The key [to success] is awareness,’ says Alfred R. Kahn, chairman and CEO of 4Kids Entertainment. And with products such as Cabbage Patch Kids and Super Mario behind him, he should know.
‘In order for kids to get involved, whether they’re boys or girls, they have to know a property exists,’ says Kahn. ‘The strategy is to create broad awareness.’ Creating that awareness can be done in a variety of ways. A toy can be promoted by the manufacturer, which exposes the concept to kids. Another way is through a TV show that kids watch. According to Kahn, the best possible approach is to have both of those strategies working simultaneously.
4Kids Entertainment has four wholly owned subsidiaries with services including toy design and development, domestic and international merchandise licensing, media buying and planning, domestic and international TV distribution, and TV production. Its subsidiaries are Leisure Concepts, Inc., Leisure Concepts International (based in London), the Summit Media Group, Inc., and 4Kids Productions (producer of the WMAC Masters series).
Kahn’s company is using this tactic with its WMAC Masters series. The live-action show, which has toys associated with its martial arts theme, will be going into its second season on U.S. television in September. At that time, it will also be sold worldwide and will air in most foreign markets.
Promotional partners are also key in building awareness. For example, kids can take lessons at WMAC-licensed martial arts academies, which give the kids added exposure to the show. ‘You draw as many logical extensions to the ultimate consumer as you can think of,’ explains Kahn. ‘The more exposure you derive, the greater the chance of people knowing the concept and buying products related to it.’
Planning a successful campaign requires the right timing. To get the most life out of a toy that’s based on a TV series, 4Kids waits until after the show has been on for awhile so kids know the characters and become interested in the product. If it’s a product based on a movie, the toys usually come out simultaneously with the film.
Bad timing kills many products, says Kahn. Sometimes licensing and marketing people will bring out products too early when they’re based on a TV show. ‘The buyer turns off to the product. If the exposure is premature, it hurts saleability and the TV program.’
In spite of the fact that some products seem to have too much exposure, Kahn says cases of overhyping are few and far between. ‘For something to be overhyped, it would have to be very successful. That’s a problem I’d like to have,’ he adds.
To get the most leverage from a brand, TV shows should be planned and written with toys and other products in mind. Kahn notes that there are many examples of TV shows, such as sitcoms, ‘where there’s a strong audience of kids, but the licensing never seems to work.’ Many times, that’s because the licensing and marketing possibilities were explored only after the show took off. Licensing of products based on those shows tends to be successful for only a short period, says Kahn.
The biggest trend in licensing and marketing that Kahn sees today is the push to get involved with major film studios. But it’s a trend that Kahn d’esn’t necessarily think spells success. ‘They’re basing a lot of products on the success of these films and not looking at whether they have toys in them, or if the concept is toy-based. I think that’s a big mistake. We look for strong toy applications.’ Since a movie will be in release for a few weeks at best, a TV show that’s on the air for a long period of time ‘is more successful than movies in terms of awareness. It’s rare to get a hit movie.’
The number of people trying to sell properties is the biggest problem facing the industry, says Kahn. ‘The challenge is to get through the clutter and to get the products onto the retail shelves. Retailers are being very selective, and waiting to see if the products will work before they get into the store. That certainly works against us in a lot of ways.’
Kahn sees another negative trend happening now. ‘People who don’t know the toy business are dictating how the toy business will run. I think the pendulum has swung too far the industry has become too entertainment-driven.’ Toys should be at the heart of the concept, says Kahn, not the entertainment vehicle. ‘The most important thing is the toys and how kids play with the toys. I think we’re walking away from this concept. You need great toy applications and then use the entertainment side to support them, not the other way around. If kids don’t see a film or TV show, they have no concept of the character. But if it’s a really great toy, they don’t need to know the character.’