Vaulting a Classic Brand Into a New Universe.

Sesame Street. Harry Potter. Mattel’s Barbie. Disney’s Cars and Toy Story franchises. Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer. Lucasfilm’s Star Wars. Evergreen brands have used licensing and transmedia entertainment in traditional and digital spheres to grow and to appeal to multiple generations, remaining relevant by offering new content that is firmly rooted in their values. But, what exactly is it that elevates some classic brands to superstar status?•••

As is the case with adult brands, not all kids’ brands become classics. We can all cite examples of fads and hot sensations that peaked quickly and dropped off just as quickly. Some of these brands have enjoyed resurgence: Cabbage Patch Dolls, Pokemon and Furby, as well as entertainment brands like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers are great examples, while other properties have faded away completely. Still other classic brands like Hasbro Nerf, Play-Doh, Candy Land and Operation board games; Fisher-Price early childhood toys like the Chatter Phone pull toy and Xylophone, to name a few, have been steady but unspectacular. The same is true for children’s entertainment brands like Scooby-Doo, Wile E. Coyote, Clifford: The Big Red Dog and Strawberry Shortcake.

Transmedia maximizes the potential of every communication platform

But classic brands don’t have to be status quo. Fresh new storylines brought to life across many media outlets and digital platforms from the traditional to the latest social media sites have taken classic brands into the stratosphere. Books, movies, animated series and video shorts, dedicated web sites filled with games and contests can all be leveraged to offer snippets of favorite properties’ stories to keep kids engaged. This transmedia approach does not use traditional and social media platforms to advance the same storyline but to share new elements, background and character insights. By using each communication platform to its maximum potential, fans’ brand experiences are deepened and there is increased engagement, further developing their relationships with them.

Transmedia is immersive and encourages kids to share with their friends and that builds buzz for the brand that doesn’t go away. Because they’re so imaginative, kids participate and co-create storylines leading to deeper engagement.  Fresh new stories resonate with young fans leading to more licensing opportunities, as well.  Brand owners who collaborate closely with selected licensing partners, can build a powerful presence at retail, putting the property into fans’ hands in a tangible manner. In order to accomplish this, brand owners have to develop a long-term strategy and execute it step by step. As transmedia enables them to unfold rich new content, a licensing strategy can be developed in a parallel line. Think of it this way: brand owners can develop far more than a classic brand; they can create a brand universe.

New ways to make classic properties fresh and exciting

Even well-performing classic brands can be turned into hot “new” properties, vaulting them into superstardom, when brand owners think of fresh ways to present them. It’s a wise idea to think outside the box when properties become culturally entrenched; they have unlimited potential. Disney princesses Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty have remained beloved classics with children for generations. Yet, Disney found a way to reinvigorate their power – taking them from classic to a whole new level – by including more recent characters: Belle, Jasmine, Ariel and Mulan among others, to create a new brand.

By creating an umbrella brand that incorporated them all and naming it “Princess”, Disney created a fresh, new super brand. One that lends itself to new storylines in books and films, websites filled with new storylines and games, and of course, merchandising. According to The Licensing Letter, Disney “Princess” brought in $3 billion globally by the end of 2011, rocketing to the top of all kids’ licensed entertainment brands. Proof of the power of transmedia where integral elements of storylines are disseminated across multiple channels creating a unified, compelling entertainment experience.

Marvel’s strategy for building anticipation for The Avengers movie

How about Marvel? A stroke of genius led to the entertainment giant’s decision to team classic superheroes on the silver screen: The Hulk, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Captain America, Black Widow and Thor to save the world from Loki and his army. Taking this approach created the biggest movie blockbuster in recent history for “The Avengers”, leading to a global gross of over $1 billion in a little over two weeks.

Long before this happened, a long-term strategy gradually unfolded. Movies about each of the superheroes featured in “The Avengers” were released over several years. Marvel parent company, Disney, published books for a new generation of kids to fill them in on the superheroes’ backstories. An animated series based on “The Avengers” brought the characters’ personalities and stories forward with the same feel as the films. Marvel worked with its videogame licensees to bring “The Avengers” heroes back to prominence. All of these threads were artfully woven into the feature film that brought all four superheroes together. By the time the feature film was released, anticipation had built to a crescendo. New licensed consumer products were just as hotly anticipated. Fans saw sneak peeks of collectibles, for example, to whet their appetites and sell merchandise long before it appeared on retail shelves.

Marvel’s approach lays out a blueprint for classic toy and entertainment brand owners to consider following. Comic books have long been populated by cross-over from various superheroes; why can’t that be replicated on film? Or, taking a page from Sesame Street, why can’t new characters be introduced over time, interacting with the brand’s original characters, to advance new storylines and add interesting, new personalities into the mix? Another approach might be to jettison all original characters in order to present entirely new generations centered on a classic storyline. Star Trek is a perfect example of this. Why can’t there be prequels delivered as the Star Wars franchise has done, rather than only presenting sequels? Why shouldn’t it be planned, strategized and patiently unfolded over a period of time? And why can’t multiple delivery channels be leveraged to tell bits and pieces of new characters’ stories and new plots?

Why the transmedia approach is so important to an entertainment brand’s success

When children, who are consumers of entertainment as much as adults are, adopt specific properties as lifestyle choices, it’s because those brands have created complete worlds of engagement in which kids can interact with their favorite characters and share them with their friends to become part of a special universe.

Why is this so important? With so many properties emerging with more speed and across more media outlets than ever, too many will miss the opportunity to develop their full potential. Too many will fail to connect for the long haul; they might be hot for a while and quickly disappear. They might make a come-back if their brand owners use a transmedia approach and new stories to continue to engage their fans – as long as they ring true to their values. But relatively few entertainment properties will achieve classic status. Among them, even heritage brands are likely to plateau and be steady performers without creating ongoing excitement.

It takes bold brand owners with vision to amp up their properties beyond creating enduring-but-unexciting classics by finding ways to create entire universes in which fans are only too eager to immerse themselves. Vision turned into strategy and long-term plans, brought to fulfillment via transmedia storytelling, delivered in an ongoing manner makes all of the difference in the world. Just ask legions of fans around the world who can’t conceive of living without their favorite properties!

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