By Gary Symons
TLL Editor in Chief
Anyone in the world of food licensing should know Broad Street Licensing Group. They are, after all, one of the top 20 licensing agencies in the world, and in the top two in the area of food and beverage licensing.
Last year, for example, Broad Street put together licensing deals that generated well over a billion dollars in retail revenue worldwide for the likes of Subway, Tony Roma’s, SeaPak Seafoods, Farm Rich Foods and Hard Rock Cafe, just to name a few.
The agency is celebrating its 27th anniversary this year and we wanted to know how Broad Street got its start, and how it became one of the leading agencies in the food and beverage licensing space.
Apparently, it all started with a Creamsicle.
“I remember our first big deal very distinctly,” said co-founder and CEO Carole Francesca. “We represented the Popsicle and Good Humor brands, one of our first clients. We licensed their Creamsicle brand into the candy category, It was a perfect fit for this iconic orange and vanilla ice cream.
“The line was called ‘Creamsicle Twists’, and it became a huge hit at retail,” she added. “Nearly every retailer across the county sold the candies from Kmart (back when Kmart was one of the leading retailers), to club stores, convenient and specialty stores, as well as in movie concession stands. I’ll never forget it because it was our first major deal in the food category.”
Peter Cross, Director of Licensing at Broad Street, got up out of his chair at that point, and briefly interrupted our interview to grab a colorful box that turned out to be a large Creamsicle Twist package.
“You know how businesses will sometimes save their first dollar bill?,” he asks. “Well, this is our first dollar bill; we’ve held onto it ever since.”
The team has also held on to the lessons they learned from that very first, and hard won, success.
A quarter century ago, food and beverage licensing as we know it today, wasn’t really a thing. In fact, the entire industry of corporate brand licensing was in its infancy. Most companies did little more, as Francesca recalls, than “putting their name on T-shirts and coffee mugs and pens. It was mostly just promotional stuff back then.”
So, when Broad Street pitched the idea of creating licensed candy based on Creamsicle, brand owner Unilever had some doubts.
How a Creamsicle Kicked Off a Billion Dollar Business
“It took a lot of convincing to get Unilever to say yes to letting us carry the ball on this,” Francesca recalls. “Some executives said, we’re a big company, we could do that ourselves. And I’m going okay, yeah, sure. You can make anything, because you’re Unilever, but the question I want you to ask yourselves is, are you actually going to do this? And after some months going back and forth, they said, you know what; you’re right, let’s try this and see what happens. So we did, and it was a huge success.”
Francesca plays in the licensing world a little bit like Wayne Gretzky plays hockey. The idea is not to be where the puck is now, but to figure out where the puck is going to be.
Looking at the world of licensing in the early 1990s, Francesca saw most companies and independent agencies primarily representing entertainment and character properties, with very few working with corporate brands.
“At that time, corporate licensing was more along the lines of ‘we’ll make a line of T-shirts, sleepwear and coffee mugs and call it a day.’ At that time, licensing wasn’t about strategic brand extensions and it certainly wasn’t a part of their marketing and product mix.”
Francesca’s career began in entertainment licensing, working for companies like Disney, ABC-TV, United Artists and Columbia Pictures (now Sony). Francesca recalls, “Frankly, I was becoming bored licensing entertainment properties and found a new opportunity with Unilever, a company looking to extend their corporate brands into more strategically thought-out categories. I knew that licensing could be a powerful piece of their marketing mix, and I spent the next eight years building global licensing programs for some of their most iconic brands.
That could have been enough for Francesca, and she could have continued to have a very successful career there, but she was restless and unsatisfied with corporate life.
“I always wanted to start my own company,” Francesca explained. “So, at one point I said, you know, it’s time to do this. Take the chance. Don’t wait. Do it now. So I jumped in.
“My vision was to create a boutique agency that would focus solely on corporate brands. A place where I could use my passion and energy in building licensing programs without having the hassles of being an internal employee. I realized pretty quickly that you’re much more respected as an outside agency than as an employee. “All of a sudden top management was listening to what I had to say and green lighting projects. Not that being an outside agency doesn’t come with its own set of client challenges of course!”
“Laser Focus” on Food a Key Advantage for Broad Street
Broad Street started with Francesca and partner Bill Cross and eventually grew the agency to a team of seven employees. While the agency saw success early on, the partners also started thinking about their chosen niche the way Wayne Gretzky plays hockey. They wanted to go where the puck was going to be, so they could be the first ones in.
“When the agency opened its doors in 1996, we were lucky enough to land our first three clients pretty quickly. But we were constantly talking about how to carve out our own niche; how to do something that the other agencies were not doing. Let’s figure out the next direction licensing might take and go there. Don’t try and do what everyone else is doing right now,” she said.
“Food and beverage licensing was very nascent at that point, and most agencies and companies weren’t thinking about licensing into the food category in a big way. Sure, there was always what I call promotional food licensing where a character would appear on a soup can for a limited time,” Francesca explained. “It took a lot of work convincing companies that extending their brands meaningfully and strategically into the food category could be impactful and important, but we knew we had identified a significant category and ran with it. We took big risks, put in the hours and built our agency client by client. And it worked.”
Peter Cross, Director of Licensing, came to Broad Street from the world of PR, having spent several years working in agencies in Boston and New York. One of the things that attracted him to the agency was that its laser focus on food and beverage gave Broad Street a level of expertise that others couldn’t match.
“Up until very recently in the historic time-line of licensing, people really hadn’t been paying attention to food and beverage,” Cross says. “There are plenty of agencies out there who are more generalists, representing many different types of properties whether it’s entertainment, character, brands or sports. And some, more recently, have also moved into the food and beverage space. But food and beverage is something that we’ve always laser-focused on and, over the past two decades, have built a unique expertise in that sector.”
“We’ve represented large companies, smaller but impactful brands and everything in between–from Subway and Burger King, to Rich Foods and Tony Roma’s—all who have trusted us with their brands to execute their vision. And I think our specialized expertise is what has kept us a top 20 global agency for so long.”
Francesca agrees that Broad Street’s “laser focus” is a big part of the agency’s success, but the other half of the equation is due to the team’s ability to innovate and think outside the cereal box.
For example, several years ago, Broad Street was working with the Tony Roma barbecue restaurant brand, and discovered that people in Japan love American barbecue cuisine.
“It’s a great market because they love to bring home a piece of the American experience, and they particularly love the unique flavors of American barbecue. Interestingly, our research showed that, despite their love for it, there was no strong American BBQ brand on store shelves,” Francesca said. “So we approached Walmart Japan and worked out a retailer exclusive for Tony Roma’s. It was the first exclusive restaurant license Walmart had ever done in Japan.”
But Broad Street went far beyond just creating the idea and writing up the licensing contract. “We dove headfirst into this project, working closely with the Walmart Japan teams, identifying the right companies, touring factories and researching taste profiles unique to the Japanese market.
We brought over Tony Roma’s chefs who worked in Walmart’s kitchens to develop lines of both frozen and refrigerated BBQ meats and sauces. It was a wonderful collaborative effort and was launched at retail with tremendous success.
Cross says it’s the opportunity to build those types of creative, impactful programs that makes it exciting to come to work every day.
Passion for Product the Secret to Broad Street’s Success
While many people see the work of licensing agencies primarily in terms of pitching deals, writing contracts, and sorting out the technical details between the partners, Broad Street sees its role as a partner in the development of every client’s program.
“Some of my friends who are in different industries, have jobs where they don’t get to see the results of their efforts, whereas here, we take on a project and we’re in deep, making sure that the products represent the brand in the right way, that everything is compliant, that the packaging looks fabulous and the product tastes great. We want consumers to take it home, really love it and come back to the store for more,” Cross says. “It’s knowing that I can go to a grocery store, see our clients’ products on shelf and see that people are buying it and loving it. That’s what keeps my heart beating in this industry every single day, is seeing the end result of that process.”
Francesca agrees, saying, “That’s the core of it for me as well, developing the program and working on it to be as creative and impactful as possible. It’s a joy when it all comes together. That’s one of the reasons that I started this agency in the first place; because I love working with brands with our team from the very beginning, and seeing it all the way through.”
Broad Street Also Working in Manufacturer Representation
In addition to its brand representation services, Broad Street Licensing Group also works with manufacturers to acquire brands for their product lines. The agency has built up a wealth of knowledge about manufacturing and what they need to succeed in getting their products onto retail shelves and into consumer’s shopping baskets.
“Years ago we began getting calls from manufacturers: ’Hey, can you help us find a license? Can you help us acquire a brand?” Francesca recalls. “And we thought, yes, this is definitely in our wheelhouse. So we developed a whole new side of our agency’s business that represents manufacturers, identifying and negotiating licensing deals with other brands.”
A good example of their work in that area involves the company BIC USA, the world’s leading manufacturer of disposable lighters. BIC is known for its seemingly unending number of licensed lighters in nearly every fan category, selling its products across the country in every retail outlet. Most of this is due to BIC’s nearly two decade-long partnership with Broad Street.
“BIC was our first client on the manufacturer representation side of our business. They wanted to aggressively expand their lighters with properties and brands that would excite consumers and move more product and hired us to identify and negotiate those deals for them,” Francesca says. “We love our long-term partnership with them, which has allowed us to acquire true fan-favorite properties from the music, entertainment, sports, art and brand categories.
“We’ve loved doing that, because we really get to dig deep into the manufacturing process,” she said. “As an added bonus, it’s been interesting to work on the other side of the desk, negotiating deal with other agents and property owners. It’s given our agency a more realistic and holistic look into what each side is looking for from a partnership. And it’s sometimes quite the experience learning what agents (like us!) put manufacturers through!”
That said, the Broad Street team says creating partnerships in the food and beverage space is what drives them every day.
“Food is a passion of mine and has been since long before coming here, so being able to bring good tasting food and beverages to people is something that’s really enjoyable to work on,” says Cross, who also co-hosts The Royalty Report, a show on YouTube about brand licensing and food. “I think at the end of the day, what sets us apart is that we are very passionate about what we do in the food and beverage space. It’s where we live all day, every day.”