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POLITICS

Tariff Talk: Major Licensing Players Throw Down the Gauntlet, Others Sit Silent

Contact the editor at karina@plainlanguagemedia.com

Six hundred companies recently signed a letter addressed to President Trump and top U.S. trade officials pressing the administration to negotiate a strong trade deal with China—minus the tariffs. Among them were some major players in the licensing world. Missing were a notable segment of the population—the licensors.

Ahead of public hearings on potential tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese goods, the letter argues that proposed tariffs would result in the loss of two million American jobs, add $2,000 in costs for the average family of four, and reduce the value of the U.S. GDP by 1.0%.

This specific letter was organized by a group called Tariffs Hurt the Heartland, which appears to be a collaboration between groups Americans for Free Trade (representing mostly corporate businesses) and Farmers for Free Trade.

Trade associations involved ran the gamut from the National Retail Federation, to The Toy Association (an estimated 85% of toys sold in the U.S. are manufactured in China), to the Council of Fashion Designers of America (roughly 30% of clothing sold). Major retailers Walmart, Target, Ascena Retail Group, Macy’s, and Kohl’s also added their names to the list. And while this isn’t a complete listing of everyone in the licensing world who signed on, we picked out several interesting signatories, listed alphabetically below.

While the licensing business has historically been quite apolitical, over the last couple of years, TLL has noticed a shift in attitudes in responses to our Annual Licensing Business Survey. Open-ended responses to questions like, “What are the biggest challenges this year?” have begun to include highly politicized responses clearly indicating a preference for political parties or candidates.

The interesting part is that responses were incredibly diverse, and, as far as we can tell, equally split between those who approve or versus disapprove of the current administration. Ergo, our apparent sanitization of political opinions from Survey respondents.

But that’s not actually the case.

It is clear from TLL’s Survey that everyone has an opinion—manufacturers as well as brand owners, not to mention agents and consultants. But as you may notice below, the most outspoken businesses overwhelmingly tend to be licensees.

This last week at Licensing Expo Las Vegas, most of the brand owners we spoke to didn’t have much to say on the tariffs question, or venture a guess as to how trade wars, growing nationalism, and increasing division would impact their bottom line.

One entertainment executive commented that her company’s business would remain more or less unchanged, banking on the “nag factor”—after all, “parents will always be buying toys for their kids.” Other licensors were betting on “new opportunities” like live events licensing and brand consolidation.

Yet another licensor noted that he didn’t believe that companies should be taking any public stance at all on political issues, no matter the cost to the business. Some other executives in this camp expressly noted that they feared marginalizing their consumers, while others felt that voicing their opinion wouldn’t make a difference anyway.

Such a tone strikes us as odd—consumer brands have grown extraordinarily adept at adapting a public voice for socio-political issues (like gay rights, gender parity, racial equality, etc.), but suddenly it’s too darn hard to find a way to talk about economic issues directly impacting the corporation’s bottom line?

Here’s an incomplete list of notable signatories to the Jun. 14th letter, sorted alphabetically:

  • ACI International
  • Alexander Wang
  • Bandai America
  • Basic Fun
  • Boston America
  • Brain Games
  • Buffalo Games
  • Celestial Buddies
  • Commonwealth Home Fashions
  • Concepts Sport/College Concepts
  • Disguise div. Jakks Pacific
  • ECCO USA
  • Feld Entertainment
  • Hallmark Cards
  • Hape Intl.
  • Koko’s Confectionery
  • Levi Strauss & Co.
  • New York Accessory Group
  • Pacific Sunwear
  • Panasonic Corp. of North America
  • Perry Ellis Intl.
  • PetSmart
  • PlayMonster
  • PoopBags (first-time exhibitor at Licensing Expo)
  • Primark US Corp.
  • PUMA North America
  • Ralph Lauren Corporation
  • Rawlings Sporting Goods
  • Royal Bobbles
  • Spinmaster* (not a signatory, but its CMO contributed a video message to Tariffs Hurt’s website)
  • Thames & Kosmos
  • TOMY International, Inc.
  • VF Corporation
  • VTech Electronics, North America
  • Wicked Cool Toys
  • YOTTOY Productions
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