piece of I.P., branded products had “multigenerational” appeal.
“Nostalgia has been a really interesting trend,” Ms. Kaufman observed. “Not to go too far back, but I would say that after 9/11, the world was really shaken, everyone was scared and they only started hunkering down. The same thing kind of happened during the pandemic: You start identifying with and feeling tremendous comfort from the things that bring you joy. A lot of that is characters or brands you identify with.”
During a keynote event at the expo about the many possibilities available to intellectual property holders, the entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk told Ms. Kaufman that “the delta between religion and the Marvel universe is smaller than people realize.” Not to say that Spider-Man has taken the place of God in our culture but, rather, that it is possible (and not particularly strange) to feel a cosmic connection to your favorite content. Maybe your grandfather identifies as a Protestant or a Catholic, but as people become more attached to the media, it’s only natural that younger generations may instead identify as Marvel or DC fans.
Collecting Funko pops or liking the same I.P. as someone else can make a person feel like they’re part of something bigger and provide them with community, something many have found harder to come by in this era of social distancing and social media.
Jason Taylor, a 37-year-old inventory control specialist from Lapeer, Mich., who recently started doing Marvel cosplay — his favorite character to dress up as is Thor — said that his newfound hobby made him feel less lonely. He was not at the Licensing Expo, since it is only open to businesses, but is the sort of consumer who the convention’s attendees hope to reach.
“It’s amazing to find a group of people who share the same creativity and passions,” Mr. Taylor said. “I grew up obsessed with Superman. I collected everything. A lot of people thought that it was weird and I got made fun of for it. To find so many people with the same obsessions, it feels like a sense of belonging.”