Some 1,600 exhibitors have their showrooms primed and ready with the latest toys as they wait for the more than 20,000 buyers who are expected to come to New York City for the 1997 American International Toy Fair. Increasingly, toy manufacturers and film and television studios are teaming up to develop products based on licensed properties, which now make up as much as 50 percent of all toys. Our special report on Toy Fair looks at how the studios and toy companies are working their way through these collaborations.
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Nickelodeon is turning to its tiniest stars to carry the burden of its most aggressive licensing program ever.
The Rugrats toy launch, which will be announced by Mattel at Toy Fair, marks the beginning of the second phase of a full-scale company initiative to license products based on Nickelodeon’s popular animated children’s series.
Mattel will introduce a full line of Rugrats products, including plush dolls, figures, games, puzzles and other toys, projected to hit the market in the third quarter of 1997. Applause, Tiger Electronics and Micro Games of America will also release Rugrats toys.
Rugrats is Nickelodeon’s top-rated show. Since its debut in 1991, the Emmy Award-winning program has consistently ranked as one of the top five most-watched series on cable. Thirteen new episodes have been green-lighted for 1997 and 1998. A full-length animated feature film is also in development for 1998.
As the show has gained in popularity, a natural demand for consumer products has been created, according to Maureen Taxter, vice president, general manager for Nickelodeon Consumer Products.
The network launched a successful soft-goods apparel program that debuted at Kids ‘R’ Us stores last September. ‘That project has become a leaping-off point in terms of expanding the licensing program,’ says Taxter. ‘It has generated a real sell-through success story for the trade.’
When it came time to develop a toy line, Nickelodeon turned to longtime partner Mattel. The two companies have had a successful working relationship over the years, and the creation of a Rugrats line was a natural evolution in that relationship.
‘The key to making great toys is first and foremost to have a partner who really understands your property and is an expert in what they do,’ says Taxter.
Nickelodeon invited Mattel’s creative team to partake in Rugrats 101 study sessions, in which Nickelodeon immersed the toy people in the property. This included detailing what is special about each of the characters, outlining what the property’s point of difference is, and identifying what kids love about the show, the characters and the settings.
After these initial meetings, Mattel’s designers wrapped their arms around Rugrats for a month or so before returning with their vision of the toy program. At that point, Nickelodeon not only got a sense of the breadth of the line, but also how Mattel was going to inject Rugrats’s special qualities into the product.
‘They are the toy experts and know what works from a sell-through standpoint, and we’re the property character experts,’ says Taxter. ‘When you bring together people who can really capture what’s unique about the property with a manufacturer who is an expert in the business . . . you have a [foundation for a] strong partnership between the manufacturer and the licensor.’
With a property like Rugrats, product flows very naturally from the established elements that have made the show successful, as opposed to toy design driving creative components of production. When Mattel put together its initial ideas, the partners went to Rugrats creator Klasky Csupo to make sure that the products capture the essence of the show and are true to the Rugrats spirit.
‘What’s unique about Rugrats is that kids know the property inside and out,’ says Taxter. ‘They are really good, tough critics in making sure that we are capturing the characters accordingly.’
The Rugrats toy line will focus on themes that include adventure, exploration, humor, friendship and problem-solving, and will mirror the Rugrats’ perspective of life.
Mattel is developing an advertising campaign that Nickelodeon will support with aggressive trade and consumer awareness campaigns.
As its most comprehensive initiative to date, Nickelodeon will use the Rugrats licensing program as a blueprint for future campaigns. Right now, it is excited about the first steps in establishing an evergreen property that will be the source of new and unique licensed product for years to come.
‘The nice thing about Rugrats is that it is being driven by pure demand from the consumer,’ says Taxter. ‘In this business, it is the closest thing to a sure bet that you will ever get.’