The Power of a Style Guide for Your Licensing Program | Tom Froberg, StyleWorks

The Brand Licensing Podcast

July 23, 2020

On this episode of The Brand Licensing Podcast, we are joined by Partner and Creative Director of StyleWorks, Tom Froberg. Our conversation dives deep into the power of strong style guides and how brands can benefit from marketing.

Tom cofounded Frederick & Froberg Design Offices in 1987, where his versatile design and illustration background led to the company’s specialization in style guide development for brand owners in licensing. He excels at combining contemporary culture with the essence of a brand to create a seamless point of view for branding and licensing design extensions, having developed identities, style guides, marketing communications, websites, product direction, and packaging programs for a number of leading lifestyle and entertainment clients.

Never afraid to mix business with pleasure, research and brand immersion are often Tom’s favorite parts of the job, whether hang gliding for Kitty Hawk Kites, driving a NASCAR for Hot Wheels, or digging through the archives of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

At StyleWorks, Tom is responsible for client services, business development, and operations, as well as overall branding strategy and creative direction, lending his experience and expertise to a new generation of products, properties, and brands.

Listen to the full episode below, or check us out on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Don’t forget to subscribe!

Episode Transcription

Emily Randles: Hi Tom. Thanks for joining us today on The Brand Licensing Podcast. 

Tom Froberg: Hey Emily. Nice to hear from you. 

ER: So, Tom is Partner and Creative Director at StyleWorks, which is a branding and licensing design agency. Today were talking with Tom about brand licensing style guides and how they can support a brand’s licensing program. But before we jump into that, Tom, can you give us a little rundown on your resume? 

TF: We started StyleWorks in 2012. I started it with Alana Caldwell, and we had worked together for eight years at Frederick and Froberg Design Office. I was a partner there, and our major focus was sports branding, believe it or not. And that led to working for the entertainment world, which led to licensing. In 2012, we really wanted to sort of focus our business, meaning to do branding for ourselves. Like who are we, what is our messaging? And so we formed StyleWorks to have that consistent message out there. 

ER:  So it sounds like your passion has always been branding and design. 

TF: Yeah, for sure. What I love about licensing is you just get this really wide range. You’re not just doing corporate work, or you’re not just doing one slice. You get to see a lot of different industries and products. 

ER: I definitely relate to that. People always ask me, “Why do you like licensing?” And I’m just like, “We get to work with so many brands and so many product categories, and there’s never a dull day.” There’s always an interesting surprise; it’s fun to work on so many different projects and brands. That’s why I love licensing. We have a lot of experience working in the CPG world, and licensees will ask for a style guide and our clients will say, “Just give them the packaging files.” They don’t feel like there’s a need to create a full style guide to do a few brand extensions. Can you tell us why brands should be thinking about this differently and utilizing style guides for their brand licensing programs? 

TF: Yeah. Just think about it for a moment. Your brand is now being interpreted by companies totally outside your culture, where you can communicate with them daily. Even internal companies have always had internal brand guides for their corporate standards and things, but now your brand is being put in the hands of somebody else to actually work with. So what the style guide does is it gives you a consistent vision and a sort of roadmap to the potential. It provides directions and expectations so everything can be consistent. So if a consumer goes into a store and sees that brand, whether it’s a licensed product or a core product, they may never know the difference. And yes, consumer product brands have their packaging, but if you’re Corona and you have beer and your beer packaging, well guess what? Now that you’re extending out, there’s a tremendous amount of categories that you have to take into consideration. So super product companies have a leg up because they have created a package, so to speak, and they have usually a positioning, but I’ve definitely heard that argument. Like, “Here’s my packaging. What else?”  It’s really just the first step, especially depending on your strategy. 

ER: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. We also like to describe it as like, the brand is the baby, right? And you’re leaving the baby with the babysitter. So you want to give them instructions on how to take care of the baby. So if a brand is thinking about creating a style guide, how much of an investment is a style guide for a brand, and how does it deliver a return? 

TF: It’s tough because a lot of times I’d love to know, what are your royalty projections, is it a percentage, is there a business decision? I mean, it’s an investment just like I think you would do for your marketing plan or advertising costs. It’s hard to imagine when you haven’t had any royalties coming in. So if you’re a mature brand, you have royalties coming in, and a percentage of two to three percent, could be set aside for style guides and updates and to keep it fresh in the marketplace. But when you’re just starting out, it’s a bit of a challenge and it’s a leap? I try to make people realize or think about it as marketing. There licensed product is marketing and revenue and so it the style guide. What it can do is give you this tremendous amount of return because it’ll save a tremendous amount of time on approval management and product development. And guess what? Then royalties come in and revenue comes in. So by holding back on that initial investment, you’re actually holding back on revenue. So I think from your end, it must help you negotiate better deals. If you’ve got a robust brand guide, you can say, “Here’s the picture. Here’s where we’re at. And here’s where we’re headed.” Then potential licensees that don’t have that feeling, geez do I have to make this up. How do I interpret this? So a cost, yeah, there’s a range; anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000, depending. What Trolls is putting into a brand guide is different than maybe your first-time consumer product company. That’s just going beyond their core brand. 

ER: That makes a lot of sense. I like positioning it how you said: as marketing and as an investment. That really resonates for me and our clients—some great thoughts!—because it does make working with the licensees and selling the brand a lot easier. So they can see that vision and know how you want them to take the brand into the extended categories. Obviously there’s collaboration. So if the licensee has ideas on how to improve, just having that initial guidance or visual of what this extension could develop into, really helps people expand and grow their thinking about how the relationship and partnership can grow.  

TF: Yeah, there’s latitude because it’s not this strict sort of brand standards, manual logo, two inches to the right. It’s a feeling; a licensee is going to go, “Wow, I love to do this.” And it does it fit within that latitude? You have to have that creative latitude. 

ER: That makes a lot of sense. So knowing what we should be doing, what are some of the biggest mistakes you’ve seen brands or companies making in terms of design for their licensing programs? 

TF: Just kind of what I’ve touched on there. It just becomes this technical implementation of a logo and a package and your legal line without really having the storytelling and the positioning from the lens of the potential products. And sometimes I see this just shoved into a document versus “What does it mean in those marketplaces from a trend and competitive basis?” Not that that is all in a style guide, but it should sort of come through in the creative development. I’m trying to think what else. Sometimes I just see the assets out there versus systems, like some licensees can really rock stuff. They do a great job, but you know, they need tools to go, “Okay, here’s two t-shirts. I can create a whole line from this.” That’s what you want.  

ER: It’s interesting too, I’ve seen licensees work really hard on the packaging to get that right. But then they’ll put a retail display, like a shipper box, on a shelf with the logo slapped on there. And it’s like, well, that really doesn’t match that beautiful packaging that you worked so hard on. So it’s giving them the full vision or helping them create the cohesive line. 

TF: A lot of times you’re like, “Wow, I’ve got this great toy company or a consumer packaging company, they know how to do this.” One time we were working with Animal Planet pets, and we’re working with the leading toy manufacturers or Target. And it still took this handholding. And we had a style guide and we worked with them very closely, which was great, but when they’re left on their own, it just didn’t happen. And you think, wow, somebody that’s already in Target can’t pull this off? But it’s because they’re not coming from the brand owner point of view, or at this point, it’s Animal Planet and the network and their essence. And then also now it’s in Target. 

ER: Any other examples of like, who’s doing this really well? What comes the top of the mind for you? 

TF: Besides obviously Disney and NBC Universal, they’ve got huge machines doing great style guides. I mean, I do think Discovery Channel does a great job. They’ve been a client of ours for ten years. They really do get it and understand how to implement style guides. They do a great job. How about you? What have you seen out there? 

ER: In CPG, it’s a little bit of a struggle. I think your example earlier on, like Corona and taking your food and beverage into other categories, having the style guide in those instances really helps the extension and making sure things are on trend and on target for the brand voice. 

TF: You know, with Corona, we did a lot of work with different modules, but is it because they’re a mature brand? They’ve been in this licensing game, not just doing cool t-shirts and coolers. They’ve translated from a beverage to a lifestyle.  

ER: Yes. Yeah. And I think that’s a really great point. Like a lot of brands aspirationally want to transfer into a lifestyle. And so, one way for them to think about doing that is taking the step to have a creative strategy, versus just going out and seeing if they can license into t-shirts and ball caps. Because that’s not going to create the lifestyle. And I think also, from what I’ve seen in terms of brands becoming lifestyle is that they need to work closely with the brand. Brand owners can’t just say, “Here’s a style guide. Go do what you want.” You have to create that brand voice and that experience. You have to collaborate closely with them so that they understand what you’re doing and that they can kind of utilize those assets or the creative things that you’re doing—maybe a commercial or what have you—and put that into the licensed product. 

TF: Yeah. And I feel CPG brands—people like Corona, Pepsi—they’re very tight. We just finished Cheetos. And boy, they are laser focused on every bit of that package and the consumer experience. There’s expectations. If, all of a sudden, now you’re creating a line of fashionwear.

ER: Tom, besides packaging designs and guidelines, what else do style guides typically provide licensees? 

TF:  There’s a full range, and it depends on the strategy and then what assets are available. But sometimes, they include a little bit more robust brand-positioning attributes, the mission, how it actually pertains to that brand extension program. We put a lot of product vision because a lot of times, I’ve found the trend is to—as a sales tool, when you’re out there, especially on a launch, you want to see how the product gets implemented and inspired and creates new products. So the product vision is an important part. And then if it’s lifestyle, you definitely need tools, editorial things, approved fonts and colors, things that are more trend driven and collection driven… And then if it’s packaging ,we’ve included retail or POS displays, and a lot of times these things can be building blocks and you can keep adding to it. And then of course, if you’re doing character-based, or like a book or a TV property, you have full character profiles, maybe even sculpts so that you can create a plush or toys. So it’s very much focused on what the assets are from the entertainment or book. 

ER: When you’re talking about brand positioning and values and thinking about that from the licensing portfolio perspective, it’s interesting because in some ways, you are helping with strategy. It’s not just, “Here’s how to use a logo,” right? It’s more of that strategic piece of the licensing approach. So it’s an interesting way to think of those as assets to give to licensees. 

TF: Yeah. A lot of times you’re working with a core brand. We were working on Billboard Magazine style guide—Billboard is a media brand—then they are about getting eyeballs onto their website and their magazine. So what their mission was is that, but once they go into consumer products, electronics, whatever, we changed the positioning to be “Discover all things music,” which changes it. It’s an active thing. And the same with Discovery Channel; we went from the channel to an outdoor lifesytle brand. We had to change that mission, and almost articulate it, and for it to be active and experiential. You’re starting with the core brand and what’s important to them, but then you’re saying, “What does that mean in product?” So articulating is just a healthy thing, because then that leads to, “Okay, what can we create and how is it on brand?” 

ER: And on that note, when should a brand start thinking about creating a style guide, or these guidelines? Do they do it after strategy before you even start developing a licensing program? Or once you’ve got a licensee on board? What’s best practice? Or what’s most effective? 

TF: I would say, as soon as a licensing agent or brand owner have developed a strategy, you should start in because it is going to be that sales tool for you. Plus the amount of time it takes. And that potential licensee is going to want to see, “Wow, this is in development.” And a lot of times it’s in progress, because you’re anxious as a licensing agent to get out and sell, because that’s where your revenue is coming from. You’re anxious to get it out there. So sometimes we’ll create the brand vision and it’s enough that you can go out and sell while the rest of the house is being completed. 

ER: Yeah, we like flying the plane while building it. 

TF: Exactly. It’d be a nice world where we go, “Okay, give me the strategy,” I create a style guide, then you go sell it. Well, you may not be able to wait three months. But we’ve done that. With Billboard, we did the positioning brand vision, they hit licensing expo while we were finishing the guide. And then they were able to have a call back now: “Oh, look, it’s actually there.” It’s a pure sales tool. Like, “Hey, we’ve developed new collections. We really want to show you so you guys can use it as a sales strategy.” 

ER: We talked a little bit about this, but in my experience with CPG, it sounds like you have more lifestyle and entertainment brand experiences. But what would be some of the key differences in a style guide for those types of properties? 

TF: On the consumer CPG, you are more focused on that core packaging. Like for Playtex, it was almost in the same aisle, so to speak, but they were licensing it out. So there, you’re really trying to go directly from that core brand and sort of move it into these new areas. But the thing is: What if it’s moving in a different part of the store or different retailer? From there you’re expanding and making sure everything is cohesive. While in entertainment, movies, books, it’s really about the story, it’s about the assets and can that transcend that into a brand?” Think of Trolls. But then those are much more focused on the characters and how to interpret those characters into trend-driven product. Then there’s another category, celebrity, and that’s a little bit different too, because it’s a little bit more of an essence- based lifestyle. And what about home versus fashion? So there’s all these little nuances, but then with a lifestyle—whether it’s home or apparel—you’re now focusing on that essence. And then how is it trend driven? What are the tools? It can be assets, but it’s a little bit more about a view book. And then the packaging modules are a little bit more apparel driven: hang tags, product labels, applications, things like that. But sometimes you have all three, so it’s always this sort of module approach, so to speak. 

ER: Nice. It sounds like you can kind of plug those pieces in as you need them. And based on your experience in working with your clients— these are ongoing relationships where you do the updates or maybe plug in a new module depending on strategy. Is that right? 

TF: Yeah. In fact, for one of the projects we’re actually working on, The World of Eric Carle, we’ve worked on for ten years. It’s obviously a global brand, and there are a certain amount of assets all from the books, and they’re wonderful. But then every year, we do sixty-eight potential trends and they actually show those to licensees and come back and say, “Let’s do these two trends this season.” So we update it almost yearly in some of those cases. 

ER: I think that’s one of the biggest things we hear from licensees, sometimes just getting the updates and updated vision and brand information from brands. And while the brands are very busy, focused on their core product, that’s an important piece for a licensee. So I think that’s a great way to be a good partner. 

TF: Yeah. I was just watching an interview with a licensor and a licensee and in a webinar. And the question was, “What’s the most important thing you want from a licensor?” And the licensee said, “Creative assets and fast approvals.” Oh, okay, that tells you the importance of the style guide right there. 

ER: But I mean, if you think about it, those are like fast approvals. You get product to market faster, product sales faster. And that’s what everybody wants, both the licensing and the licensee. So when you connect it to the revenue, it helps really justify getting them those assets. 

TF: Did we just come down to it? Is it just that simple? 

ER: We just solved all the licensing world’s problems. Well before we sign off today, I’m asking one of my favorite questions, which is: What is one of the weirdest or most eclectic licensing partnerships or programs that you’ve worked on? 

TF: Let’s see. I remember Alana and I were sitting one day, working on a whole bunch of things. And it was this combination of projects and we just shook our heads because we were working on a style guide for Sprout Network, which is NBC Universal’s preschool brand. And then at the same time, working on Ancient Aliens, which was very adult, niche kind of property. And then also working on Hustler magazine, which is positioning as your reverent free speech and sex core values. And I looked at her and I go, “Wow.” It was just like, “Oh, this is why I like doing this. This is a fun day” 

ER:  If people want to connect with you offline, where can they—or online, I guess I should say—where can they find you? 

TF: At and I’m and LinkedIn too. 

ER: You have provided some really great insights on style guides and how to think of this more strategically. I know I plan to use a lot of these points with my clients on the importance of style guides. I really appreciate your time and hope our listeners enjoy as well. 

TF: Emily, thank you so much for the time and opportunity, and we’ll see you soon. 

IMC Licensing Logo Mark

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