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Sunday, February 1, 2015

Art Licensing Editorial: What Makes the Willow Tree® Brand Such a Success?

When fine artist Susan Lordi received her Masters in Fine Arts in Textile Design in 1993, I am sure she had no idea that she would not only become known for her fine art textile designs but also for her sculptured figurines created for the gift market. The transition from creating fine art that appeals to individuals to creating art for the mass market is no easy task. But, Susan did it right because her Willow Tree brand has been a huge success for the last 15 years. Consumers worldwide purchase Susan’s figurines and her other products produced by DEMDACO.

Studying how artists become successful is really informative and one of my favorite things to do. I have followed Susan Lordi's success for years and have always admired the simple carved wooden look of her Willow Tree brand figurines and her ability to show emotion without facial expressions.

Art brands tend to sell more products than non-brands because the customer base grows as the brand becomes more popular. To become a brand that is recognized by consumers the art must be unique and different from other art. And, to become successful and stay successful the brand must resonate some emotional response with the consumer, appeal to a wide spectrum of consumers, grow slowly, and stay true to the look of the brand but continue to be refreshed. I think Susan Lordi has encompassed all these requirements in her Willow Tree brand. The following is why I think so.

• Recognized art style
When Susan decided to create for the mass market in the late 1990s, she did her homework and noticed that there was a void in the gift industry of simple figurative sculptures that depicted relationships with others and the world around them. By creating a sculptured style of less-is-more and capturing a moment in time between persons and nature in her carvings, Susan created a style that is truly unique and recognized by consumers.

View "Susan Lordi Marker, Central High 1972" video of Susan describing her art background and the creation of her Willow Tree brand. And, also view "Susan Lordi - "Willow Tree" video to see a major influence in Susan's carvings. Note: These videos show Susan's passion in creating her work, which is truly inspirational!

• Appeals to consumers
To sell any product, it has long been known that the product has to somehow resonate an emotion with the consumer so that she/he feels the need to purchase it. Susan Lordi creates figurative sculptures that depict sentiments anyone can relate to. And, because no expressions are shown on their faces it allows each person to interpret the meaning of each figure in their own way and makes it more personal. Thus, her sculptures appeal to a large number of consumers. Unlike successful art based on trends that evidentially fade away, Susan’s sculptures are timeless and are continually sought by consumers. No wonder the Willow Tree brand is so successful.

Note: What is critical to Susan’s success is that she carves from her own life experiences as a mother, a daughter, a wife, an aunt, a granddaughter… In other words, something she knows to be true… something that interests her, something she’s experiencing, instead of trying to make something that she thinks might sell. Or, in her words, “it has to come from a personal place in order to resonate with others.”

View "Willow Tree Family Groupings" video to hear Susan's reasoning on why she creates her carvings the way she does.

• Continue refreshing art
Consumers are always looking for new and different looks when purchasing products. Thus, artists need to regularly keep their art fresh and new looking when submitting to manufacturers for licensing consideration.

Susan Lordi has met the challenge of evolving and keeping her carvings fresh over the years while keeping her own aesthetics so that they are still recognizable as belonging to the Willow Tree brand. Although she has kept soft washed colors that are a trademark of the brand, over the years she has refreshed her sculptures by adding some embellishment to her work with deeper colors, and/or metal accents.

Note: Susan really out did herself with the introduction of her elegant Signature Collection at the January 2015 Atlanta Gift Market. When I walked by the DEMDACO showroom in Atlanta, I couldn't stop looking at the collection. A gradation of deep turquoise blue at the bottom of the figures with a scattering of gold-leaf raised dots makes them absolutely stunning. And, gold accents on a turquoise blue background on her triplex shadow boxes of Starry Night Nativity made them really beautiful and totally unique.

• Slow introduction of new products
Brands will not have staying power in the gift market if they swamp the market at once with all kinds of products. This is what happens when manufacturers hop on a perceived new trend like last year's chalkboard style art seen at the Atlanta Gift show. This year there were nowhere as many showrooms using chalkboard art on their products and probably that style will soon disappear. It is better to slowly introduce new products so that the market is not inundated with them and consumers will look forward to seeing what is new each year.

The Willow Tree brand follows that business practice and has slowly added new products over the 15 years since it was introduced at the January 2000 Atlanta Gift show.

There is much to learn from sculpturer Susan Lordi even if you as an artist do not have an art style that is unique enough that consumers recognize as yours or even if you have several art styles. Susan’s success has shown the importance in learning what attracts consumers to art, to create from your heart so it resonates with consumers, and to continually refresh art so that the product is salable. And, most importantly you need to continue to learn everything you can about the art licensing industry and all industries associated with it. Education is power that will help you in creating licensable work and obtaining licensing contracts.

This article was updated 7/17/18.

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