Kermit stays one step ahead

When Jim Henson created Kermit the Frog more than 40 years ago out of some old cloth and ping pong balls, there was no way he could have known what would become of his creation and dozens more....
July 1, 1996

When Jim Henson created Kermit the Frog more than 40 years ago out of some old cloth and ping pong balls, there was no way he could have known what would become of his creation and dozens more.

So, how can you possibly continue to maximize the Muppet image given that Henson’s creations have already conquered the world? ‘By trying to be one step ahead of the competition in looking for ways to be unique,’ replies Betts FitzGerald, vice president of licensing for Jim Henson Productions. ‘We still do the tried and true. But one reason why the Muppets are still around is that we try to be creative with the characters. We pride ourselves on this.’ And since the competition for limited shelf space is such a big part of the game, creativity is essential.

Once the product has been developed, the target age group established, and a licensing program that identifies products, marketing and the promotional and advertising elements is in place, the licensing partners are called in. ‘We have a long reputation in the industry, and as a result, we can call up key players in key categories and make presentations to them. While we’re selling a property, we’re also developing a style guide, which includes the logos, color palette and line art.’

When partners have been secured, Jim Henson Productions works closely with them on developing products. ‘We want to be true to who the characters are,’ says FitzGerald. ‘Plus, the quality and pricing are important. We want to be priced in a way that makes sense to the product. We don’t want a $250 plush doll.’ The huge range of products licensed with the Muppet characters includes toys and apparel, stationery, electronics products, interactive items, videos and home furnishings.

Giving the Muppets new life when they move from one medium to another is ‘an interesting challenge,’ says FitzGerald. Since they’re TV and movie characters and in fact, three-dimensional puppets they’re often translated into line art formats for their product lines. However, ‘sometimes they work best photographically because of the depth of personality that each character has. Between the writers and the puppeteers, they’ve evolved these characters into such larger than life personae.’

The company tends to be careful about licensing the characters to avoid overhype. ‘I don’t think there are too many people out there who don’t know who the Muppets or Jim Henson are,’ says FitzGerald. ‘We tend to be conservative in using them, so it’s not exploitative we don’t want overkill. It’s a fine line that you walk in doing that.’

FitzGerald has seen many changes in the industry since she began working in Jim Henson Productions’ licensing department almost 20 years ago. ‘We started right after The Muppet Show went on air in 1976. With a few phone calls, a licensee would take on a project and a retailer would have it in on the shelves. There just was not that much competition. But it’s evolved so much over the years.’

The field has become more sophisticated. For example, movie studios know how to use aggressive licensing and marketing techniques. It’s also become ‘tougher and tougher for secondary characters’ to get on the shelves. Retailers are becoming more selective. ‘They won’t take a sampling of merchandise representing a property they’ll pick and choose just a few items,’ says FitzGerald.

The big licensing trends have also changed dramatically. ‘When we’re talking about licensing something for kids today, my first question is ‘What age group is this product for?’ Kids used to be kids in licensing they were two to 11 years old.’ Now they’re considered in different segments: ‘There’s the two to five age range, six to eight, and nine to 12.’

Regarding the licensing industry, ‘I don’t know if I could put my finger on the hot trend,’ FitzGerald concludes. ‘I think the power of marketing and advertising plays a huge part in creating what trends are hot.’

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