The power of licensing to help consumers through societal change was one theme that came up often in the 17 sponsor-led keynote presentations and educational panels that were a central component of Licensing Week Virtual, the digital replacement for this year’s canceled Licensing Expo. The event, hosted by Informa Markets’ Global Licensing Group and Licensing International, took place June 15–19. Licensed properties and products, including children’s books, have a role to play, speakers said, in helping families come to terms with racism and social justice, manage daily life during and after the pandemic, take steps to be more eco-friendly, and face other current concerns.

In a presentation called “The Future of Consumer Products and Retail: Top Industry Execs Share Where We Go from Here,” Felicia Frazier, senior v-p of children’s sales at Penguin Random House, noted that the Covid-19 crisis led first to a surge in workbooks and activity books, followed by interest in classic titles as well as titles tied to trusted brands such as Nickelodeon, as families looked for ways to keep kids learning and simply pass the time while at home. Topical titles also have seen a spike. “SpongeBob Goes to the Doctor is way up,” she said. More recently, books about race and diversity have been doing well. “We’ve seen a tremendous lift in books that let us have that conversation through storytelling.”

In a q&a on “Doing Well by Doing Good,” Scott Chambers, Sesame Workshop’s senior v-p/general manager of educational media and licensing, North America, detailed his organization’s recent focus on mission-based initiatives. These have ranged from partnering with CNN on town halls to help families understand Covid-19 and racism, to encouraging recycling through a promotional tie-in with web-hosting company Squarespace, to creating licensed products with Toms Shoes and other charitable licensees. The Workshop’s “Caring for Each Other” initiative, launched just after the pandemic hit, encompassed a variety of media to assist parents, kids, and teachers, with content focused on topics such as hygiene, routines, feelings, and physical movement. The organization also made hundreds of ebooks available for free and saw more than one million downloads in the month of March, Chambers said.

Another topic that recurred throughout the virtual show’s educational presentations was the need to get products to market quickly, to be ready to pivot in an instant as the licensing and retail landscapes continually change, and to rely on licensing partners to be flexible. Frazier explained how Random House adjusted its inventory levels, in part by increasing the amount of printing done in the U.S., to meet a sudden 10% rise in demand for children’s books early in the pandemic. She also noted that the company started assisting its struggling customers by handling direct fulfillment on their behalf. That included shipping school book-fair orders for local stores that had to shut their bricks-and-mortar locations for several months.

Licensing Week Virtual panels also highlighted a number of success stories, best practices, and challenges relating to ecommerce, streaming, and other digital platforms, almost all of which have seen spikes in usage since the start of the pandemic. Eric Karp, senior v-p of global brand licensing at BuzzFeed, licensor of the online publication Tasty, among others, sat on a panel called “Digital to Physical: Bridging Online Brands to On-Shelf Success.” He recounted working with Penguin Random House’s Clarkson Potter imprint to bring an on-demand cookbook to life in the physical world in less than three months, versus a year and a half for a typical licensed cookbook. The on-demand version of Tasty Latest and Greatest had sold 250,000 copies in its first two weeks of availability, and Clarkson Potter wanted to challenge itself to bring it to life in physical form quickly, according to Karp. That first print book, published in December 2017, has evolved into a five-book franchise that has sold more than one million copies in nine languages. The sixth title, Tasty Adulting, is set for a November release.

On the same panel, Taylor Carlson, v-p of brand development at Group Nine Media, which owns PopSugar, Thrillest, and other online publications, spoke about a deal with Scholastic that marked the first foray into licensed products for The Dodo, a site devoted to animal videos. The first book, Pumpkin’s Story, was released in Scholastic’s school channels in fall 2019, followed by two other titles, 50 Odd Couples and Little but Fierce, which hit retail in February. More are set to follow. Sales of the series have exceeded half a million copies, according to Carlson. Group Nine now plans to expand The Dodo into other product categories. “We’re looking at how to leverage the brand equity in this space due to Scholastic’s success,” Carlson said.

Licensing Week Virtual attracted 4,477 attendees from around the world, who collectively drove 32,000 unique content views and scheduled 2,933 virtual meetings, according to Informa. The average visitor spent more than 23 hours on the platform during the five-day event. According to several of the 30 sponsor-exhibitors, the publishing category seemed to be well represented among registrants.

Publishers contacted by PW said the time they spent at the virtual event was fairly limited. Most said they checked into a few of the show’s panels and presentations, participated in some meetings with current or potential licensing partners, or attended the virtual presentations of the big licensors they work with, including Disney and Nickelodeon, which were timed to Licensing Week Virtual but were not part of the official event. (These licensee summits, where licensors present their plans for the coming months and years, are one of the primary reasons publishers attend the Expo each year.) Some publishers, even those heavily involved in licensing, said they did not attend any aspect of Licensing Week, with some citing time constraints as one factor.

“I did pop in and out of Licensing Week Virtual, but as I am sure most would agree, it did not compare to being there in person,” said Mary McCagg, director of licensing and national accounts manager at Candlewick Press, a longtime exhibitor at Licensing Expo, echoing the thoughts of other publishers. “A big part of our licensing show experience is not only scheduling new meetings with prospective partners, but also catching up with our current partners, as well as having joint meetings with our licensing colleagues who travel over from the U.K. This piece of our Walker Books Group business was difficult to replicate in the virtual world.”

Informa has said it would likely offer some virtual components to complement future live Licensing Expos going forward.