Leveraging the Right Assets for Licensed Product Packaging

It goes without saying: not all licensed consumer products are successful at retail – even for hot properties. In many cases, this is due to the lack of a cohesive package design system that leverages the licensed property’s most equitable assets. Thorough research helps to uncover and identify these assets. Insights from brand owners as well as information from leading retailers are important. Consumers who are fans of the property can divulge the most valuable insights of all.

The key visual and verbal assets of the property can then be leveraged for consumer products and packaging and be standardized within a style guide. A strong packaging program is driven by prominent, distinctive package design architecture unique to the licensed property. It is modular in nature, providing enough flexibility to accommodate a variety of packaging formats for diverse consumer products. It provides standardization and instructional guidelines that are easy for licensees to implement. Doing all of this not only reinforces relationships between licensors and licensees, but also assures greater brand recognition and sell-through for licensed consumer products.

Uncovering a brand’s most equitable assets

Conducting the research to uncover the assets associated with the brand sometimes leads to package design concepts that try to do too much. It’s important to hone in on the most important visual and verbal associations with the brand and omit the rest. Consumers see plenty of busy packaging on retail shelves and they skip over it. If package design isn’t focused; if it doesn’t effectively showcase the property, how can consumers be expected to focus in on it?

As is the case with all packaging, licensed product package design isn’t about selling features and benefits of the product; it’s about leveraging key visual brand communication that generates instantaneous recognition and an emotional response from its fans.

There are specific associations and personas attached to each licensed property, whether it’s a character-based brand like Hello Kitty, a famous athlete or star like LeBron James and Salma Hayek or a consumer product brand like Jack Daniels. Even properties that aren’t based on a character or real person benefit from personification.

Research shows that consumers respond to human elements on packaging in an emotive manner – especially faces. It’s even more compelling if the faces they see emit personality, energy and playfulness; if they’re inviting and if they capture the essence of the property in the manner that has the most meaning for their fans. That’s why researching the favorite expressions or poses central to the identity and persona of each character is important before developing package design visuals.

This is about embodying the essence, the soul of the property, in a relevant manner; otherwise visuals can appear lifeless. Doing this creates the magic, the emotional connection between brand and consumers. Supporting these equitable visual assets with just the right verbal cues reinforces the brand values that resonate with its fans. Combining the most prominent visual and verbal assets creates a high-level emotional response and a sense of immediacy leading to purchase.

But most people have more than one favorite entertainment property. What will induce consumers to purchase licensed products aligned with one property over another?

Package design for evergreen properties

Fans of those brands will quickly recognize consumer products meant for them when the package design not only leverages the visual and verbal assets that it should, but does it in the right manner. Kids’ entertainment properties are a perfect example. Although kids may recognize a favorite character’s face on packaging, is that recognition alone sufficient to elicit an emotional response? Or is something else needed to trigger emotions on a deeper level?

New Sesame Street plush packaging hones in on the fuzzy characters completely; they are fully visible within the packaging. So do many other toys, licensed or not, right? But what’s important in this case is that they’re posed with out-stretched arms inviting kids to hug them. Young children see these Sesame Street characters as their friends, and the packaging elicits immediate emotional response; kids want to embrace them back. The key visual on the packaging doesn’t even show the full faces of the characters – just parts of faces peek out in a playful manner just as kids do. But there is no doubt who these googly-eyed characters are. Fans making “eye contact” with these teasing faces will respond to them on packaging not only for plush but for products in many, diverse categories. Verbal cues? “Let’s Cuddle.” What else need be said?

Disney creates a new classic property with Frozen

As kids get older, properties must be relevant to their lives and values, so cultural context becomes more important. That too, must be factored in to licensing program design, as well as the leveraging of the most equitable visual assets of the property itself. The story is important if it’s relevant to today’s kids and if it’s delivered in a manner in which they can relate. And that story must be presented in consumer product design and package design as well.

Disney’s “Frozen” presents a good example. The storyline, based loosely on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Snow Queen”, brings comedy, drama and fantasy together in a timeless manner that resonates with kids. Interestingly, Disney Studios wanted to bring this story to the silver screen on and off since 1943, but the complexities of the tale and its characters made them shelf it until recently, releasing their animated film version of the story in the fall of 2013.

Two young sisters, Elsa and Anna, who happen to be princesses, are growing up in a close and affectionate way until elder sister, Elsa, fearful of her own secret powers to turn everything into ice, distances herself from Anna. This leads to misunderstandings, hurt feelings and a sense of isolation for each sister. When Elsa becomes queen of Arendelle, she accidentally plunges the kingdom into eternal winter. Anna sets out to find Elsa, who has fled, to save her sister and their kingdom with the help of friends, after becoming disillusioned by a young prince whom she thought loved her and whom she loved, only to find out that he only wanted to marry her to seize control of Arendelle. Both sisters have to learn life lessons about love and hurt, disillusionment, patience and endurance during many trials until they ultimately triumph, saving Arendelle and becoming close again.

Leveraging great package design to turn Frozen into a licensing juggernaut

Properly capturing the essence of this entertainment property and its main characters, especially Disney’s winsome sisters for consumer product and package design, was accomplished not only using the visual cues unique to the Frozen brand but the personalities of Elsa and Anna. Artwork depicts the wide-eyed, naïve, sometimes impulsive Anna and the more worldly-wise, secret-bearing Elsa. On some consumer product packaging, Elsa looks every part the “Snow Queen” in her ice blue gown that sparkles with ice crystals and snowflakes. In many depictions, the train of her gown becomes part of a frozen landscape and snowflakes emanate from Elsa’s cast-spelling fingertips. Backgrounds are icy blues and whites and often depict a frozen landscape or the mountain to which Elsa has fled.

Some packaging features the supporting cast to leverage emotions from kids who remember the love, humor and fantasy they bring to the story. Sven, the loveable reindeer; Olaf, the friendly snowman; Marshmallow, the giant snowman bodyguard of Elsa; Prince Hans of the Southern Isles, who schemes to rule Arendelle by marrying Anna and Kristoff, the outdoorsman, recall the many themes from the film and add dimension to consumer products and packaging – without clutter.

Verbal communication is very limited on Frozen licensed products and packaging and on many there aren’t any verbal cues at all – only the brand identity appears with the visuals. The Frozen brand identity with its distinctively-shaped cartouche in deep blue with lighter blue flowers and equally distinctive typography in white refer to the property eloquently: it speaks of ice, cold and snow, and of course, fantasy.

Disney’s approach to licensing the Frozen franchise

Being part of the stable of Disney Princesses, while each has its own distinct story, is important. It is apparent that Disney and its licensees are capitalizing on the formula that has created so much success for the Princess franchise. Frozen licensing sales are expected to hit the $1 billion mark during 2014, mere months after the all-time, highest grossing animated movie pulled in $1.2 billion at box offices worldwide. In a recent interview, Walt Disney Co. chairman, Bob Iger, stated that Frozen has become one of the company’s top five properties. One that the company would be “taking full advantage of over the next few years.”

Frozen has all of the makings of an enduring Disney classic with adept licensing management, it has the potential to have true staying power. By intelligently licensing the Frozen brand and leveraging its most powerful visual assets for consumer products and packaging in a consistent, one-of-a-kind manner, Disney demonstrates once again why the company continues to create classic, endearing properties and magic for millions of fans.

Take a page from these examples and think about how to leverage the optimal visual cues for licensed properties. Verbal cues? Choose wisely and remember: less is more. And in some cases, none may be necessary at all.

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