If it sometimes seems impossible to find a sweatshirt without a logo, a toy without a tie-in, or even a pillow without a pedigree, there's a reason for that.
Licensing is the business of coupling a famous name be it Elvis or Disney or even Lysol with a product that could use a little glamour (or as much glamour as Lysol can confer).
The resulting marriage benefits both parties: Disney gets its character on, say, an otherwise generic toothbrush. The toothbrush gets screamed for by an otherwise generic tot. And an otherwise generic mother me drags out her wallet so her child can stick Mickey in his mouth.
This mix 'n' match business has been very good for business. Today, $180 billion worth of products boast big-time brand names sometimes even weird ones, like Jim Beam grilling equipment. (Which beats Jim Beam driving equipment, I suppose.) The bulk of all that mixing 'n' matching goes on during one week this one at the Licensing 2007 International show in New York, which I just wandered through.
So, what's hot?
Elvis. Still. In fact, he's especially hot right now, as August marks the 30th anniversary of his demise.
"We've had a lot of new folks," said Iris Houston, a licensing manager for Elvis, gesturing toward the crowd at the booth. "People want to do everything from swimming pool products to new apparel to soap dishes."
And which Elvis is selling fat or skinny?
"We prefer to go by decades," she replied curtly: "The '50s Elvis, the '60s Elvis, and …"
Yeah, yeah. The fat Elvis. Gotcha.
Over at the booth for another icon the trim John Wayne there was considerably less traffic, but better freebies: tins of John Wayne mints (versus Elvis cell phone charms).
So far, the young woman manning the booth said, Wayne's name or likeness has been licensed to about 40 products, including lighters, knives and firearms. No soap dish fellow, he.
Yet, moments later, along came a handbag designer, eager to talk trade. So I guess we'll see.
While the biggest of the booths were for the biggest companies Nickelodeon, Warner Brothers, NASCAR, etc. feisty newcomers were trying to make their way, too.
"Danger Rangers are focused on preventable childhood accidents," said an account exec for the cartoon, Cara Barlowe. Like everyone else, she's trying to turn her PBS show into a marketing juggernaut like "Sesame Street."
Good luck. "There's bicycles, fire, water, poison, dogs," Barlowe said, enumerating the dangers her Rangers encounter, "and exploring."
Exploring is bad?
Oh, yes. Exploring caves. Big problem these days. The "Danger Rangers" episode being screened was all about teaching children never to play with a stray dog. But when that stray dog proceeded to run off with a banner and that banner caught on fire and that fire set an entire carnival aflame, well … I just couldn't see kids clamoring for any plush toys associated with imminent, smoky death (and rabies).
But maybe that's just me.
In any event, Barlowe will soon know if she's got a hit. Fully 86 percent of all this year's licensing deals get inked at the convention.
Next year at this time you could be toting your Danger Ranger taffy in your John Wayne purse on your way to get some Elvis gas: regular, premium or skinny.