If you've seen the headlines lately, you know that this is the worst of times for retailers. Chains from Walgreens to Walmart are downsizing, while others, like Sports Authority and Loehmann's, are shuttering.
Yet, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, these are also the best of times for retailers -- if they know where to look.
If you're looking to license your brand -- if you want to develop genuine partnerships with the world's leading retailers -- then you need to think like a retailer. You need to understand the factors that matter most to their business, and then plan your pitch accordingly.
Few brands have pulled off this balancing act better than Ford. When the company's beloved Mustang turned 50, Ford teamed up with five of America's top retailers to create new channels for distribution, and thus new customers. Let's study how they did it.
1. Lucky Jeans
Lucky Brand Jeans is an American denim company. You've likely seen their pants at the mall -- each one has stitched onto the outside of the fly the phrase, "Lucky You."
But the mall isn't a place where a lot of cars are sold. And that's a missed opportunity for an all-American company like Ford, whose role in U.S. history surely deserves a seat at the table of this storied shopping venue.
Hence, the Ford-Lucky partnership, in which Lucky manufactures Ford-branded clothing. The resulting T-shirts combine the masculine virtues that made cars like the Mustang classics with the slub fabric for which Lucky is known. (Sample slogan: "Mess with the best. Lose with the rest.")
2. Cracker Barrel
When most people go to a restaurant, they go for the food. We licensing experts view the world through an additional lens: we look at the clientele.
Accordingly, when our licensing team visited a Cracker Barrel, the chain of restaurants that remind you of a traditional country store, one thing immediately stood out: the parking lot. Is it just me, we asked one another, or was it full of Explorers and Escapes and Mustangs and trucks?
Clearly, Cracker Barrel customers were also Ford customers.
No surprise, then, that these two American institutions teamed up to create a contest to win a new Mustang V6. The sweepstakes went viral, spreading through social media, e-newsletters for employees and loyalty customers, and in-store point-of-sale systems. And a no-brainer tie-in, a Ford-branded collection of merchandise was added to Cracker Barrel's gift shops.
"When the Mustang turned 50, many companies wanted in on the anniversary of the original pony car, but we had to be choosy, finding a partner that really got it," recalls Betsy McKelvey, Ford's marketing manager of global brand licensing. "Our collaboration with Cracker Barrel shows how much can be accomplished when the right licensee meets the right licensor."
What do T-shirts from Japan have to do with cars from Detroit? More than you might think -- especially for two conglomerates that operate on a global landscape.
Uniqlo, meet Ford Motor Company. The Japanese fast-fashion company is one of today's hottest clothing makers. Ford, of course, is one of the world's oldest carmakers. Together, they complement one another's strengths, striking a blow for originality. (Indeed, "Uniqlo" is a portmanteau of "unique clothing.")
Through the ensuing Ford-logoed apparel, fathers can coolly channel their Motor City nostalgia, while their sons are introduced to the company that brought mankind the Model T. Oh yeah, in the process, over 150,000 T shirts were sold.
"If you're the kind of person who likes racing fast cars in video games, then it's no surprise you'd enjoy tooling around in a sports car in real life," says Mark Bentley, Ford's licensing manager. So, when Microsoft released Forza Motorsport 6 -- one of the all-time top games for Xbox -- it was only natural to partner with the manufacturer of one of today's top racing vehicles.
That manufacturer would be Ford, and the vehicle would be the recently redesigned GT, which was crowned Forza's cover car.
If you're a gamer, you know that being named the cover car is a big deal. Car companies around the world covet this honor because of the priceless exposure it presents to die-hard car fans. Not only does Ford get its car on the game's cover and in Microsoft's marketing materials -- both of which are sold at hot retailers like GameStop -- but players also start each ride with the GT as their default vehicle.
Ditto the benefits for Microsoft, whose staff were some of the only people outside Motor City who even know the GT existed. (In fact, they saw the model before many Ford execs did.) Once these techies spied the sleek supercar in Ford's top-secret R&D lab, they knew the deal was a sure winner.
Finally, there was the matter of the all-important reveal. Taking a page from Steve Jobs, executives who worked on the deal knew that because the product was a supercar, they needed a super announcement -- a dramatic entrance worthy of ultra-high performance, advanced aerodynamics, and lightweight carbon fiber. Hence the descent from the rafters at the Electronic Entertainment Expo of the stunningly beautiful and rip-roaringly powerful automobile.
Gamers, start your engines.
Who says a muscle car is only for men? Surely not a lacquer company -- after all, what does nail polish have to do with an automobile? A lot, it turns out.
The color of a woman's nails is ultimate expression of her personality, explains Suzi Weiss-Fischmann, cofounder of OPI. Similarly, color plays a key role in defining the character of a car; to capture the Mustang's essence, its paint colors need to denote performance, sportiness, and power.
Thus, the lacquers created for the OPI Ford Mustang limited-edition collection are bold and eye-catching. Indeed, the names themselves are terrifically expressive: Race Red. 50 Years of Style. Queen of the Road. Girls Love Ponies. Angel with a Leadfoot. And the Sky's My Limit. Each hue celebrates a woman's pursuit of adventure and embraces the spirit of the open road.
The shades are sold everywhere from Amazon and JCPenney to Regis and ULTA to drug and specialty stores. And if you missed the media coverage in magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Elle, Essence, InStyle, Marie Claire, and People, you might have seen the ads on the Jumbotron in Times Square.
For five decades, Ford Mustang has represented the best of American culture. Yet as retail is shrinking, publicity is getting harder and harder to come by. The way forward is not merely to license your brand, but to build and invest in alliances with licensee partners. Find those that shared your vision, and broker an exclusive deal with them. Then watch as your news clips start lighting up your Google Alerts, your retail footprint expands, and your sales skyrocket.
Jeff Lotman is the founder and chief executive of Global Icons, a brand-licensing agency.