The psychology behind licensing successes

Dan Acuff, founder and president of Youth Market Systems Consulting, takes a psychological approach to explain what makes a property a hit with kids...
June 1, 1999

Dan Acuff, founder and president of Youth Market Systems Consulting, takes a psychological approach to explain what makes a property a hit with kids

What do Barbie, Garfield, Sesame Street characters, Taz and Mickey Mouse all have in common? They are all licensed properties that enjoy the magic of being about as ‘evergreen’ as is possible in the more-often-than-not fickle world of licensing. What is it that makes these licensing hits so appealing year after year with kids? Is there a formula for success?

One approach to understanding why specific properties succeed in today’s highly competitive licensing environment is to look at the psychology of ‘identification’-that is, the ways in which kids relate to characters. In our research at Youth Market Systems Consulting, we have determined five forms of identification:

Nurturing: In this relationship, the child either nurtures the character, be it a toy doll or animal (for example, a Furby), is nurtured by it (for example, Big Bird, Bear in the Big Blue House, Barney), or nurturing impulses arise in the relationship.

Like me: A ‘like me’ relationship means that the child sees the character as similar to himself or herself in some way. For example, a young girl might see a Madeline mini doll as somewhat like herself-as a little girl, approximately her own age.

Emulatory: In an ‘emulatory’ relationship, the child wants to be like the character, for example, a Power Ranger, Barbie or a Powerpuff Girl.

Entertaining: In this relationship, the child simply expects the character to be interesting and amusing.

Disidentification: This is a different type of identification, in which the child does not want to be like the character, animal or personality, but is attracted to and involved with it because of its ‘dark side’ or negative attributes, for example, Darth Vader or soft villains such as Wile E. Coyote.

Applying this identification perspective, let’s look at two quite different licensing evergreens-Batman and Scooby-Doo-for the secrets of their longevity. Then, let’s examine a relative newcomer on the licensing scene-Pokémon-to see if it has what it takes to hang in for the long haul.

Warner Bros.’ Batman continues to rebirth itself year after year in a variety of venues, including cartoons, action toys, video games, apparel and lunch boxes. Batman’s latest iteration, the TV and comic book series Batman Beyond, has inherited all the strength of the traditional Batman and has brought futuristic costuming, style and technology to the scene. Batman and Batman Beyond win with kids on three counts related to identification.

Emulatory identification is underneath kids’ attraction in their desire to have qualities that Batman possesses: courage, justice, honor, strength and power. Power is a constant ‘driver’ or motivator for the brand licensing target of kids ages three to 11. During these years, kids attempt to gain autonomy in a world where authoritarian adults wield most of the power.

Disidentification-the attraction to villains is also very much at work when it comes to popular characters. The conflict between the good guys and the bad guys drives much of the interest and sets up models for role play. In the action figure arena, bad guys often outsell good guys. Whether it’s Mattel’s He-Man lineup of the `80s or Star Wars of today, the Skeletors and Darth Vaders of the licensing world are among the most interesting and sought-after action figures.

Finally, Batman and Batman Beyond offer a lot of plain, old entertainment-conflict, heroes, villains, vehicles, gadgets and humor.

Scooby-Doo’s success is both easier and more difficult to pinpoint. Engaging aspects of the series are easy to point out. First of all, the premise of a dog sleuth attracts kids from an entertainment angle, and the humor in the show adds to this type of identification. Then, the attraction to, and nurturing identification with pets/animals is present, but with the twist that this dog talks and acts very much like a human. Finally, there is also mild conflict and disidentification with the bad guys on The Scooby-Doo Show.

The hard part is figuring out how this relatively simple show has maintained its popularity over the years as new generations rise through the ranks of childhood. Good writing? Great characters? All of the above? Scooby-Doo appears to have a charm that goes beyond explanation.

Born in a mid-1990s Nintendo video game, the Pokémon phenomenon is made up of 150 little ‘pocket monsters,’ which is how ‘pokémon’ translates from Japanese. What’s behind the property’s TV and licensing success? There are several key elements that attract and involve kids ages three to 10. To begin, there are opportunities to identify with the fun aspects of each of the 150 different characters.

In terms of nurturing, these pocket monsters appear to be soft, huggable creatures, and in fact, a lead character, Pikachu, is quite friendly. The younger end of the three to 10 set will find this ‘softness’ of personality especially appealing. Importantly for the licensing arena, this lack of dark-side behavior and emotion allows for penetration into the lucrative pre-school and early school-age markets.

Ash Ketchum, who, like the kid players of the video game, has the goal of becoming a master Pokémon trainer, offers opportunities for ‘like me’ and emulatory identification.

In addition to tapping into some forms of identification, Pokémon offers other hooks for this target audience: collectibility and mastery. This age group, especially kids ages five to nine, is very much into collecting. It’s no accident that more than 400 million Pokémon collector cards have already been sold throughout the world! Mastery is an awesome goal for kids of this age. A key objective of the Pokémon video game is for the player to become a master Pokémon trainer. This provides complexity and layers of advancement toward an ultimate win. This theme is played out in the TV series as well.

So, is there a formula for licensing success that can be extracted from the success of Batman Beyond, Scooby-Doo and Pokémon? From a psychological perspective, there are elements that successful properties share and that can be mimicked. However, a successful property has to start with that one creative spark that is right on target with kids.

Dan Acuff is the founder and president of Glen Dale, California-based Youth Marketing Systems Consulting.

He is also the author of What Kids Buy and Why-The Psychology of Marketing to Kids.

Hamilton beefs up licensing for JumpStart, Charmed and 7th Heaven

New York-based licensing agent Hamilton Projects is launching new licensing programs for Spelling Entertainment’s teen shows 7th Heaven and Charmed, and is taking Knowledge Adventure’s JumpStart educational CD-ROM brand into previously uncharted territories.

The new 7th Heaven program has already picked up Random House to produce a series of books, Cullman Ventures to produce a year 2000 calendar, New Wave Images for stationery products, greeting cards, coffee mugs and plush, Western Graphics for posters, and Creation Entertainment for printed T-shirts. The agent is also establishing retail partnerships, including an alliance with Warner Bros. Studio Stores, which will showcase merchandise from all licensees along with its own 7th Heaven products.

Initial licensees for the Charmed program include Parachute Publishing for novels, Trendmasters for electronics, At A Glance for calendars, Creation Entertainment for mugs, key rings and magnets, Funky nterprises for posters, Inkworks for trading cards, Starline Creations for costume jewelry, and Winterland Concessions Company for casual apparel. Warner Bros. Studio Stores will support the line at retail.

Hamilton Projects also announced that it is taking Knowledge Adventure’s JumpStart Learning System educational CD-ROM brand into new mass-market categories, thanks to recent licensing deals with Toymax and Scholastic. Toymax is producing four different licensed electronic handheld games priced at US$10 to US$15 each, and Knowledge Adventure and Toymax will co-produce two JumpStart electronic table-top learning games priced at US$20 to US$40 each. All will street across the U.S. in the fall.

Scholastic has agreed to develop, publish and distribute a line of educational JumpStart materials. These will include grade-based workbooks and early literacy readers retailing for US$2 to US$15 each next spring, and two 30-minute animated JumpStart videos, one for preschool and the other for kindergarten-age kids. Each video will retail across the U.S. for about US$10 starting this fall. DH

L & M quick hits

Three German publishers under the ProSieben Media banner have signed on kids TV properties for new books. Augustus/Weltbild-Verlag is developing a line of books based on Egmont Imagination’s Plonsters series. Eight educational books aimed at kids in grades one to four will street this fall. XXL-Verlag is publishing a picture book based on Grisu the Little Dragon (a series about a dragon who wants to be a fireman that aired on ProSieben until December 1998) this fall, and vgs-Verlag is publishing a line of novels based on the new ProSieben series Mallorca starting this summer.

Sony Signatures is taking advantage of Britney Spears’ first headlining tour this summer with a new licensing program centered on the teen star. Signatures is developing and licensing a line of tour merchandise, including apparel, collectibles and fan appreciation items to be sold through tour and retail outlets, as well as over the Internet.

The Topps Company has snagged a license to produce trading cards and lollipops for Pikachu and friends. The Pokémon cards are expected to street in the U.S. and Canada this summer.

BKN has signed on Russ Berrie and Company to produce a line of licensed products based on its Pocket Dragon Adventures series. The line will include plush characters, figurines, pencil toppers, key chains and rings.

New York-based licensed children’s apparel company Happy Kids has acquired D. Glasgow & Son, another children’s licensed apparel company based in New York. Glasgow comes with a stable of licenses, including the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League. The company also has sport-themed cross-licensed lines for Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, Looney Tunes Girls, Scooby Doo and Power Rangers.

About The Author


Brand Menu