Superheroes redefined for a new generation of fans

The Superhero: Redefined for a New Generation

Kids have always loved the superhero genre from one generation to the next. Young children and teens idolize their favorite superheroes and they can actually learn a lot from them as they are being entertained. Superheroes can be role models, teaching kids to stand up for themselves against bullies and doing what’s right as a moral code of conduct. Many superheroes have their quirks and challenges to overcome as well. So, at their core, they have very human foibles to which everyone can relate.

Even today’s sophisticated kids are fans of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman and a host of other superheroes that populate the small screen and the silver screen, comic books, digital media and licensed consumer products. But many superhero stories are not like the simple comic book yarns of the past. They’re quite intense these days and filled with complicated plots, adult subject matter and violence, especially in movies. Fortunately, there are new properties for toddlers, preschoolers, tweens and teens that are being enthusiastically received by these audiences. Not only are they age-appropriate; they’re unique and relevant to today’s pop culture without crossing the line into adult fare. And they have the potential to become classic properties if they remain relevant to their young audiences.

New superheroes that kids love and parents endorse

Cartoon Network TV’s SEGA of America CG Sonic Boom series is very popular with its audience of boys, aged 6-14. Cartoon Network describes the series as: “…an ensemble comedy that pokes fun at action-adventure storytelling, but still manages to deliver plenty of adrenaline.” Think malfunctioning giant mech-monsters, bizarre inventions, evil interns and ridiculous conversations at high speeds.” The whole concept of presenting a superhero, his side-kicks and their world filled with plenty of oddities and a lot of laughs appeals to this audience very much. For the uninitiated, Sonic, the speed-demon blue hedgehog, his side-kick, Tails, and friends Knuckles, Amy and Sticks, work together to thwart the plans of their nemesis, Dr. Eggman and his bots, who are constantly scheming to take over the planet.

Critics of the CG series have pointed out that the Sonic Boom game of the 90’s was fleshed out to create memorable, quirky characters. While there is the usual good guys vs the bad guys stuff in every episode with some violence in the form of explosions and mayhem, the series has the feel of a light-hearted situation comedy with plenty of jokes that deliver plenty of laughs to kids as well as adults.

Disney Jr.’s pick-up of Entertainment One’s (eOne) preschool animated superhero series, PJ Masks, a French export, has been a huge success for the network. “We’re absolutely delighted that PJ Masks is proving to be a hit with its core audience of 2-7 year olds in the U.S.,” says Olivier Dumont, Managing Director of eOne Family. “The strength of these initial ratings demonstrates that the super hero characters in PJ Masks have struck a chord with preschoolers. The show’s ability to combine excitement and adventure with themes like friendship and teamwork is also appealing to parents. Disney Channel has been a fantastic launch platform for the series and we look forward to introducing PJ Masks to more and more youngsters.”

Entertainment One’s Andrew Carley, head of global licensing, echoed Dumont’s enthusiasm: “The TV ratings have been staggering, so good that I think they have taken Disney by surprise. The show is competing with some firmly established properties that are already out there and on the map.” He went on: “It’s one of those things that seems so obvious; to have a show that is about superheroes aimed at preschoolers seems a logical thing, but it hasn’t been done. Plenty of shows have superheroes, but while they are attracting preschool viewers, they are not designed specifically for them.”

PJ Masks is based on French author Romuald Racioppo’s popular books. Three six year olds named Connor, Amaya and Greg attend school during the day. But, when they don their pajamas at night and activate their amulets, they magically turn into their superhero alter egos, the PJ Masks. Catboy is known for his speed and agility; Gekko is very strong and can scale walls and Owlette can fly and has the power to see very distant objects. The storylines and animation are excellent and the characters are cute, while delivering positive messages for the youngest of TV viewers.

If they continue to offer excellence, relevance and excitement to their target audiences, Sonic Boom and PJ Masks have all the makings of becoming classic properties.

Personifying empowerment for girls

There have been a few female superheroes in the past and although powerful, they’ve been largely portrayed as adult women. DC Comics’ Diane Nelson, President of Entertainment, saw an opportunity for an under-served segment of the population – girls aged 6-12 – giving birth to a new franchise: DC Super Hero Girls. In a recent interview with Fortune magazine, Nelson stated: “We have strong female characters in the DC universe, and decided that creating a program around female teenage superheroes could give young girls role models they’ve never had before.” She went on: “Girls in our research groups wanted action stories with heroes, so we started with animated shorts on YouTube, an hour-long animated special on Cartoon Network and Boomerang, and a website of adventures available in various languages.” Interactive games have also been introduced.

DC Comics has partnered with Mattel to create Super Hero Girls dolls. There are seven main characters: Wonder Woman, Super Girl, Bumblebee, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Batgirl, and Katana, as well as supporting characters. While boys have traditionally had action figures marketed to them, girls have been the recipients of fashion dolls rather than superheroes. Even as recently as the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, licensed merchandise featuring heroine Rey was conspicuously scarce in stores, while her male counterparts were heavily marketed, leading to controversy and backlash.

That isn’t going to happen with DC Comics’ heroines. Ms. Nelson: “Our (Warner Bros.) overall consumer products represent a $6 billion business. The DC brand brings in about half of that. We think the DC Super Hero Girls can be bigger than a $1 billion brand.” Beginning this past July, Warner Bros. Consumer Products (WBCP), in partnership with DC Entertainment (DCE), announced a global expansion of the licensing and merchandising program for Super Hero Girls at retail in more than 35 countries around the world and in numerous consumer product categories. Interestingly, action figures have been given the first starring role: front and center. Is this another classic property in the making?

Translating the uniqueness of a property into a visual and verbal language

The merchandising of superheroes is big business. Retail sales of licensed products grew to $251.7 billion in 2015, a gain of 4.2% from 2014, according to the 2016 Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association’s Annual Global Licensing Industry Survey. Entertainment/Character licensing remains the largest category, with $113.2 billion in sales; a whopping 45% of the total global licensing market.

Strategic planning and excellence in design are the backbone of a successful licensing program. Without these elements, success might elude even the most powerful character licenses. Entertainment properties, especially those that appeal to youth demographics, are highly specialized. It is important to faithfully depict these characters in accurate detail, and to capture their unique personality traits that are most meaningful to their fans. This makes a huge difference between rendering cartoon-like characters versus properties that have life and soulfulness.

That accomplished, the next imperative is to expertly leverage additional visual cues that are central to each character and his or her storyline – the ones that resonate most with their fans. Verbal cues should be selective and added where appropriate and necessary. When this is effectively achieved, a unique language is created; it speaks for one property and can’t be mistaken or confused for any other one. This not only sparks recognition for fans, but an emotional response to the property that is then transferred to licensed consumer products creating a “must have” feeling of immediacy; the “I have got to have this”,” triggering the buy response.

Let’s look at the licensing strategies of our examples. Sonic Boom is a maturing brand that needed a refreshed licensing program style guide to build more enthusiasm among its young fans. We at Design Force developed a library of ownable visual and verbal assets based on the animated series’ key characters and the distinctive world they inhabit, including depictions of tropical Bygone Island and Dr. Eggman’s video wall – important touch points for the brand’s fans. These assets garner immediate recognition and help fans to recall favorite storylines. By taking a brand-centric approach, we have been able to capture the essence of the property that excites and engages its fans.

We created badges, patterns, border treatments, frames, type treatments and icons; then we developed a range of consumer product concepts representing multiple categories to support licensee partners with inspiring ideas as they roll out their own Sonic Boom licensed products. As the property matures and new storylines develop, more stylistic features can be added to future refreshes since significant equity will have been built for the property. This is an important point and the reason why some licenses fail: trends should never be the focal point for fledgling properties, building equity for the brand by leveraging the most important visual cues associated with it should be.

Entertainment One is assembling an impressive group of licensees to develop and market PJ Masks consumer products. Unsurprisingly, the effort will be led by a panoply of new toys and playsets which will be hitting Toys “R” Us stores in an exclusive deal for this year’s holiday season. A plethora of consumer products in wide ranging categories are being planned for 2017.

“Since the debut of PJ Masks on Disney Junior last year, we’ve been awaiting the opportunity to bring this highly-anticipated line of toys to our customers,” said Richard Barry, Executive Vice President, Global Chief Merchandising Officer, Toys “R” Us, Inc. “We are thrilled to partner with Just Play and eOne to launch the PJ Masks assortment exclusively in our stores, and expect it to top kids’ wish lists throughout the holiday season.” Given the excellence of this property, we suspect that the licensing strategy and design will likewise be excellent.

Superheroes for girls: with beauty, brains and resourcefulness

DC Super Hero Girls represent more than pretty faces. Importantly, they are teens who exhibit a strong, individual sense of style, but they aren’t fashion mavens. The licensing program design behind the consumer product roll-out reflects that. These superheroes are teens in high school, discovering their strengths and weaknesses as they grow up. When fighting crime, they’re focused on using their brains, their unique capabilities, and resourcefulness. While strong, these superheroes also demonstrate compassion and other feminine traits that are celebrated to inspire their audience, proving that girls can be as badass as their male counterparts while being thoroughly feminine.

The licensed consumer products that are hitting the marketplace reflect these brand assets very well. While poised for action, these superheroes are also striking in that they’re brimming with intelligence and personality. The visual cues associated with each, as well as the overall group, evoke their individual strengths as well as those of the team. Verbal cues are inspirational and positive reinforcement for their audience. “Just Be Awesome” appears on new t-shirts. “Stronger Together”, “Strong Girls will Rule the World” and “Move Over Boys” are among the verbal exhortations found on bedding. It is obvious that Warner Bros. and DC Comics have a strong strategy and licensing program design that creates a unique language for this fresh brand, which has all of the earmarks of becoming a new classic, and, as Diane Nelson asserted, a probable billion dollar property.

How to achieve long-term success

As with evergreen superhero properties, it is incumbent on the owners of these brands to keep storylines fresh and relevant for their young audiences. By providing interesting tidbits on their characters’ personality traits, as well as glimpses into their back stories, new dimensions open them up and continue to breathe life into them. While the use of traditional and digital media, including interactive games, will help to make this happen, licensed consumer products will be the engine to continue to deepen relationships with young fans who want to bring their favorite superheroes into their homes.

Once a strategy has been developed, a design program should be put into place before any consumer products and packaging are developed. And, it should periodically be refreshed to maintain the relevance of the property and the manner in which it is presented in the marketplace. Keeping fans excited, engaged and entertained delivers the ultimate enjoyment. This is the key to building brand equity, longevity and success for any entertainment property. This is the manner in which cultural icons and classics are made.

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