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Brand licensing opportunities and museums – mercenary or an inevitability?

Busy Museum shop

The great museum pivot has been a hot topic in recent months. As institutions around the globe have fought to react to lockdowns, closures and heavy restrictions in many parts of the world, many have looked at new ways to engage, entertain and make ends meet.

The race towards a digital future has been well documented, of course. But amongst for-profit organisations and public-funded bodies that are missing their usual donations pot and merchandise sales, the appeal of new or additional revenue streams is an enticing one right now. Although hardly a new innovation, the effects of 2020 have led many to look again at the value in licensing and extended brand opportunities.

The souvenir shop at the end of a museum tour has long been an important revenue generator for arts and culture venues around the world.  As a mix of external products chosen to complement the museum collections and branded items, the gift shop can bring the magic of the museum home.  It comes as no surprise then that museums can increasingly leverage the value of their brand through licensing opportunities.

Licensing isn’t simply a way to extend the magic of the gift shop to wider retail outlets.  It offers a great deal more to a museum than just revenue when done creatively and effectively.  By collaborating on product ranges that speak to an audience, effective licensing can showcase the power of a museum as a brand beyond the building or buildings it inhabits.  A message that is especially important at a time when museums must justify their value without allowing the public through their doors.

Natural History Museum edition of the Cluedo Game produced under brand licensing deal

Licensing is, of course, not new to the museum sector. The larger and more recognisable museums globally already license products on a vast scale and initiate partnerships across a wide range of products and ventures.  The Natural History Museum in London is a prime example of this, having embarked on a number of collaborations over the years.  As a leader in the field and armed with a broad and international appeal, the museum partners not only with brands interested in replicating its core values but also its look and feel as a protector of the natural world.  Toys and clothing which reflect the Natural History collections are a mainstay of their brand but when it comes to licensed products, the museum keeps the market guessing with creative and unique partnerships.

The collaboration with Roald Dahl to create children’s clothing following the successful James and the Giant weekend at the museum was a particular highlight and reflective of the licensing team’s ability to think outside of the box.  However, they offer more traditional partnerships too. The Natural History Museum recently unveiled a children’s wear range with John Lewis and licensee Bro Global Group to offer a unisex take on fun and educational clothing to celebrate the environment and our responsibility to care for it.

Licensing opportunities offer a myriad of opportunities to museums in the current challenging climate.  On the one hand, they offer clear commercial opportunities at a time when revenue diversification is absolutely essential to arts and culture organisations.  On the other, they offer a chance to raise awareness through previously untapped marketing channels to engage new audiences in the brand.  Licensing has become a key part of showcasing the value of arts and cultural organisations to the public that funds them. And, of course, in a 12-month period when ticket revenues, funding, shop sales and donations have been substantially reduced, these sideline revenue streams can quickly become an essential source of income.

Image of the V&A tea produced with brand licensing deal

An interesting example of creativity in the licensing space is the collaboration between the V&A and British tea brand, Twinings.  A museum might not initially seem like the natural partner to promote tea but the idea was built in the most simple of ways – shared history.  The V&A museum was created with the help of Queen Victoria who was also responsible for issuing Twinings with their first Royal Warrant in 1837.

Built on a foundation of collective royal history, it is interesting to note that the licensing agreement to create gift sets was initially focused on the Chinese market.  By joining together two brands with complementary appeal to the Asian market, Twinings and V&A created a branding powerhouse focused on engaging an audience interested in quintessentially English products in the ideal premium gift package.

Of course, there are times when the power of a brand comes with no licensing deal at all. One of the most prominent examples of this can be found outside of the museum sector and in the science and tech world at NASA. The rise of NASA-branded merchandise has been a masterclass in the power of promotion without commercial gain.  NASA as an organisation is heavily associated with advances in science and technology and the internationally recognised NASA logo has nostalgic appeal as an icon of American success.  It is experiencing a wave of popularity as a brand for youth-centred clothing and apparel.  Its current resurgence on popular consumer items and fashion offers no financial returns to NASA but with a public mission to promote science and technology to the world, use of the NASA logo sits within its objectives to create wider awareness of its work.

Too mercenary or an inevitability?

Perhaps the idea that the future of museums relies on brand rights and licensing deals is an unrealistic one. After all, how many T-shirts would have to be sold to keep the doors of an institution open? Yet the question of how arts and culture organisations reposition their business model is not an empty one. Be it merchandising, placing online collections behind a paywall, ticketing live streamed events or simply finding new ways to fundraise, this uncomfortable period of contemplation is surely one we need to use to consider how we can move our most beloved institutions away from such a precarious situation. And perhaps licensing is just one way to help spread the risk in future.

Learn more about how museums are increasing their income with digital at the MuseumNext Digital Income Summit.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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