By Gary Symons
TLL Editor in Chief
(Photo at Right: Lexi DeForest and Ross Misher smile for the camera at Licensing Expo with Alma from Alma’s Way and the Tapatio Guy)
Already one of the world’s 10 largest licensing agencies, Brand Central is best known as a leader in food and beverage licensing but has expanded into many new services including: manufacturing, ecommerce, and trend intelligence.
That expertise came about because Brand Central has been intimately involved in the consumer packaged goods sector for many years, bringing several major new product lines into the market, and working with their partners from conception to the checkout counter.
The company was a pioneer in the food and beverage licensing space, putting together major deals at a time when virtually no one was doing food and beverage deals. It all started when Kellogg’s signed on as Brand Central’s first food and beverage client in 2005, and over the next 18 years, the company has worked with many of the world’s largest companies in the sector, including Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Kraft Heinz, Bimbo Bakeries, Mars Wrigley, Krispy Kreme, Tapatio Hot Sauce, Mondelez, and many others.
Incredibly, Misher says, “We have represented 35% of the top 30 national food brands. The trust of many food, beverage and restaurant clients entrenched us as experts in a specialized strategic industry that requires extraordinary proficiency. “Because of our deep experience working with CPG companies and restaurants, we continue to work with new CPG companies, speak their ‘language’, and understand their internal corporate needs and issues. Concurrently, we represent food manufacturers to help acquire licenses which has provided them invaluable insights into how food companies operate from the manufacturer perspective.”
The real key to that record of success, Misher says, is no secret—it’s all about finding, hiring and keeping the best people, with the right experience, and fostering a culture of innovation.
“Brand Central is filled with experienced veterans who have CPG experience, understand the nuances of food and beverage licensing, and deliver a breadth of meaningful relationships with leadership at major food and beverage companies and retailers, both big and small,” Misher says. “For example, Janna Markle was brought on seven years ago, a 30-year licensing industry veteran who pioneered food licensing at TGI Friday’s and Jack Daniel’s. She has extensive experience in food and beverage product development, crafting strategic plans for brand extension and front-end innovation which supports our CPG clients.”
That latter point is critical, Misher says, adding that anyone who wants success in the sector must have a deep understanding of the complex, difficult process for creating consumer packaged goods. Because Brand Central is made up of industry veterans, they can become a valuable part of the process of CPG development.
“Our team understands the inner workings of the stage gate process most CPG companies use—including consumer research, food innovation, food safety and quality assurance—and we have experience working collaboratively with brand teams, innovation and food scientists,” Misher adds. “Our depth of knowledge, top-to-top relationships, and passion for the category have been key differentiators for Brand Central, because we have developed methodologies and ways of working with food brands that ensure success.”
Just as one example, Brand Central forged a partnership with PepsiCo’s Dorito’s brand and Tapatio Hot Sauce, for a unique Tapatio Doritos product that has sold phenomenally well for over 10 years. “We also partnered Keurig’s The Original Donut Shop with SNICKERS and TWIX Coffee K-Cup pods that flew off the shelves this year and surpassed projections,” Misher says.
Brand Central also capitalizes on that success by attending all the key trade shows in the food and beverage industry, such as Fancy Food, IDDBA, NACS and the Sweets & Snacks Expo, as well as industry meetings and conferences, where its market intelligence service has made the company a thought leader.
Brand Central has not only been an expert in licensing out brands into new product categories, it has been helping companies acquire licenses for over 15 years.
“Brand Central is skilled at identifying trends and that led us to make a savvy decision during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Misher recalled. “We saw manufacturers desperately trying to maintain their businesses during the years of lockdowns, restrictions, and logistics logjams. We strategically decided to accelerate our manufacturing representation business during Covid, as many manufacturers were seeking ways to grow their business during that challenging time.”
Challenging yes, but Misher says in those challenges Brand Central saw opportunities for their clients, allowing them to make moves that in many cases resulted in revenues increasing rather than falling.
“Rising prices, supply chain issues and retail consolidation created a need for highly recognizable brands in everyday products, particularly in the food and beverage space, from powdered drink mixes to baked goods, snacks and alcohol,” Misher explains. “The idea of not being able to go out, let alone travel, led to consumers creating fun, happy spaces at home with products and brands that brought them joy.”
This acceleration of clients and revenue led to the creation of an enhanced team at Brand Central, dedicated to the manufacturing end of the business.
“Two years ago, we hired an industry veteran, Liza Abrams, who spent the last 15 years acquiring the top licenses in the industry and we built a team around her,” said Misher. “As we got recognition for the disruptive partnerships we were executing, even more manufacturers came onboard seeking consulting and opportunities to integrate their brands into cultural conversations. Liza’s experience with in-bound licensing in a multitude of categories and relationships across licensors meant she was uniquely positioned to handle a diverse group of clients.”
In retrospect, Misher says that was a critical decision, both for Brand Central and its clientele. “The effort to scale this division has been a huge success for Brand Central and its clients, providing the agency with exponential growth in the sector,” he said. “Our manufacturer representation business has doubled in the past year.”
One of Brand Central’s long-time clients, the manufacturer Jel Sert Company, was lucky enough to enjoy some major successes the agency brought them through the new team, and continues to dominate their category.
“We have worked with Jel Sert Company for over 15 years and helped them acquire many successful licenses for freezer bars, gelatin and powdered drink mixes,” Misher says. “Our long-term strategic partnership together has helped Jel Sert solidify its position as the leader in the powdered drink stick and freezer bar categories. Brands we helped acquire include: Sonic Drive-In, SKITTLES, STARBURST, Margaritaville, and many more.”
Those successes were really what brought more manufacturing clients into the Brand Central fold, and Misher says the sector is now a major part of the agency’s business.
“We are fortunate to now have a roster of over 15 diverse manufacturers, from premium underwear to large appliances, and we’ve scaled our business to keep up with growing interest from manufacturers,” he added. “Companies across various industries view acquiring brands as a means to expand their footprint at retail, bring awareness to existing brands and expand into new categories of business. And in a world where there is still a lot of uncertainty at retail, having a branded product gives the consumer a sense of confidence in their purchase.”
As global CPG brands looked to Brand Central to help them with more of their overall marketing mix, Brand Central’s team found themselves naturally stepping in to help.
“We have spent the last 10 years expanding our capabilities and services, so we are able to service our clients in various ways to meet their needs and expand their brands,” Misher says. “We added an ecommerce division to provide direct-to-consumer shops that help promote brand initiatives or to develop permanent virtual store fronts for their branded products.”
That service quickly resulted in successful new initiatives for Brand Central clients. “For example, we launched the “Baby Nut” shop for the Planters brand in support of their Super Bowl ad campaign,” Misher recalls.
“Brand Central also has an incredible creative services department that creates style guides, packaging, and mockups to support our clients and companies in need of great design work.
“Finally, our trend intelligence service enables us to forecast categories and products that are trending and guide us on where to expand our client’s efforts in food and merchandise brand extensions.”
That intelligence service is now a key service offering. “Our agency offers a popular trend intelligence service, Brand Central Insights, where we provide trend consulting to retailers and other companies to help them use trend forecasting as a tool to drive growth,” Misher explains. “We identify movements that are beginning to percolate in pop culture and help our clients capitalize on them for their business. Clients use these insights to develop new products, new strategies and acquire licenses with brands and influencers that help differentiate their product lines.”
As part of its service offerings, Brand Central Insights has specialized in digging out the hottest trends in areas where it may not be immediately obvious, and informing their clients with short, punchy reports that are concise, and easily actionable. Those reports have allowed several Brand Central clients to quickly jump onto a new trend and launch successful new products or services, beating out their competition.
The reports have been so successful that Brand Central is scaling its capabilities by creating a new product available to the wider licensing world called, ‘The Lightning Reports,’ a joint venture carried out with The Licensing Letter. The first two reports are already in The Licensing Letter’s ecommerce store (www.thelicensingletter.com/shop/), with a third on the way with trend intelligence on the fashion sector.
“The Lightning Reports are a super exciting new product for our trend intelligence practice,” Misher says. “This is a completely different offering from our customized reports and gives readers a deep dive into one specific topic in the licensing industry.
“The topics range across the industry from fashion, to Gen Z, to sustainability,” Misher adds. “We hope it will become an invaluable resource for licensing industry professionals looking for the biggest trends within specific topics of interest.”
The project also marks the first time The Licensing Letter has worked with an outside partner on reports, but Misher says The Lightning Report concept combines the strengths of both companies.
“It’s been such a pleasure working with TLL on this product. Together, it has been the perfect combination of robust data from TLL combined with our unique trend intelligence and analysis.”
That said, The Lightning Report is not the same as the internal Brand Central Insights Reports, which are bespoke reports tailored for the client.
“Brand Central Insight reports are completely customized and curated for each client, meaning you’ll never review information you don’t need, and you’ll only get the relevant trends that pertain to your business,” Misher says. “We also work with clients to provide custom recommendations or “action items” that suggest how these trends can be leveraged into their current offerings and how to use trends to drive revenue.”
That’s different from The Lightning Reports, which are more general, and very economical. Misher says he believes both have an important place in the market.
“The Lightning Reports are important because it’s the fastest way to get the hottest trends happening in the licensing industry within one vertical,” he said. “Each report is tailored to its topic and dives into trends on the rise, peaking, or trending down. With the Lightning Report you can quickly read about all the trends you need to know about without having to gather the information or research yourself— allowing you valuable time with your business and team.”