Cha, Cha, Cha, Changes…

When you are licensing art for products you will, sooner or later, be faced with the situation where a manufacturer requests, or requires, that changes be made to your design before going into production. These can be as simple as moving some text or a border, or they can be complex, like a total colorway change, a character redo or more. How you handle the request may be more important than you think – it can kill a project and even make or break your future with that licensee.
A good license agreement will have language that specifies what can happen, and who can do it. This is from our standard contract:
Any alterations or modifications of Artist’s original artwork for Licensed Product(s) deemed necessary by Licensee shall be performed personally by Artist unless Artist explicitly consents, in advance and in writing, to modifications performed by Licensee.
Pretty simple and straightforward, it allows for control of the situation while leaving the door open for the licensee to make the changes – which is often the most efficient route. We very rarely see any objection to this clause except in a last minute rush situation. Below are a couple of paragraphs taken from agreements that we have seen (and rejected…):
[Manufacturer] shall have the right to make changes or alterations to the Design Art, including but not limited to changes or alterations in shape, color, shading, form, size, and positioning of the Design Art, which may result in derivative works of the Design Art (hereinafter the “Derivative Works”). Changes to the Design Art may be made by [Mfr] in [Mfr]’s sole discretion.  [Mfr] does not require approval from Artist for changes made to the Design Art. 
 Licensor hereby grants to Licensee a license to use the Design in the preparation of the work in the following respects (the “License”):
a) Modify the Design
b) Reproduce the Design
c) Sell the Design
d) Incorporate the Design into other products created by Licensee
The first one is bad enough but the second is a complete mess – none of the clauses A to D are acceptable for a variety of reasons that go far beyond design changes.
The point here is twofold: think about what changes you might be willing to accept long before you are confronted with them (if for no other reason than to get comfortable with the idea), and make sure that you will have some input regarding those changes through the language in your agreement. Ninety nine percent of the time all of this can be effortless because you put everyone on the same page from the get-go.

Defend yourself!

My friend Ketra is one of the more astute people I know, she has one of those nimble minds that can quickly hone in on the realities of a situation. She is also unencumbered by years of experience in the “old” licensing world – which gives her a fresh perspective, something that is difficult to achieve for those of us limited by our hard-earned certainties.
She used the phrase “a property that is defensible in the market” in conversation a while back, and it keeps popping up in my head. It’s a little twist on one of the commandments of investing – that the company you are considering is able to maintain a defensible market position – but it nicely highlights what is happening in our business right now. I have harped aplenty about the changes wrought by technology and the influx of new artists, but when I think about it in terms of maintaining a defensible position, I come to this conclusion:
It is no longer possible for the majority of artists in this business to gain a competitive advantage in the market, and without that they are simply another one of many with essentially the same offering.
When that happens, in any discipline, the perceived value drops away and your customers are no longer willing to pay a significant price for your services. You need to look no further than logo services or website design for examples – either can be had for 99.00 now. It’s not that there won’t always be a need for another Santa or snowman or stylized flower – certainly for the immediate future that will be true. But will it be worth your time to compete with 500 other artists to supply it? Actually, is it now?

But we don’t have to worry about the competition because we all have a unique product!

But do you really? From Julie Rains of Wisebread:
“The harsh truth is that your customers may not understand, need or even value the differences between your company’s solutions and those of your competitors. Cheaper versions that fulfill similar functions are preferable.”

When your product is a commodity, customers tend to choose solely on the basis of price or even on how much they can get for free. However – if you can bring a rare and truly unique set of skills and designs to the market and can show them something they haven’t seen before, or they can’t get from anyone else, then you can stake out your turf and charge admission – and that’s a whole lot more fun.

Think Like A Brand

Most artists in this business would agree that their goal is to someday be a “brand”. So have you spent any time picturing what that would look like? Visualization is a powerful tool for helping to achieve your goals – so lean back and think about it…if you were a brand, you would….
Define the essence of your brand. Successful brands are perceived by their customers as the best or even the “only”. But this is a lot more than just product awareness, it is an almost automatic recognition of what they are, or in your case what you do. Can you define that for your brand? No? Then most certainly your customers can’t either.
Know your category cold. How much data do you think Coke and Pepsi have on soft drink consumption? How much do the Radisson people know about business travelers? How much do you know about art licensing? About your customers?
Protect your territory. Do you think the people at Lee are Tweeting their followers at Levis about a great new distribution channel they found? Of course not. You may have noticed that the big names in this business almost never reveal client names or share specific opportunities. If you want to be a professional you need to act like one.
Nurture your followers. Brand followers believe that “their” brand exists for the benefit of the customer, and successful brands work hard at never giving them any reason to doubt that. Brand loyalty, and how to keep it, is primary in everything they do. If your client wants it tomorrow, send it tonight. If they ask for an alternative sketch, send them two. Happily.
Be consistent, and consistently excellent. A tall order for sure, but a basic building block of a successful brand. Whether you walk into a Starbucks in Seattle, Minneapolis or Miami, you know the experience will be the same – and it will be almost perfect. The same goes for a McDonalds, or an Apple store, or a Nordstrom…this is what makes them who they are.
Innovate. Constantly. Everyone expects the best from the best. Brands have a laser-like focus on making their product better and keeping it the best on the market. Followers look to their brands for the next big thing, and if you can’t provide it they will soon look elsewhere.
Believe in your product. The people at Tom’s of Maine know they have the best personal products on the market, at Method they know they have the best soap, at Ben and Jerry’s they know they make the best ice cream. If you know you are putting out the best art available for that product then your clients will too.
If not, well, go back to Starbucks and learn how they do it….