Today I'm on my way to the Licensing Expo in Las Vegas, and I started to think about all those licensed characters that are fighting for our attention, especially our children's attention. They are everywhere. On clothing, shoes, toys, toothbrushes, kid's meals; the list goes on and on! I have certainly been part of this overabundance of character over my career at Fisher Price.
Is it all worth it? After all, companies pay a good price for the rights to rent and emblazon the characters on their product, and the consumer in turn, pays a little more if they want that character on their product.
Why do we want them? Attachment to a character or brand is driven by our natural way of embracing. The human fantasy process is in our DNA and goes generally like this: 1) Inspire - reading books, watching movies, TV, about a character that gets your interest level up. 2) Experience - With growing interest you play with the toys and experience theme parks, games, apps, based on that character. 3) Badge - Can't get enough, you begin wearing all sorts of clothing, shoes and other products with the character image on them declaring that you are a member of that club of interest. 4) Gather - Now that you are so far in you begin to connect with others that are in the same tribe of interest via meetings, online groups etc, messaging out and evangelizing the brand or character. If a property is designed and communicated correctly across many platforms, it can be enormous. Just think about Star Wars, Spiderman, SpongeBob.
Seems easy, right? As you hear me say often, it all starts with the story. If the story isn't good, the property can't live on other mediums. It's not transferable and doesn't make sense. John Lasseter talking about Pixar's movies often says nothing will be produced until the story is is right, "The way a film looks will never entertain an audience alone. It has to be in service of a good story with great characters.". Getting it all right takes skill, and understanding the broader reach potential the property has needs to be considered early in the writing process. A licensed property' character or brand has to stand alone like no other. Sameness doesn't work in the long term if you want to develop unique Intellectual Property (IP). Having said that, today's children properties often look and feel the same. Few and far between are there any that really stand out from the others. Animation styles are stuck in one form, even though I have heard networks ask for something different many times. Some IP's are excellent, and those are the ones kids are attaching to, asking for product.
All this brings me to toys that have licensed characters applied. Some are ok but most fail to be played with over and over because a designer or direction a designer was given was to replicate a scene from an episode. Good stories help children reimagine with a toy, but if it isn't designed to do so it leaves the play short. Working on SpongeBob SquarePants while at FP was gratifying. Other divisions in the company struggled to make the license work on product, where we took the property as a whole and embraced what it was about. We designed Imaginext product that allowed the child to recreate their own story by giving them a product that had many ways to play, not in a prescriptive way. The product line continues to be a great success. Simple idea, but few think about how to make a product great.
So, are licensed properties and brands worth it? Yes, if the creators think about the world ahead as they develop story, and the licensees apply the meaning to each item they produce in a unique way. Done right the Property can become super successful and the consumers will be "badging and gathering" to push the property to the highest of levels.
Now on to the Licensing Expo!