On the occasion of the Masterclass “Content Reigns Supreme”, held online last 22 April, organized by Bologna Children’s Book Fair and dedicated to the evolution of children’s content from publishing through licensing and digital, LM interviewed Susan Bolsover, Global Licensing and Consumer Products Director, Penguin Random House, to learn how she has built a well-established licensing-out team for the book-based IPs of one of the world’s leading publishers.
Penguin Ventures manages an impressive raft of beloved literary brands and characters. What is the secret of your great success?
Thank you for your kind words! I think our success is in part based on the fact that we have such wonderful source material to work with. The brands and characters we license are based on classic heritage properties that have been loved for generations and we are really building on that recognition. It is fair to say that in some ways this is nothing new. Beatrix Potter herself oversaw the development of the first licensing and consumer products programme for Peter Rabbit dating back to 1905. Beyond that, we have great international agents, licensees and partners to work with who apply the same ethos to our brands as we do ourselves, which is that while we are commercial we are also caretakers. Our job is to make sure our brands are still here and still loved by future generations.
In recent years, before Covid19, your strongest categories were toys, gifts, apparel etc. What are the most important categories now in these challenging post-pandemic times?
It really depends on the market. For us, apparel is still our biggest driver globally and allows us to work with partners in all sectors of the market, from collaborations to direct to retail executions. In the UK and Australia, this category is really focused on baby and infant clothing. However, in a market such as Japan, we focus more on gifting and collectibles and health and beauty, both of which have seen fantastic growth from 2017 onwards, as well as promotions. I think the key to the success of any brand post Covid is to look at where the consumer is now shopping and what kinds of products they are meaningfully engaging with. It’s fair to say the world has changed massively since the beginning of 2020 and many of those new ways of shopping and consuming are now here to stay.
What countries do your international IPs cover? Are you working on further expansions?
Our focus markets for Peter Rabbit are really the UK & Eire, Australia & New Zealand, Japan, China (including Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan) and North America. We are really focusing our efforts on these key markets and working in partnership with some great agents as well to build both our licensing programmes as well as our retail footprint. Given the quicker recovery of economies in Asia, we are seeing some great growth opportunities coming from those markets. In terms of further expansion we are looking at opportunities in Europe and are in the process of finalising agreements with two agencies in the market.
The IP Peter Rabbit is the huge star of Penguin Ventures. What novelties are plannedand what will your next licensing choices be?
We have two big years coming up in 2022 and 2023. 2022 is Peter Rabbit’s 120th birthday which is really an amazing landmark. Our brand team is working on some really exciting marketing plans for our key territories, which will be announced soon. From a licensing perspective, we are currently locking down cross-category promotions with major retailers in the UK & Eire and Australia & New Zealand. Given the theme of the year will be celebration, we are looking at category gaps in the party and picnic wear sector to make sure everyone has just what they need to wish Peter a happy birthday! In Japan, we are about to announce a very exciting opportunity with TOEI too, so watch this space! If 2022 isn’t a big enough opportunity, 2023 is the Year of the Rabbit and we are currently building our strategy with our agent in China, which will be the lead market for this initiative.
And what about the main developments of your other classic brands (The Snowman, Flowers Fairies…)?
Next year, The Snowman and The Snowdog (the sequel animation to the Raymond Briggs classic, The Snowman) turns 10 next year and we are in discussions for product extensions to some of our existing lines as well as the potential to revisit the music from the film, perhaps as a concert, which would be a brilliant opportunity to bring people together.
On Flower Fairies, we have a fantastic and really dedicated fan following and our social media channels in particular have a very engaged community. Our core products range from clothing and paper goods to giftware and collectibles and we are currently working with a partner to further develop our garden ranges, which is such a natural extension for the brand.
On the other side of the business, what IPs based on contemporary books are doing well, and in what categories?
The focus of our portfolio is heritage brands, but this doesn’t mean we don’t have an eye to the classics of the future. Our amazingly talented editorial teams within the business often bring us new opportunities to assess, sometimes from third parties, but our energy really needs to be focused on how we can grow our own brands and IP from within the business, which will allow us to really maximise the synergies with publishing and grow properties more holistically.
From a publishing perspective Penguin Random House is blessed with an amazingly rich backlist as well as a new and exciting front list of titles and debut authors so there is certainly no shortage of book brands and authors to consider.
In your own extensive experience, how can licensing support publishing (and vice versa)?
Book brands have an in-built level of trust with consumers that can often be more challenging to build with media-based properties, especially where parents, as the guardians of key purchasing decisions, might not really “get” a brand their child loves. Books are something that everyone can relate to, and unlike some media brands, they sit on your shelves as a constant reminder. I also think in these more uncertain times that book-based brands have a sense of comfort, safety and familiarity for consumers, and for retailers they can be a more stable choice than media-driven brands.
I think in return, licensing can help extend out the appeal of a book’s characters and help complete the story for consumers. People often forget that some of the biggest, global brands began their lives as books - from Cinderella to Harry Potter, and while they may have grown into global powerhouse film franchises, they all started their lives on a bookshelf, which is testament to the power they have with readers around the world.
Interview by Licensing Magazine team
With over 20 years industry experience, Susan has been a licensee, agent and licensor working with and for some of the biggest names in Character and Brand licensing. Susan began her licensing career at BBC Worldwide managing in-house pre-school brands as part of the Global Brand Development team before going on to Italian publishing house, DeAgostini where she co-ordinated global product roll-outs for brands such as STAR WARS and THE LORD OF THE RINGS franchises. Prior to joining Penguin Random House Susan spent almost 10 years at award winning global licensing agency, CPLG, as European Publishing Director representing some of Hollywood’s biggest studios including Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, and DreamWorks Animation and blockbuster movie franchises such as DESPICABLE ME, SHREK and STAR TREK . Susan played a pivotal role in setting up Penguin Ventures (part of Penguin Random House UK) the team she heads up in her current position as Licensing and Consumer Products Director. She has a remit to grow the children’s divisions’ wholly owned brands including PETER RABBIT and THE SNOWMAN, both in the UK and internationally across licensing and consumer products, and was most recently an executive producer on the Peter Rabbit Movie, which took over $350m at the global box office.