World Intellectual Property Organization

Mary Engelbreit: Artist & Entrepreneur - Licensing

Mary Engelbreit is known throughout the world for her colorful and intricate designs, and has become a pioneer for art licensing. With a range of licensed products that stretches from cards and calendars to dinnerware and fabric, a successful retail store in her hometown, an award-winning magazine1, more than 150 book titles published and hundreds of millions of greeting cards sold, the most apt description of artist Mary Engelbreit may be a line pulled from one of her well-known greeting card designs – she truly is "The Queen of Everything." Mary's unmistakable illustration style, imbued with spirited wit and nostalgic warmth, has won her fans the world over.

An entire industry has indeed grown up around Mary Engelbreit, but it all began with a young girl who just wanted to draw pictures. Mary moved into her first "studio," a hastily vacated linen closet in the home where she grew up, when she was just 11 years old.". We jammed a desk and chair in there, and I'm sure it was 110 degrees," she remembers. "But I would happily sit in that closet for hours at a time and draw pictures."

Mary's passion and dedication to her drawing has never wavered, and although her company now employs a small staff that "reformats" her art to make it appropriate for a myriad of licensed products, Mary herself still imagines every concept in her head and draws every original illustration with her hand.

Mary's road to becoming a professional illustrator was full of unexpected twists and turns. She went to work directly out of high school at an art supply store in St. Louis (USA). Over the next few years she worked for a small ad agency, accepted free-lance projects on the side, held independent showings of her own art, and even worked for a short time as an editorial cartoonist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In these early years, Mary learned a lot and managed to make a modest living, but she wasn't satisfied "drawing to order" for free-lance clients. She knew that she did her best work when it was coming from her own head. What she truly wanted was to be a children's book illustrator.

In 1977, newly wed and with enthusiastic encouragement from her husband, Phil Delano, she took her portfolio to New York City to try her luck at some well-known publishing houses. She received a "mild reception" from publishers and a suggestion from one art director that she try her hand illustrating greeting cards. "I was kind of crushed at the time," she recalls. "It seemed like a real come-down from illustrating books." But soon enough, Mary realized that the suggestion had merit. She found that the greeting card format played well into her style of illustration. Within months, she'd made her first licensing deal by selling three card designs for US$150 and signed a short-term contract with another greeting card company.

Once Mary shifted her talent and energy to greeting cards, success came quickly. Several well-known card companies bought her designs, and sales were brisk. Mary Engelbreit has been grasping opportunities ever since. As her greeting card line grew in size and popularity, it drew attention from other companies who were anxious to license Mary's distinctive artwork on a wide range of products including calendars, T-shirts, mugs, gift books, rubber stamps, ceramic figurines and more. By 1986, Mary Engelbreit greeting cards had blossomed into a million-dollar-a-year business. She decided to license her cards to Sunrise Publications to free up more time for her art and to grow her business in other areas. In 1995, she brought on Greg Hoffmann, long time friend and legal counsel, as Chief Executive Officer to run the business. Mary Engelbreit Studios now has contracts with dozens of manufacturers who have produced more than 6,500 products in all. And in 2001, Mary saw her original dream come true when she signed a contract to illustrate children's books for publishing giant HarperCollins. Her debut book, "The Night Before Christmas," spent eleven weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.

Although the range of Mary Engelbreit licensed product has continued to grow robustly, Mary and her staff are careful to make sure the growth is smart and deliberate as well. They take extreme care in choosing only the best companies to work with and go to great lengths to make certain that Mary's artwork is reproduced as faithfully to her original work as possible.

In the fall of 1996, Mary took on what was probably her most ambitious project to date. She launched a national consumer magazine, Mary Englebreit’s HOME COMPANION.2 The home décor and creative lifestyle magazine reflects Mary's personal decorating vision and showcases the homes of fellow artists. Each issue also covers topics including family life, food, decorating, craft projects, flea markets and collectibles. The magazine has won several prestigious awards and currently enjoys a circulation of over 600,000, with a readership of 2 million.

Over the years, Mary Engelbreit has shared her good fortune with a range of charitable organizations and worthy causes close to her heart. An avid reader, Mary has always been dedicated to the promotion of literacy. In 2000, Mary launched a partnership with First Book, a nonprofit organization that delivers new books to low-income children. Her contribution of a commemorative poster for the organization's Make a Difference Day event was a key factor in enabling them to deliver 2 million books to literacy groups for low-income children in 2000.

Today, the Mary Engelbreit companies are headquartered in Mary's hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, USA. Her companies include: Mary Engelbreit Studios, art licensor; The Mary Engelbreit Store, retailer; and Mary Engelbreit's HOME COMPANION magazine. Thousands of retailers nationally and internationally sell Mary Engelbreit products, spreading what the Wall Street Journal coined a "vast empire of cuteness." Total retail sales soar above $100 million annually.

It's an amazing degree of success for any company, but even more remarkable considering that it all began with a single-minded young girl who decided at age 11 that she was going to be an artist. And while Mary Engelbreit Studios has grown into a global licensing and retail business, that same girl still sits at its core, grown up now, but still drawing her pictures with the same sense of wonder, imagination and enthusiasm.

When Mary was young, people told her that being an artist was not a realistic way to make a living, but Mary Engelbreit was never one to be easily discouraged. "I believed in myself," she says, "and now I'm living my dream."

Mary Engelbreit was honored with the 2002 Best Art License of the Year award at the 19th Annual LIMA Gala & Awards Ceremony for the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association (LIMA). A media release can be read at http://www.maryengelbreit.com/PressRoom/Releases/LicenseAward-06-18-03.htm.

This case study has been taken, with the permission of Mary Engelbreit Studios, Inc., from Mary Engelbreit’s website at http://www.maryengelbreit.com/AboutMary/AboutMary.htm. Mary Engelbreit’s products, her craft project ideas, press releases and other information can be viewed on the home page at http://www.maryengelbreit.com. Mary has also written a Getting Started letter for artists, which outlines some practical guidelines for those interested in the art licensing business (see: See: http://www.maryengelbreit.com/ForArtists/GettingStarted.htm). Her website also offers a Licensing 101 Presentation (ppt) that is often given at trade show events (see: http://www.maryengelbreit.com/PPT/Licensing101/sld001.htm).


1 See: http://www.maryengelbreit.com/MEHC/index.htm.

2 Idem.

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