A virtual panel that took place on June 22 as part of the London Book Fair’s Online Book Fair, titled “Licensing: How to Build a Brand from a Book,” highlighted the role that licensing and licensed experiences play in raising revenue, exposure, and fan engagement for classic book franchises. The panel was moderated by Ryan Beaird, CEO of consultancy Imaginators.tv and former marketing and operations manager for Licensing International U.K.
At the core of the session was a presentation by Thomas Merrington, creative director of Penguin Ventures, the licensing arm of Penguin Children’s Publishing U.K. He spoke about how the publisher extends its Peter Rabbit brand into live events and experiences. These initiatives work hand-in-hand with the books, products, and promotions to create a 360-degree experience around the property, “or, as we call it, telling the full story,” Merrington said. “An abundance of research has shown us that experiences bring more happiness than possessions do. This is a vital part of any large brand strategy.”
Experiences help solidify fans’ relationship with the books, and exhibitions about Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit are one example of that. Penguin owns the archive of Beatrix Potter ephemera and books, which allows it to mount its own exhibits as well as lend artifacts to museums around the world. One exhibit included information about the history of licensed products; Beatrix Potter’s characters were the basis of one of the first character licensing programs and the artifacts included merchandise Potter herself licensed.
Exhibits range widely in size and scope. For the property’s 120th anniversary in 2022, there will be a landmark exhibition in Japan, the biggest market for Peter Rabbit and one with a largely adult fan base, marking the first time the original watercolors will have left the U.K. At the other end of the spectrum is a simple project Penguin Ventures is developing now to engage young fans with the books. It is a low-tech, simple-to-install walk-through Tale of Peter Rabbit, where visitors experience the story inside a 3D version of the title and can spend time with a collection of Peter Rabbit books in a Storytime Corner. The company will start renting out this experience in 2022.
Like most licensors developing events, Penguin Ventures tries to integrate Peter Rabbit books and products into all of its experiences when possible. At the Peter Rabbit & Friends Trail at Manor Farm in Southampton, a 2019 initiative, visitors played interactive games at each stop along the story-based route and received a licensed plush toy as a gift at the end. The 15 National Trust properties that hosted Peter Rabbit Winter Activity Trails in December 2020 featured Peter Rabbit books and merchandise in the gift shops, and Penguin was able to promote its Peter Rabbit Christmas titles in a packet of themed online activity resources that generated 30,000 downloads.
The mall-based, Peter Rabbit-inspired Santa’s Grotto Christmas experiences, which started in 2019 at Trafford Centre in Manchester (and was recreated in 2020 at Centre MK in Milton Keynes), highlighted Peter Rabbit products in the mall’s gift guides and directed consumers to exclusive Peter Rabbit merchandise at the Marks & Spencer store. A bespoke Peter Rabbit book was offered to visitors as a gift from Santa.
Licensed experiences also generate funds for publishers, of course. “One of our main functions is to drive revenue,” Merrington said, explaining that Penguin Ventures receives a royalty on ticket sales if there is a charge to enter an experience or a substantial flat fee if the experience is free to visitors.
Penguin has developed a number of stage shows for Peter Rabbit, including in the West End, which Merrington termed “one of the riskiest and most stressful” of all the experiences the company oversees. But, he added, “Along with film and TV, it’s one of the best ways to get your story in front of your audience in an engaging way beyond the books. The payoffs can be extraordinary, both financially and in exposure.”
Penguin Ventures’ partners also reap benefits from their participation in Peter Rabbit experiences. Kew Gardens and its Wakehurst botanic garden attracted 120,000 guests to their “A Big Day Out with Peter Rabbit” and “Peter Rabbit Goes Wild” experiences for Easter 2018. A 2019 Peter Rabbit-themed tea that took place on The Terrace at the Le Méridien Picadilly (now the Dilly Picadilly) generated attention from press and influencers, 620,000 mentions on social media, and a 900% year-over-year rise in attendance for the hotel’s tea service. The Peter Rabbit tea has become a permanent fixture at the Dilly and attracts adults and children alike.
“Licensing is about extending the brand into the different categories, but it’s very much about telling a story and getting people to join in on that story,” said Rob Wijeratna, joint managing director of Rocket Licensing, the U.K. agent for The Very Hungry Caterpillar, in a q&a panel after Merrington’s presentation.
The panelists agreed that licensing and experiences contribute to keeping a backlist literary property fresh over time. “Our catalog is extensive and it continues to be enjoyed by our customers today,” said Rebecca French, senior licensing manager of the Roald Dahl Story Company. She explained that the licensor is always adding new formats like graphic novels, picture books, special editions, seasonal titles, and soon preschool titles. But the property’s brand partnerships and experiences, including specially packaged story themes for use by retailers and licensees, also help. “There’s much more than just the publishing,” French said.
Alice in Wonderland is a good example of how creative, new takes on a literary property, including in the form of merchandise, can keep audiences engaged over time. The Victoria & Albert Museum is currently hosting an exhibit called “Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser,” which celebrates the origins and reinventions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland over the past 157 years. One component of the exhibit, called “Illustrating Wonderland with Kristjana S. Williams,” inspired a book and a range of merchandise sold exclusively in the V&A gift shop. The museum’s licensees also sell objects at retail stores around the world tied to the museum’s collection of Alice-related artifacts.
As for Peter Rabbit, its licensing program generates $110 million at retail per year. More than 250 million copies of Peter Rabbit books—and counting—have been sold.