The marketers of strong brands inevitably turn their attention to licensing. It’s a natural progression of things. Usually, their focus is on building even more brand awareness, sales and profits. It might sound counterintuitive, but that shouldn’t be their primary goal. Their thought processes should be on how to use licensing not for a proliferation of new products in as many categories as they can, but on how to create compelling experiences for their properties’ fans leveraging licensing. Making this the focus will automatically help marketers to choose consumer product categories as well as their licensing partners carefully. Doing this in a successful manner leads to increasingly enthralled fans, sales and profits.
Curating valuable content
Storyline snippets. Soundbites. That’s how content is consumed in pop culture. And make no mistake: the creation of compelling new content keeps properties relevant with consumers. New storylines that propel a property forward, or fascinating revelations into characters’ backstories, help to rivet fans’ attention. That’s why every foray into licensing should include a multi-platform release of great content to support new brand-based consumer products in the marketplace. Everything from shorts on social media, to larger releases via television, film or print media that give fans tantalizing fragments of exciting fare helps to color in storylines. It also helps to build anticipation for licensed products. Live events enable fans to interact in a close-up, personal manner with their favorite properties, as well. But what happens after the stage is set?
Licensing program design
It may be easy to create some character art and impose a brand logo on licensed products, and many licensees do just that. But that doesn’t resonate with fans, so it doesn’t make them enthusiastic to own licensed merchandise. When a licensor puts effort into developing a licensing program that is well-designed, the very essence of the property is captured. A unique brand language is created with carefully curated visual and verbal design elements that succinctly tell the story. These are the storyline snippets that create emotional connection with the property’s fans. Then when the proper licensees are secured (read: the ones that are truly a great fit for the property), it spurs them to go beyond taking a minimal approach to product and package design as they launch new consumer products. When a true partnership is in place the brand is poised for success. This is crucial since the marketplace is jam-packed with countless consumer products featuring licensed properties. And, as I always say, ”unseen is unsold.”
We know that consumers are more interested in collecting experiences than they are in accumulating “stuff.” That’s why smart retailers are upping the ante by offering unique experiences for their customers within their stores. By delivering surprise and delight, retailers are tapping into deeper consumer emotions. With the rise of social media, customers readily share their experiences in real time with their friends, who likewise, spread the news initiating heightened interest. Instant connection is created and these retailers benefit since their customers become deeply engaged with their brands… leading to their desire to purchase. Disney is a master at retailtainment within its stores and it’s no accident that the company is the #1 licensor in the world – by a wide margin.
In thinking about this, it follows that licensors who deliberately create licensing programs that are highly experiential in nature, likewise reap success for their licensees in retail environments. The story that their products and their packaging can be fully leveraged to tell – by design – is irresistible to the consumers who are already devoted fans of the property.
Simply put: fans can’t get enough of a property that they love. The unfolding storylines are seductive. Did you notice how co-workers huddled in the break room to avidly discuss the upcoming final season of Game of Thrones before it aired in April of this year? How would the story come to a close in just six episodes? What would happen to key characters? And who would ultimately take the Iron Throne? Theories abounded, along with undying interest. You might say that this was the ultimate fandom obsession.
Now imagine capturing that. Imagine extending that kind of fan obsession around a property into branded consumer products and packaging. Is this idea mere fantasy or is it a reality in some cases?
Fan focused licensing efforts and partnerships
According to researcher NPD’s report titled ”U.S. Kids’ License Tracker,” 25% of all kids merchandise that is sold features a character or a logo. That includes toys. This might not be surprising, but there’s even more potential than that in the global marketplace when properties are experiential. I’ll illustrate what I mean.
The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles property is in the midst of a major reboot. When the Turtles came onto the scene during the 1980’s via their own comic book they became a hit, which led to an animated TV series, videogames, movies and licensed merchandise. The brand became worth billions of dollars. But even though TMNT was a cultural icon, the brand had plateaued when Viacom acquired it in 2009. After that, the decision was made to clear most of the licensed products from retail stores, to step back and assess the proper direction for the property.
Fast forward to today. The Nickelodeon network released a new animated TMNT series in the fall of 2018 by laying the groundwork at San Diego’s Comic-Con with a VR experience for fans, along with sneak peeks and fresh content on social media. These Turtles were a new-look quartet with a multi-ethnic cast, updated storylines and capabilities. They skateboard now, and write code, for example. Yet, the classic elements of a much-loved property were still retained in the personas of the Turtles themselves: ”Cowabunga, dude!”
Nickelodeon has put more content out to relaunch these four pizza-loving “heroes in a half-shell” than they’ve invested in any other property. All of this led up to the mid-September 2018 launch of a 26 episode series dubbed ”Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Concurrent with the new series, the Turtles began to appear on 2 million Amazon Prime shipping boxes. The WWE’s John Cena, a villain in the new series, made a splash at SummerSlam, one of the biggest events for the sports entertainment brand. TMNT content appeared regularly on WWE’s hugely popular social media channels. All of the content and the platforms which are delivering it appeal to multiple generations of fans and it is all being orchestrated by design.
Licensing efforts and partnerships are now well-aligned with the property. For example, J Crew is designing cool TMNT streetwear. Playmates Toys offered a Sewer Squad Pizza Points Loyalty Program so that fans could collect points in exchange for exclusive toys. And Walmart made a commitment to giving the Turtles a massive presence in its retail stores. Of course, no new licensed consumer product assortments would be complete without toys.
Playmates’ introduced a 43” high Epic Sewer Lair, which was a great example of product and packaging working hand in glove to create an impactful fan experience. Vignettes appeared on all “four levels” of this cool toy, each one telling a comic book like story about our Turtle heroes and the current crop of fiends with whom they’re engaging to protect humankind. Artwork on pack depicted the bustling metropolis above the sewers where Raphael, Leonardo, Donatello and Michelangelo reside. The Nickelodeon logo coupled with ”Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” reinforced that this merchandise was directly tied to today’s iteration of their favorite heroes, while classic poses of the Turtles grounded in the brand signature color palette conveyed the property’s heritage.
By creating layers of new content and satisfying experiences and by designing a licensing program that fully aligns with the brand, the Turtles will remain relevant for a long time to come.
How to make (and keep) a new property hot
Spin Master’s Paw Patrol hit the small screen on the Nickelodeon network in August 2013 in the U.S. Not a single toy appeared until six months of content had aired. The property was a homegrown IP, developed by Spin Master in-house in direct contrast to the majority of licensed brands that are tied to TV and movie IPs.
Not only has the property remained fresh and relevant over the past six years, it has actually gotten stronger. Within the last three years, Paw Patrol has become the #1 licensed property for preschoolers aged 2-5 years. Memorable, endearing characters and content that is carefully crafted to appeal to the youngest demographic that consumes entertainment fare, has paid off handsomely. I mean, cute pups that have unique personalities and conduct rescues using a number of land and sea based vehicles? How can kids resist them or their storylines? And what better way to carry the brand into consumer products and packaging than by designing them with the same feel as the animated series?
Paw Patrol toy packaging is eye candy for preschoolers, beginning with the brand identity. A shield-like device (after all, superheroes are often identified by shields) holds the logo. The word ”Paw” features a paw print in the middle of the letter ”A” and the word ”Patrol” appears over a dog bone. The brand identity appears on the lower right-hand side of the packaging. ”Nickelodeon” appears in the upper left-hand corner. Vignettes appear on each package with the corresponding character depicted in action. While unsophisticated or cartoonish in appearance, this artwork resonates powerfully with its audience, who will recall favorite Paw Patrol episodes. Coveted toys are on full display along with these visual cues and very limited verbal communication, as we would expect on consumer products for young children.
Homegrown IPs trend
I expect the trend of homegrown IPs to become significant licensed brands. Properties like LOL Surprise, for example, now have licensing programs. Just as these kinds of toy brands have leveraged package design in an unusual way, I suspect that more surprises are in store within their licensing programs. In fact, I’m sure that they will up the ante on licensing program design in a highly disruptive manner. I’d be surprised if they didn’t.