The holy grail for any brand is to become a lifestyle brand. Having legions of fans who identify with your brand on a highly-personal level is truly amazing. When this happens for toy and entertainment brands, massive success typically follows in the form of brand licensing. However, that success doesn’t come without challenges. When developing a creative strategy and style guide for these licensed brands, a significant question arises. Many consumer product categories don’t have much trade dress or packaging, so how can the unique visual assets of a licensed brand be leveraged in a way that elevates product design and makes it stand out from everything else?
As we evolved our pre-design research and creative strategy development processes over the years, we began to think deeper on this issue. Being entrenched in the discipline of brand licensing design, we’re developing creative strategies for high-profile toy and entertainment brands on a daily basis. Early on, our typical pre-design research involved immersing ourselves in the brand, evaluating its competitors, understanding its target demographic and identifying current and emerging trends in the marketplace. While important, given the implications of a fast-changing consumer culture, we began to realize that our typical pre-design research process alone wouldn’t ensure the development of a consistent, ”ownable” creative strategy for a brand.
Understanding the purpose of a sound creative strategy
When a licensed brand’s core creative strategy becomes tired or stale, we find that licensees tend to ad lib freely when developing products. This often leads to brand dilution, taking the brand further and further away from its visual foundation – the very reason that consumers are able to recognize the brand across a broad range of consumer product categories.
As we modified our pre-design research process to address this issue, here’s what we found to be most critical: a sound creative strategy should support a licensed brand, regardless of ever-changing marketplace trends and consumer tastes, and regardless of the wide range of consumer product categories that will bear the license. In other words, the licensed brand’s creative strategy should always be prevalent.
Uncovering ownable visual cues through brand deconstruction
In an effort to uncover what makes a creative strategy unique to a particular brand while remaining ubiquitous in ever application, we decided to do something completely different. We began to deconstruct some of the world’s most successful brands, whether licensed or not, to better understand their respective creative strategies. Through this initiative, it became apparent that, in every case, an ownable visual hook had been established and adhered to over the course of each brand’s lifespan. This visual hook was inherent to the brand itself and easily distinguished it from all others. By applying this “brand deconstruction” approach to a licensed brand, it becomes easier to understand the visual cues and attributes that can be expertly and consistently leveraged when developing licensed products.
Based on this thinking, an ownable creative strategy should always:
- ensure that all products bearing the license are immediately identifiable among competitive brands vying for consumer attention.
- transcend trends, rather than being based on one particular trend.
- be able to accommodate any trend, while maintaining its own visual aesthetic.
- work across all consumer product categories that appeal to the brand’s specific target audience.
This approach not only lead to a distinctive creative strategy for the licensed brand, it will pave the way for one that can be stretched in limitless ways without diluting the brand’s essence in any way.
Establishing an icon as brand DNA
We began to employ our “brand deconstruction” process as part of the pre-design research we conducted during a style guide development initiative for Hasbro’s Littlest Pet Shop brand quite a few years ago. When the brand began losing licensee interest as a wide variety of competitive, character-based products began to appear within its key categories, Hasbro realized that it was time to rethink the Littlest Pet Shop’s lifestyle licensing program’s creative strategy to make it unique among its licensed and non-licensed competitors while reestablishing consumers’ excitement for the brand at retail. Hasbro decided to engage our team to develop a new creative strategy for the Littlest Pet Shop’s lifestyle licensing program, which we would ultimately bring to life in its style guide design.
Many pet shop-related visual cues had been leveraged as part of the brand’s creative, whether on core Hasbro products and packaging or within the brand’s licensing assets. Among them, the paw print was most popular, as it had always been an iconic part of the Littlest Pet Shop’s brand heritage. However, it had always been interpreted in a literal manner, rather than conceptually. Our new creative strategy for the Littlest Pet Shop’s lifestyle licensing program did something dramatically different. It established an iconic depiction of a paw print, with standardized proportions, then infused it – either overtly or subliminally – into every design element associated with the licensing program. The paw print, as a standardized icon, was cleverly embedded into patterns, became the holding shape for compositions and badges, replaced letterforms within type treatments, or became hidden within illustrated elements. The possibilities were truly limitless.
The result? The paw print became the new visual brand DNA through which an emotional connection would be established with Littlest Pet Shop consumers.
As part of the brand’s new DNA, the signature paw print was present in all licensing applications. Kids and parents were surprised and delighted by the many clever representations of this icon on Littlest Pet Shop consumer products. And it became fun for kids to actively seek it out. The beauty of this visual hook: it remained fresh, relevant and true to the brand.
Take a look at the style guide we developed for the Littlest Pet Shop’s lifestyle licensing program to see how we brought this creative strategy to life.
Other ways a visual hook can be the basis of a brand’s creative strategy
Sometimes you don’t have to dig too deeply to uncover the most iconic aspect of a brand to leverage as the visual hook for its licensing program. Sometimes it’s so inherent to the brand that it’s immediately evident. One of the world’s favorite entertainment properties, and Marvel’s famous spokeshero, Spider-Man, has a terrific visual hook: his web. Spidey’s web is incorporated into almost every visual asset associated with the character’s many licensing programs, so it is an ever-present, iconic representation of the character. A great aspect of this visual hook is that the web itself is open to many stylistic interpretations, so it’s flexible. Through the years, we’ve given it an aggressive, painterly look, a high-tech, digitized look and even a simplified, chunky preschool look. It’s so iconic that it’s simply a matter of ensuring that its visual treatment aligns with the aesthetic of a particular version of the property or the trend theme being applied to it.
Another powerful icon is Harley-Davidson’s bald eagle. Symbolic of this brand of motorcycles and no other, the eagle represents America, freedom and the lure of the open road. This is a true visual hook for the brand; it’s ownable and, whether it is consistently used in every piece of visual communication or not, it is still prevalent in association with the Harley-Davidson brand. Whether a full image of the eagle is utilized as imagery or simply the outstretched wings, in the context of motorcycle brands, the bald eagle says Harley-Davidson. What I like most about this icon is how Harley-Davidson consciously chose not to standardize its visual interpretation. This approach adds diversity to the licensing program and stylistic individualism to every piece of art.
The true value of an ownable creative strategy
Establishing an ownable creative strategy through a visual hook enables licensed properties to become adaptable, timeless and transcend pop culture trends of the moment on consumer products, packaging and any other conceivable consumer touch point. It provides for creative freedom so it’s not restrictive or confining, yet it reinforces the unique visual attributes of the licensed brand.
So, think in terms of establishing an iconic visual hook that will completely differentiate the licensed brand within the retail context. Reinforce it with a style guide that allows for latitude. And succeed in making it exciting for consumers to actually seek out these licensed consumer products in their favorite categories.