Royal Marines branded outdoor clothing, camping equipment, a Royal Navy interactive game of battleships and optical and navigation equipment could be some of the consumer products hitting the High Street in time for Christmas 2008. The reason is the Royal Navy is just about to appoint its first licensing agency to take the brand to the UK's High Street and into the 21st Century.
This particular journey started in 2001 and the Royal Navy is now at the point of entrusting its brand to a raft of licensees in order to reach existing and new audiences, projecting a modern image and perception of the Royal Navy as well as making a modest return on investment.
The roots of licensing
The roots of the licensing industry today can be traced back 30 years or more to the commercial activities of the major Hollywood studios. Big bucks were earned by George Lucas and his first 'Stars Wars' film through licensing and merchandising that it funded every other Star Wars film thereafter and kept artistic control firmly in the hands of its creator. Even if this is a mild exaggeration, it still demonstrates the pulling power of brands to shift product at retail.
More recently, Johnny Depp's new film 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' has led to "Wonka Mania" here in the UK, judging by the sale of Wonka Bars that come in mouth-watering flavours such as Fudge-Mallow Delight, Triple Dazzle Caramel and Nutty Crunch Surprise. Oompah Loompah!
But the licensing industry isn't just about children's character entertainment. Many everyday brands that consumers have come to love and trust are now the subject of major licensing programmes. For example, muscle-brand Harley Davidson launched a range of children's toys and clothing in October while David Beckham's Instinct aftershave has hit the shops in time for Christmas.
Using brand equity to extend into new product categories can add a new dimension to the brand's relationship with consumers as well as adding to the bottom line.
Globally, brand licensing is worth around £94bn a year in retail sales, although getting an accurate figure is virtually impossible. In the UK, this market is estimated to be worth about £7bn at retail. So why the appeal for the Armed Forces brands?
Leaving aside the strategic and legal rationale for maximising the value of tangible and intangible assets, licensing and merchandising is a very compelling proposition.
A new platform for consumer communication
On one level, it's about targeted delivery of messages against a background of fragmented media and audience attention/retention.
This is one reason why sports rights holders have been keen on interactive video games on Xbox 360 and PS3 platforms. Athletes, clubs, governing bodies, sponsors and advertisers are realising that the demographic of people who watch sport live or on TV isn't the same as the videogames audience.
And what's more, gamers interact with their brands more intensely and for longer periods of time. So the way a brand communicates with its audience through licensed product is different as well as offering the potential to reach new audiences through this channel.
On another level, L&M is about presence on the high street. In most consumer-conscious societies the number one leisure activity is shopping. So for a brand to have a chance of reaching its target audience it needs to be pitching on the high street. In this context, the retailer is king. And the high street is the new frontier in the battle for share of attention as well as share of wallet.
In May 2006, corporate and non-character entertainment brands will have their own dedicated show (Exclusively Brands) in response to the growing interest in "adult" brands and this will no doubt produce some interesting developments at retail.
There are signs that this is already happening. For example, the Metropolitan Police have recently started to explore possibilities of licensing its brand.
In a separate development, GSK, manufacturers of Lucozade, recently signed a £1.5m deal with the Ministry of Defence to provide a body fuel sports drink as part of the ration pack for the Armed Forces.
And the RAF recently signed off on a well-executed style guide produced by 4Kids which will see a raft of RAF-branded products hitting the High Street in early 2006.
On the surface these are perfectly reasonable activities and should be welcomed. However, L&M isn't risk free and isn't guaranteed to produce necessarily desirable results unless well-managed.
For example, in September 2005, the Met Police ran into negative headlines in the marketing press which speculated on the line of merchandise that would carry its brand -- everything from salt and pepper shakers to jackets. The Met had failed to manage its PR to clearly explain the rationale behind this move and should've done a serious PR job ahead of announcing its L&M plans.
And of course, there has to be some commonsense as to what products will be acceptable to the public's sense of taste and decency and more to the point -- there's a reasonable prospect of demand for these products.
Failure at retail may not lead to loss of money for the brand owner but will damage the reputation of the brand and make it harder to go back to the high street with another retail proposition whilst the cloud of failure is still hanging over its head.
But even getting this nailed isn't a recipe for success at retail.
Court of public opinion
Like the football manager of a successful team, he doesn't always know what his players are up to off the pitch and he can't be directly responsible for the behaviour of his men or the team's supporters, 24/7.
But this is exactly what we expect from the Armed Forces as the Royal Navy recently discovered. There's been a national outcry over the behaviour of some of Royal Marine recruits in an apparent initiation ceremony.
At one level, the incident probably started out as high jinks but quickly turned into a national PR crisis on the subject of "beasting and bullying" -- not the kind of headlines welcomed by prospective high street retailers interested in stocking Royal Marines merchandise.
The Ministry of Defence has been emphasising that what transpired doesn't reflect the standards of behaviour within the Royal Marines or the Armed Forces and there's to be a full investigation in order to root out those who are culpable. But this at best is damage limitation. The damage has already been done and public confidence in the brand will need to restored.
That said, there's no reason why a future Royal Navy/Royal Marines L&M programme won't be successful at retail.
But you'll have to wait until 2008...
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This article was first published on brandrepublic.com