When in Rome…Licensing in foreign territories

In the business of licensing kids properties, what works in Peoria won't necessarily play in Paris or, for that matter, Palermo. In order to succeed, U.S. licensors need to observe the cultural, aesthetic and religious values of the territory they're exporting...
June 1, 1999

In the business of licensing kids properties, what works in Peoria won’t necessarily play in Paris or, for that matter, Palermo. In order to succeed, U.S. licensors need to observe the cultural, aesthetic and religious values of the territory they’re exporting to. Unfortunately, there are few golden rules to follow in this area. And in deciding what categories to license and when, how much foreign agents can rely on past successes a property may have enjoyed Stateside will vary from region to region.

‘Basically, when we’re bringing a new property into France, we try to ignore everything that has been done before. We look at it as a completely new concept. You have to remember [that] you’re making product for someone who is living in a small town in France, and he or she is much different than the person who lives in Greenwich, Connecticut,’ says Jean-Michel Biard, president of Paris-based V.I.P. Licensing, French licensor to American kid props Peanuts and Goosebumps.

Kirk Bloomgarden, president of licensing and entertainment at the London-based Copyright Promotions Licensing Group (CPLG), which holds Western European rights to a number of American film and TV properties, including Godzilla and The Simpsons, agrees with Biard, to an extent.

‘We’ll assess the strength of the property in its home market. If [the domestic licensor] put together a strong program and has brought on board strong partners from the outset, then that assists us in imagining the potential of the property in Western Europe,’ says Bloomgarden. Generally, core categories, such as toys, publishing and apparel, sell equally well in Europe as they do in the U.S., with some exceptions. Licensed food and candy categories are much more popular in Europe than in North America, says Bloomgarden. For the film Godzilla, CPLG signed on 22 licensees for food and confectionery, compared with just eight licensees that U.S. licensor Sony Signatures signed for the same categories.

Notwithstanding toys, it is within core categories that the look and the style of products begins to change as they are translated from territory to territory. In France, for example, with licensed apparel, consumers prefer their logos to be small, subtle, almost non-existent, says V.I.P.’s Biard. That rarefied sensibility, by U.S. standards, carries over into publishing, too. In order to get a publishing licensee on board for Goosebumps, the French publisher, Bayard, needed to make the book covers more realistic looking and less cartoonish, says Biard.

Differing color palettes in the territories are a common reality agents need to deal with. In Spain, for example, packaging that uses red and yellow-the primary colors of the Spanish national flag-is seen as an affront, akin to mocking Spanish patriotism, says Bloomgarden.

Adjusting a property to suit a region’s color preferences is a minor hurdle for agents, however, when compared to the religious taboos they oftentimes must navigate around. Certain content that a TV, film or publishing property features will prove offensive to some people, no matter what hue they come in.

Images of skeletons and ghouls and goblins, all staples of the Goosebumps property, have kept the Goosebumps TV show off the air in all countries where the Muslim religion is dominant, says Lee Anne Taylor, director of international licensing for Parachute Consumer Products, the U.S. licensor for the property. Despite the rejection of the TV show, in some Muslim countries, as in Indonesia, the books continue to sell strongly, adds Taylor. Additionally, a book, show or film starring a pig, no matter how cute looking it is, won’t fly in Muslim territories either, since the religion views the pig as a dirty animal. The Muslim religion’s aversion to all things porcine kept Bloomgarden and CPLG from trying to sign licensees in Turkey for the first Babe pic in 1995. ‘In those kinds of cases, you don’t even try to build a program; you just focus on other markets,’ says Bloomgarden.

Pigs and supernatural imagery aside, a far greater challenge facing foreign agents representing U.S. kids properties may be the time-or lack thereof-that they’re afforded to sign on licensees. In Europe, Asia and Latin America, broadcasters aren’t as willing to commit to launch dates as their North American counterparts. As a result, licensors often face a time crunch when it comes to assembling a licensing program.

At the same time as the television landscape is becoming more cluttered in all territories, licensees are demanding more qualitative information, such as TV ratings, about a show’s performance before they’ll sign on. And more often than not, they’ll want ratings that are relevant to their own country, says Biard.

‘North American research provides strong indicators, but licensees want some facts on what a property will mean and emote in their own territories,’ says Bloomgarden. To a lesser degree, the licensees’ desire for hard numbers is true for film properties as well. Companies want to know how much marketing support is behind the film, who the major promotional partners are and how many screens the film will be shown on, says Bloomgarden.

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