The paradox of creative choice in Licensing

Articles, Blog


Is Licensing commoditizing design?

Dom Gregory is concerned that retail buyers are mitigating risk by asking for more choice and bespoke solutions. There’s little evidence that offering more choice or bespoke solutions to consumers encourages them to buy more… it simply serves to help retailers feel safer when making decisions.


When I talk to designers working in product development and licensing, they report that they are reviewing or developing more products concepts than ever before. This in turn leads them to consistently require new proprietary assets.

The increase in products developed by licensees is often viewed as an indicator of confidence, but it turns out this may not always be the case.

Product and graphic designers who develop style guide assets or product concepts are increasingly servicing a volume business where every retailer/country/partner wants a creative point of difference. Differentiation, when applied to a product format or SKU, offers a greater choice to retailers and consumers.

Creatively, differentiation usually falls to product developers and designers to execute.  This might mean a simple colour and artwork switch or a complete ground up product redesign in the same category. This is where retailers can take advantage of licenses in in turn licensors. It usually starts with: “I want something different to everyone else”.

Would the real brand please stand up?

The most common expression of any brand in licensing is through use of proprietary design or artwork, so the most common way to differentiate a product is to create a bespoke brand experience by differentiating design.

In some cases, such as apparel, this can mean if 40 products are designed, only one makes it to market. In other categories where prices points are low and volumes need to be high, a large catalogue of designs and concepts are created to service a handful of final products.

This cannot be good business for brand owners who have to budget to create more proprietary assets and artwork to service this design-hungry methodology. Nor can it be good for brand consistency, if the brand is often being diluted into different executions.


I believe we need to consider that too much choice means less informed decisions are made by retail buyers. 


If you have time, watch this TED talk on the Paradox of choice from Barry Schwartz. In summary he concludes an explosion of choice only serves to escalate expectations beyond what is realistic and achievable.

The waste in wanting more

Because of the high volume of choice required just to differentiate products to retail buyers, there is an awful lot of design wastage going on in Licensing.

The 80/20 rule tends to apply in licensing: meaning only around 20% of all products developed will make it to market out of all products developed.

Of this 20 % that make it to market, 80% of all the revenue will come from only 20% of the product. That’s a disproportionate development overhead before any products have even made it to market.

This implies that at least 80% of creative work may go to waste.

Perhaps a rethink is in order by the brand or media owners to explore consumer perceptions around licensed products and experiences. Explore insights around what do consumers think when they are buying a licensed product? What is considered a good representation of the brand? Do consumers really want more choice?

What can be done to support retailers? 

So is there a clear opportunity to create less, waste less and be more persistent and consistent with what we do create?

In short yes, but brand owners need to provide insight and education to their partners on how and why consumers relate to their brands.

For example: A point of difference is frequently requested by a retail buyer but not an end consumer. However sales of products usually validate that the consumer will prefer products that are closer to the ‘core’ of the brand, with fewer points of differentiation.


The risk here is each different iteration of a brand potentially makes your brand start to appear inconsistent or diluted.


From a retail side: POS and SKU data is in short supply and would provide designers with more substantial evidence of what sells. This too would reduce high volumes of design waste.

The industry is observing how consumers decision making relies on reviews, ‘best seller’ and ‘related product’ carousels on shopper sites like Amazon. The process of reducing alternatives makes choosing easier for consumers and will encourage more intuitive multi buys at the point of purchase.

Buyers continue to demand more ideas from designers to mitigate failure and ensure they have ‘seen everything, missed nothing’ believing they are making less risky choices. In my opinion that’s uneconomical and degrades design to a commodity to reduce individual risk. It also induces paralysis when it comes to making decisions on final range planning.

I believe that brand owners need to shift the burden of choice back to themsleves. They need to stand behind their brands and product designs by utilising insight and consumer engagement to connect with retailers.


In support of retail I don’t know many brand owners who are helping retailers to really innovate using shopper insights.


Perhaps theres opportunity to explore a ‘Kickstarter’ model for brand owners to demonstrate to buyers what works for brand audiences. Or using platforms like Facebook Fan pages to engage with fans and test products at design inception. More brands are benefiting from fan engagement within brand communities so I believe it’s time for brand owners to move the retailers closer to their audience and consumers.

The dynamic and productive work of sales, design and retail teams to get products to market is sometimes luck more than planning. However, with a little more insight and innovation there could be a considerably more efficient business model which would be great news for designers who can feel their work is with turn it out churn out to burn out.

Dom Gregory has worked with a catalogue of award-winning brands and family content both client and agency side. He has a 15 year track record of developing creative, strategic and commercial brand extensions for content creators, entertainment brands and global media owners.
His two favourite superheroes are growing up too fast at home.



Dom Gregory’s other licensing articles that may interest you:

Is licensing a happy creative accident?

10 Questions to ask before taking a creative role in Licensing

Dom Gregory on brands:

A brand has only one true love




Creative Unicorns in Licensing: 10 Questions to ask before accepting a new role

Articles, Blog, Product development


Brand monetisation is evolving and expanding fast. Working with billion dollar revenue generating entertainment brands will sound enticing to a designer.  Dom Gregory wants to help employers, HR and recruitment agencies be clear about what they need and for designers to be well informed about what they are getting into.

Creative roles in brand and product development are increasingly broad yet specialist. Media or content owners require designers who are highly adaptable, brand agile and are capable of  manoeuvring between clients & stakeholders both smoothly and efficiently.

Creatives should be better informed of what they are getting into as jobs descriptions in this field are muddy. Recruitment specialists can struggle to understand the nuances of the brand and product development value chain and internal HR can over-simplify the requirements of an increasingly complex and fast-moving business model.

Creatives are seen as a cost to the business but often glue together the whole eco-system of monetising brands.

The term ‘Design Unicorn’ originated from digital creatives responding to job descriptions that required a designer that could also code back end and front end. Then throw in some social media, marketing, UX and UI to extract maximum value. they felt they needed to be ‘magical and otherworldly’ to fulfil the employers requirements.

In brands and licensing it’s similar in the sense that some designers need to execute design, approve products, manage clients, manage internal stakeholders, project manage external resources, design new products, pitch new ideas, train licensees and reinvent packaging. It’s great if you like a broad remit and have access to additional resources, but potentially disastrous if you want to practise your craft in a specific creative field.

Designers get frustrated if they sign up for creative roles and find themselves bogged down with process, meetings and high volumes of emails.

The good news for creatives is the value chain of licensing is very long. There’s opportunity across a broad range of skill sets.

Let’s not forget its all driven by bottom line. As a business brand monetisation requires creative, marketing, sales, finance and legal skills sets to sell, operate and collect revenue. Creative teams can sit across multiple functions and as a result roles are often varied, challenging and highly rewarding. Many organisations struggle to find creative talent that is adaptable and proficient in both creative and commercial skill sets.

Beware though, depending on where you are in the value chain you may also find yourself asked to spread yourself too thinly or may become swallowed by process. Not a very enticing prospect for a fledgling designer.

Therefore recruitment ads for creative jobs in brand licensing or consumer products need clarity. It’s worth finding out more about how the organisation is set up before making a choice.

Here’s a list of 10 questions that will help you find out more about a design role within a brand extension or licensing context.

First and foremost establish if you are going to be working in product development or product approvals either client or licensee side.

Q: Am I approving or submitting products?

Find out how many estimated products there are in total per year across how many brands and how many categories. Remember each product has at least 3 stages so multiply it out.

Q: Will I spend most of my time using an online product approval system?

This is a deal breaker because some designers love this way of working, others find it mindnumbing and creatively soul destroying.

Q: How much time will I be spending designing new products vs product approvals?

It’s highly unlikely you will be asked to design many new or original products client side. As a licensee this will be the core of your work. If there is a regular need for new product development work, find out if there is a freelance budget to support this work.

Q: I am a ‘product designer’, will I be designing products or will I be managing other companies to design products?

In reality the relationship is; partners & licensees develop the products, client side licensors are the brand guardians. If you come with product expertise that’s a bonus, but the licensees have expertise too and they are putting up the financial risk so often have a greater final say when costs are involved

As a designer, if you can help inject more of a brand into their product then clients will appreciate you more. If it’s a DTR role supporting high street fashion retail, then its likely you will have a hands on product design role.

Creative asset development roles:

Q: Am I designing style guides or managing other designers who will do this?

Style guides, pitch kits, product development guidelines etc are the assets your partners need to develop products and solutions. This is a highly creative role, but avoid taking on this role and a product approval role.This is because it’s almost impossible to manage both effectively at the same time due to left and right brain conflicts!

Q: Will I be developing retail promotions, theme parks or experiential brand extensions?

These are all part of the brand development mix. Sometimes these are managed by specific brand teams within a business as they may tie into on air advertising or ‘barter’ deals. A lot of the creative heavy lifting is delivered by external companies so a typical role is a combination of project management and art direction. They are a lot of fun to work on, although often require diverse skills resources and wide stakeholder management.

Personal development prospects:

Q: Will I be travelling to meet with partners?

Travel may include other countries for trade shows or licensees. Travel is a definite bonus and gets work done faster, but it can be exhausting. 

Q: I am not a designer, but I love design and can articulate design direction:  – can I add value to this business?

Yes! Some people land in licensing with no design skillsThis is fine at a junior level if mentored closely by a more experienced creative. You will learn on the job skills and need to adapt very quickly. Many successful and respected creative heads have no formal design training but lead extremely well.

It will depend on the size and scale of the business, the brand and task complexity. Most companies expect you to know something about the product categories you are approving and have a good working knowledge of the Adobe suite of programmes to make changes or suggestions to submitted products. Alternatively if your experience is as a creative project manager, then there are plenty of  less creative roles managing workloads and budgets.

Q: How much autonomy will I be given?

The further up the strategic and creative direction career ladder you go, the more stakeholders will need managing. Often the most junior staff are given high levels of autonomy after initial training and brand immersion to work directly with partners and move brand solutions forward.

Q: Where can I go after this role?

If the organisation is large there will be opportunities to move upwards and across to other categories or commercial areas. Licensing has a large industry network of people who will value your brand and product skills, so finding other positions are best approached by using your network of partners.

I hope this article has proved useful, please contact me through Linkedin for further information and advice in building brand extensions, licensing or content opportunities.



Other Articles by Dom Gregory:

Is Licensing a happy creative accident?

The paradox of choice in Licensing

A brand has only one true love

Design Unicorns in Licensing. 10 questions to ask before accepting a creative role.

Dom Gregory has worked with a catalogue of award-winning brands and family content both client and agency side. He has a 15 year track record of developing creative, strategic and commercial brand extensions for content creators, entertainment brands and global media owners.
His two favourite superheroes are growing up too fast at home.

© 2015 Domgregory Ltd. May be reproduced with credit under a creative commons license.

Unicorn image credit: creative commons license: hopeira9 on DeviantArt

A brand has only one true love – its audience.

Articles, Blog



When I was at school I fell in love every week. In my teens it was every two weeks and in my twenties, to be in love, seemed an impossible dream.

For me, working with brands works much like playing Cupid. I have to play matchmaker at least for a while, immersing myself in their history and their dreams for the future. I have to understand both sides, so being able to stand audience and brand side has been a distinct advantage.

My advice is this: If you neglect to pay attention to a brands audience, you’ll find the relationship will falter quickly.  You might try to resurrect the relationship by creating solutions and ideas that worked in the past or become more like the audience. But the audience does not neccessarily need a mirror held up to them, they want to feel special.




 The brands of love

When you choose a brand its with the heart. The emotions are stimulated, head does the questioning, but the heart decides. Try this: think of brand you love, then imagine a world without it anymore.  However brief or slight, there will be a feeling of loss. That’s love, that is.

A brand and its loved up audience form a complex bond based on trust, respect, communication & sometimes conflict. They make a connection that’s completely personal, emotional and reciprocal.


The brand team that continuously makes its audience feel loved will succeed. Acts of kindness, thoughtfulness and unexpected surprises will be greatly appreciated.



Reflection can mean defection.

Here’s the trap that some brands fall into: the brand identifies why it is loved by the audience then only reflects it back to the audience. It’s not enough to mirror your audience.

In a relationship where you both expect something more – who’s been working on the relationship recently? The rules are: the brand and the audience has to keep taking the relationship to the next level.

Remember how relationships used to fizzle out when you were young? Because you only had a few things in common and once you had explored all those things a number of times, one of you became bored and moved on. Thats because one of you tried to be hard to be liked and become less yourself. In brand speak that’s just not authentic.

Thats why brands work hard to build on their heritage, to create new experiences and history.


To really succeed, the brand that loves its audience will try something new and, at the same time, remind its audience of the first days they met.




Ultimately any brand can be a doormat or an active part of the audiences life. So a brand has to try new ways to keep the relationship alive, as well as keeping the glow of the early years in plain sight.

Remind the audience why you first fell in love and keep the commitment to communicate and it will be a long, beautiful relationship.


Other Articles by Dom Gregory:

Is Licensing a happy creative accident?

The paradox of creative choice in Licensing

A brand has only one true love

Design Unicorns in Licensing. 10 questions to ask before accepting a creative role.


Dom Gregory has worked with a catalogue of award-winning brands and family content both client and agency side. He has a 15 year track record of developing creative, strategic and commercial brand extensions for content creators, entertainment brands and global media owners.
His two favourite superheroes are growing up too fast at home.


© 2015 DomGregory Ltd.

Could licensing be your happy creative accident?

Articles, Blog, Product development


If you’re thinking about working creatively in licensing – Dom Gregory has been diving in and out of the client and licensee side for the last 15 years and offers a perspective for designers thinking of jumping in…


Most designers get into licensing by accident. I certainly did and have found myself walking round film sets, theme parks and international trade shows wondering ‘just how did I get here?

Happy creative accidents:

Ask any designer, product developer, style guide agency or in-house brand assurance coordinator that is assigned to a ‘consumer products’ or a licensing team “How did they get here?” Most will answer along the lines of; “I’m not really sure, I didn’t plan it. It just happened.” Ask the same designers if they really enjoy what they do and a large number will reply “It’s great… although I struggle to explain to other people exactly what I do.”

A whole creative support industry has grown up around content and IP owners to service and drive sales including; product developers with category expertise, style guide designers, brand guardians, copy writers, fashion designers, promotional sourcing, in store promotional or TTL campaigns. There’s also design agencies, inventors, trend services and creative consultants like myself waiting in the wings to help direct every brand or piece of content in the direction of ‘a hit’.

With content investment and IP ownership as the source, the licensing industry continues to flourish globally by pushing, amongst others, entertainment, sport and lifestyle brands or content beyond their core platforms and audience experience.

Licensing starts with brand guardianship and grows through tangible brand extensions, but at the end of the fiscal year it is always about delivering the numbers.

Licensing in brief, is when licensees pay an IP owner (a licensor) for the rights to feature their brand on a product. So if I’m a T shirt manufacturer I would strike a deal with Disney (the licensor) to stick some proprietary art of Mickey Mouse on a t-shirt – thus making me a licensee. This should elevate my T-shirt into a must have item for retailers and fans of Mickey Mouse. Consumers will pay more than they would for a standard ‘non-Mickey’ T shirt, because they are buying an official piece of Disney merchandise from a trusted retailer. For each sale, a % royalty is paid back to the IP owner (Disney in this case), the retailer takes their margin and the licensee keeps the rest.

In a nutshell, that’s how everyone makes money from licensing. There’s a few gatekeepers like buyers and brand owners to appease, but its considered a highly efficient and viable commercial model. Its low risk for the licensor and added value to a manufacturers existing business.


Create. License. Repeat.

The ‘instant coffee’ approach of licensing can sometimes make designers uncomfortable


Licensing success is measured in cold hard numbers. This is a commercial business after all. If you want your design measured purely on its artistic merit as a design – look away. The mass market licensed product consumer is fickle and will buy with its head as much as its heart – so a great product at the wrong price will fail. A less ‘designed’ product at an attractive price point may become a best seller. Often a proprietary product or known brand will utilise a license to invigorate sales or widen its appeal. This ‘instant coffee’ approach of licensing can sometimes make designers uncomfortable. So please be warned – sometimes there’s no accounting for taste in licensing. As one industry heavyweight once put it to his sales team: “Go sell some sh*t.”

In the field of brand licensing (where theres a greater synergy between the brand and its audiences aspirations), a well managed brand can command premium prices and attract top designers to work and develop ‘halo’ projects. These generate less revenue- so its all about brand buzz to feed the bigger revenue opportunities. Designers are like bees to honey when enticed by these projects and there is inevitable fawning that follows big names. It can get complicated when agents, retailers and brand guardians all need their opinions heard. As a designer, you may get to hold the design, but its very much someone else’s work. So don’t sweat it too much and just enjoy the ride!


The culture club of Licensing

Everyone knows enough about each others roles to be dangerous, but in truth nobody ducks the bad news and everyone works together


The most common appraisal of licensing is that its a wonderfully dysfunctional industry. There’s some great personalities and only a few egos compared to other creative industries. There’s marketeers who may want to be designers, sales people who want to express their creativity marketing in the middle of a client meeting and there’s creatives trying to convince a commercial director that they don’t understand design. (The commercial director probably knows a bit about design but they will have a great time winding up the design team). There’s retail insights who will tell buyers that the range should be a huge seller, only to deliver the worst sales figures 3 months later.

The good news is that its been like this for years because in truth nobody really knows where the next successful brand will emerge and everyone is hedging their bets.


Other Articles by Dom Gregory:

Is Licensing a happy creative accident?

The paradox of creative choice in Licensing

A brand has only one true love

Design Unicorns in Licensing. 10 questions to ask before accepting a creative role.

Dom Gregory has worked with a catalogue of award-winning brands and family content both client and agency side. He has a 15 year track record of developing creative, strategic and commercial brand extensions for content creators, entertainment brands and global media owners.
His two favourite superheroes are growing up too fast at home.


© 2015 DomGregory Ltd.

Content development

Blog, brand development, Consumer Insights, Creative Direction, Product development



I delivered a creative strategy for Infant whilst working at Nickelodeon. Driven by consumer insights, the creative challenge was to look at how content could have a richer back story to start a publishing program to support the infant demographic.

This piece is marketing collateral disguised as a book, put together by my content team for a trade show to showcase the style of storytelling and depth of character that will engage both parents and infants.

Direction: Dom Gregory

Design: Faye Dennehy

Character Art: Michelle Swan

Editor: Rose Gardner