It’s striking. In our conversations with emerging property owners who wish to license their brands, the same goal crops up again and again. They envision licensing their properties in as many categories as possible to achieve a 360º brand experience for their fans. The thought process is that if licensed apparel, décor, toys/games and accessories proliferate in the marketplace, brand fans will be immersed in the property 24/7. But that’s not realistic. Put simply, it doesn’t work that way.
Even the most ardent fans don’t consume products in every category which bear the visual assets of their favorite properties. The rush to license a property in too many categories inevitably leads to the emergence of cheesy items, market saturation and brand fatigue. And kids, like adults, know when the’re being played to. They shun an overtly commercialized property to which they attach deep meaning. When that happens, the brand begins to rapidly lose its cachet with its audience.
New licensed brands catching fire
In this digital age, the newest of properties can achieve fame quickly thanks to the potential to reach millions via YouTube shorts, gaming, and the endorsement of obscure characters favored by influencers whose reach on social media is staggering. The seemingly overnight success of some brands, as well as the consistent growth of others over a short period of time, leads brand owners to enthuse over the idea of licensed consumer products as the driver to achieve immortality and long-term commercial success for their properties.
However, brands are built systematically, over time and with a fully developed strategy that uses licensing in a selective manner and in alignment with the core assets of the property. The licensing of consumer products is one tool among many and not to be rushed into until a property is mature enough for it. Wise marketers understand that licensing consumer products isn’t going to achieve a 360º brand experience all by itself. An effectively designed experiential plan for a property is all about making the brand accessible to its fans with engaging content. That content is available on multiple platforms with which they can interact at the times of their own choosing, with live entertainment being the ultimate experience if well-conceived and executed.
Engaging content should consistently represent the brand and its values in a faithful manner. Just because a property for kids centers on entertainment and play, it doesn’t follow that it shouldn’t offer a deeper meaning. This is the connective tissue that forms lasting relationships between people and brands. Brand owners can easily find out what matters most to their fans by tapping into social media. And that, in turn will help them to know which of their brand assets should become a part of their library of licensing visuals. It should also help them to seek out consumer product partners in categories that align best with their properties.
Best in class 360˚ branding strategy
It’s amazing. With all of the blockbuster entertainment brands around the world, National Geographic, nearing its 130th anniversary can teach many brand owners a lesson about how to achieve the ultimate 360º branding strategy. The property has gone well beyond its iconic yellow-bordered magazine in order to interact with its global audience on multiple platforms in an ongoing manner. Print and digital magazine formats reach 54 million adults around the world in 35 languages, including 4 million kids with content offered in 15 languages. Nat Geo counts 316 million fans across the social media platforms where it has a presence and the brand is ranked #1 on Instagram boasting 100 million followers. In total, National Geographic reaches a staggering 730 million consumers in 172 countries each month.
National Geographic has always maintained strong core values celebrating the scientific exploration of our planet, the oceans and outer space, travel, nature and conservation as well as fascinating cultural studies of people from around the world. Its mission is succinctly stated on its web site. “The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization committed to exploring and protecting our planet. We fund hundreds of research and conservation projects around the world each year and inspire new generations through our education initiatives and resources.” Avid fans of the brand place additional value on their magazine subscriptions, purchases of licensed products from catalogs and e-commerce, travel programs and location-based entertainment, all of which support Nat Geo’s mission.
National Geographic presents a great example of a strong 360⁰ experiential strategy, but like the most successful properties, they aren’t satisfied. In a great move in the fall of 2015, Nat Geo and 21st Century Fox solidified their 18-year collaboration to form National Geographic Partners, combining every aspect of the brand’s consumer outreach via traditional and digital media, licensing, entertainment and travel activities.
This has become the springboard for Encounter, a permanent exhibit which opened in October, 2017 in New York City’s Time Square. The first exhibit, dubbed “The Ultimate Undersea Experience” brings explorers, adults and kids alike, into the depths of the South Pacific for 45 minutes in an unforgettable, immersive experience. Eventually, the ocean-based exhibit will be succeeded by other brand-based experiences. Will we be jettisoned into outer space, the Himalayas or the Sahara? Whatever the experience, Nat Geo will be pulling images from its vast, important photographic archive, and it will be totally captivating.
On the outside of the building, as well as the inside, stunning visual images for which the magazine became famous for decades, are framed within the yellow iconic border that immediately recalls National Geographic Magazine. In fact, the yellow border appears on Nat Geo’s own network, its stores, its travel and gift catalogs and on licensed consumer products. Interesting and unusual products have been licensed for its catalogs and ecommerce site from around the world in conjunction with the ethos of the brand, but here too there’s been a shift in strategy as three executives have been hired to explore new global licensing opportunities.
Branded with Nat Geo DNA
Current, tantalizing examples of branded consumer products are totally in alignment with National Geographic’s DNA. Speaking of DNA, Geno 2.0, a branded ancestry testing kit, makes perfect sense for this property, which is co-branded with the logos of Nat Geo and Helix, a world-class laboratory of advanced genetic testing. The Geno 2.0 Next Generation Helix Genographic DNA Ancestry Test divulges in-depth information to consumers who purchase it. But there’s more: consumers who choose to can participate in the Genographic Project by contributing their findings to a special database, helping Nat Geo scientists and researchers to chart a comprehensive map of human history. Total alignment.
Making learning fun for kids
Parents seek out toys that teach their children and they’ve always known that they can turn to National Geographic and its wealth of educational tools. But the brand has upped the ante on learning by making if fun and giving kids, aged 5-11 a ”mission”. The Nat Geo Pley site invites kids and their parents to enjoy a new monthly adventure by subscribing to receive a “mystery box” filled with games, activities and interactive lessons. The site states: “Each magical box presents a new mission to solve and teaches about our planet and incredible nature.” The proceeds of the mystery box sales go toward rescuing an endangered animal in a different part of the world, as well. When play and learning merge in this manner, and when kids understand that they have a role in preserving animal life, for which they have a special affinity, it’s pure magic. It’s pure National Geographic, too, and isn’t that the point?
The Sesame Street 360˚ experience
Can any of us ever forget the happy Sesame Street jingle? It’s doubtful. The evergreen brand has continued to provide quality edutainment for decades. Its merchandising of its brand has been masterful because it has continued to change and grow. Sesame Street Live! Let’s Party! has been hitting the streets in cities and towns across the country. Not only has the content of the show been widely praised by parents but they’ve also posted pictures of their children posing with their favorite characters during a fan-favorite pre-show experience on the one and only Sesame Street. This is an interactive, close-up experience that kids will never forget.
As Sesame Street creates a 360º experience for its multitude of young fans, whose parents are often life-long fans themselves, a mature approach is being taken to developing a new generation of licensed consumer products, as well. The new Sesame Street for Nod collection, for example, is the result of collaboration with children’s retailer, The Land of Nod.
Co-designed decor, playroom furniture, bedding, apparel, backpacks, and toys, bring Sesame Street’s beloved characters to life by employing vintage and artisanal visual design elements. The collection brings the playful spirit of Sesame Street and The Land of Nod to life in a perfect co-branded fit. How about an adorable Cookie Monster pillow whose ”mouth” is a zipper, slightly open to reveal a half-eaten cookie? Or a Cookie Monster shaped blue bookcase? Or a bright red comforter featuring Elmo’s appliqued eyes and nose? What child could resist any of these things? Perfect alignment.
Smaller brands can, too
So, I know what you’re thinking. How many brands can achieve 360⁰ branding and licensing in the manner in which these properties can, given the vast resources which they can deploy? That’s a fair question.
I’ll answer it in this way. Smart brand stewardship and effective licensing are more about a specific mindset than anything else. Properties that are modest in size can use these principles to evolve and grow. Many of the hottest, 360⁰ experiential brands aren’t only properties from behemoths like Disney, Marvel or Hasbro. Smaller brands like Shopkins, Paw Patrol, PJ Masks and Ben 10 have all shown that they are masterful. Their licensing strategies are in alignment with their core values and highly experiential. It’s important for brand owners to dream big and as their properties grow, they might consider what kinds of partnerships they can forge to keep their brands ever relevant, immersive and evergreen.