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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Art Licensing Editorial: What can artists, designers and cartoonists learn from the creator of Garfield?

Most people are aware of Garfield the cat comic strip character created by Jim Davis and that it is wildly popular and continuously earns many millions of dollars from movies and licensed products each year. But what many people do not realize is that Garfield's success did NOT happen by chance. Jim used a strategic plan by thoroughly researching the cartoon and licensing industries and applying what he learned to fill a niche. Jim admits that his Garfield cartoon is "static," is “essentially a formula,” and his intention was to "come up with a good, marketable character".

Creative director Caroline Zelonka who worked on advertising for Petsmart stores in the mid-90s recently commented in "Is Garfield Supposed to be Funny?" about the true story on why Garfield was created. In reading the article, it became apparent to me that using a strategic plan to license art is very important now more than ever because of lower licensing revenue and more competition in getting deals. Using what I call the "shot-gun" method of indiscriminately sending art to manufacturers for licensing consideration is not effective.

What learned from the article
Below are a few points on what Jim Davis did to bring Garfield to stardom and how his strategy can be used by artists, designers, and cartoonists to increase licensing potential.

• Research what is popular and why

– what Jim did: He thoroughly researched the cartoon industry and used the popular Peanuts cartoon strip as a model. He discovered that
1. the most popular and licensed character was Snoopy and not Charlie Brown,
2. there was no popular licensed cartoon character for cat lovers, and
3. the more mundane the character that does not offend anyone is the most popular and licensable. For reasons why, read "Where popularity never meets critical acclaim: Why bland entertainment is worth a fortune."

– what artists can do: Artists should target particular product industries (greeting cards, jig-saw puzzles, decorative flags, art prints, etc.) and decide where their art is a good fit. They should learn everything they can about the industry they plan to contact such as what art themes are popular. Whenever possible, contract licensee art directors and ask questions. For more information on licensing strategies, read "Eight Steps to Become an Art Brand".  Note: If you are new to licensing or have trouble in getting deals, hire an art licensing consultant to get constructive criticism of your art and suggestions on what manufacturers you should contact.

• Spend more time marketing than creating
– what Jim did: Jim spent 13 or 14 hours a week writing and drawing the strip, compared with 60 hours a week on promotion and licensing.

– what artists can do: Obviously licensing your creations are not a 40 hour work week. Jim spent four to five times the amount of time promoting Garfield than he did creating the comic strip. Spending a lot of time promoting it sure worked for him. Most artists spend more time creating their work than promoting it - including myself. The Garfield story is a good reminder that we artists should spend more time promoting our work to gain visibility and increase the potential in getting more licensing deals.

• Have visibility
– what Jim does: Jim uses the cartoon strip and Garfield movies to keep Garfield in the public eye to sell licensed merchandise. But he is very leery of over exposure and controls it as much as he can. For more information, read "Garfield: Why we hate the Mouse but not the cartoon copycat".

– what artists can do: Artist can gain visibility of their art by submitting press releases, advertise in trade magazines, exhibit at SURTEX, have a website, use social media such as blogs, Facebook etc., have online stores such as Etsy, Zazzle, Cafe Press etc. Also read, "Art Licensing: Marketing Art Outside-the-box". Artists can also gain visibility by constantly submitting art to manufacturers and by following-up. Read "Art Licensing Tip:What does follow-up really mean?"

All the above points have been made many times before. But how many artists actually implement them? Do you have a strategic plan on what products your art should be on? Do you spend more time marketing your art than creating it? Do you consistently contact your licensees and follow-up? If you do not, maybe by doing so you will get more licensing deals ;)

Your comments are welcome. Please click on the comments section (below) to write your comment. Note: Some people seem to have problems leaving a comment. The most successful method seems to comment as Name/URL (your name and website or blog complete URL address).


  1. Excellent post! Thanks so much for the informative links.

  2. Bill There's a saying among sales people, "Sell the sizzle, not the steak." This article seems to reflect similar thinking.

    1. Oh, that's worth remembering, Bill, and does sum up the successful marketing strategies in this valuable post.

  3. Hum Bill, I've never heard that saying before so I had to mull over the meaning. I finally came to the conclusion that to be successful in marketing anything including art means you need to showcase the features of the product (the sizzle) that resonate with people so I guess you are right that this article reflects that thinking. Jim accomplished this by creating the Garfield character that had all the ear marks in being successful and then promoted it aggressively. I believe that strategy is now necessary for successfully licensing art.

  4. Wonderful, informative article with great links! Thank you!

  5. hmm..."promoted it aggressively", that's on my WISH LIST! Always good to be reminded...THANKS

  6. Interesting and I'm about to go get another cup of coffee to read all the links. Are you only doing licensing representation for yourself?

  7. I do not represent myself but have an agent that reps my work. But that does not mean I do not have to market my art. I still send out press releases, take out ads and do other things to make my art visible to manufactures, retailers and consumers.