Localizing licensing leads toAsian success

For those used to merchandising in the West, Asia is a whole new kettle of fish. Big Bird captures almost as many teens as kids in Japan, Little Lulu sells shirts without the benefit of a show, and brown-lettered beach towels...
December 1, 1999

For those used to merchandising in the West, Asia is a whole new kettle of fish. Big Bird captures almost as many teens as kids in Japan, Little Lulu sells shirts without the benefit of a show, and brown-lettered beach towels spell death in China. It’s almost impossible to get a merchandise program off the ground if you don’t know the area, so even those in the know say the secret is going local.

‘You can’t compare Japan to China to Malaysia, they’re all very separate. So what we’ve done is, with a global perspective and a global business plan in mind, we’ve gone in and created very localized businesses,’ says Maura Regan, director of Asia Pacific licensing for international TV/programming operations at Children’s Television Workshop.

Regan says the company has learned from 30-odd years of selling its programming in the Asian region that local co-productions are often the best way to hook up with local agents and get licensing deals rolling. Current CTW programming in Asia includes Zhima Jie, a co-pro between CTW, Shanghai Television and General Electric, a Japanese version of Sesame Street, and localized co-productions of Sesame Street in Singapore, South Korea, Southeast Asia and Taiwan.

Cinar’s Dan Tierney, VP of business development, looks for local partners with a diversified business. ‘We rely on either our partners or third-party agents,’ he says, adding that ideal regional partners have the capability to act as television distributors as well as licensing agents and manufacturers.

For example, Montreal-based Cinar recently signed Hong Kong-based all-in-one company The Law Brothers to handle Journey to the West: Legend of the Monkey King, a co-production with China’s CCTV. The Law Brothers, which has a large manufacturing facility in Hong Kong as well as an office in Beijing to handle licensing, will manufacture plastic figurines, activity sets and electronic dolls. Tierney says he has great hopes for the program thanks to the high exposure the series has on CCTV 1, which is available in almost every home in China.

Despite Pacific Rim proximity, Shannon Becker, a sales and licensing exec at Sydney, Australia-based Southern Star Film and Ancillary Sales, also prefers to work with local agents ‘who have the ground knowledge and existing relationships in place in their various territories.’ The prodco is currently working on developing licensing programs for Ketchup, The Toothbrush Family, Pig’s Breakfast and High Flyers for Asia, and is looking into categories like apparel, giftware, publishing, toys and stationery. The Toothbrush Family has been sold to Free TV in Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia, while Pig’s Breakfast has been sold to Pay TV in Singapore.

Jodie McAfee, VP of marketing for Henson/ Hallmark Entertainment venture The Kermit Channel, says another tip for Westerners looking to make inroads in Asia is to make use of existing distribution channels. ‘We want to pick the low-hanging fruit first,’ he says. ‘We look for places where either Hallmark Cards or Jim Henson or we have some sort of distribution or fulfillment apparatus in place.’

Hallmark Cards currently has 183 outlets in India and partners with National Bookstores for retail distribution in the Philippines. McAfee says agreements like that are perfect for setting up future licensing in the Asian market.

The channel currently airs in Taiwan, India and the Philippines, and is looking to expand into Japan and China. McAfee is currently working with distributor The Modi Entertainment Group, along with the Jim Henson Company, to develop a licensing agreement for its characters in India. Kermit already has a year-old agreement with Singapore-based licensing agent Wave to grant Muppet licenses in Taiwan and the Philippines for apparel, toys and games. Future licensing plans are in the works for Kermit shows such as Mopatop’s Shop, Pappyland and Encyclopedia (a live-action learning show based on pages of an encyclopedia).

While local agents and established distribution paths help make a merchandising launch go more smoothly, cultural differences can still impact licensing strategies quite significantly. For instance, while the fact that teen girls have a thing for preschool properties may not be news, it’s a trend that is much more entrenched in Asia. This crossover market is so large that CTW has started up a second program explicitly targeting teens and young adults in Japan. The Sesame Street merchandise for both kid and teen lines is produced by Japanese agent Sony Creative Products, which operates as both a licensing agent, developing the franchise, and as a master licensee, manufacturing product in-house.

‘We are really looking to create two very separate businesses,’ says Regan. Licensed CTW product in Japan includes makeup purses, baby Ts and stationery for teens, along with items for younger kids such as strollers, bibs and diaper bags. Recently, Sony Creative Products granted a sub-license to Japan-based Morinaga, which is developing healthy teen-targeted individual-serving cereals, complete with spoon.

The Jim Henson Company’s Judy Guarino, VP international licensing, says a Kermit the frog licensing program in Japan (handled by Sony Creative Products) is also skewing older. It aims for the 20- to 30-year old demo with higher-end apparel, jewelry, home living products, gift items and stationery.

Cinar, as well, is aiming older with an unusual merchandising program for The Little Lulu Show. The program launched with a recently signed Japanese agency called Easy Go, which, like Sony Creative, acts as both agent and master licensee. The show is not currently airing in Japan, but Tierney is hoping that the kitsch popularity of the merchandise will help drive a TV deal. Merchandise currently includes licensed cards, pictures, and teeny Ts for teens, with discussions underway for other categories such as towels, tableware and stationery.

Other Asian projects at Cinar include a co-production with Shanghai Animation Film Studio called Miss Mallard Mysteries-a Murder She Wrote-type mystery series for kids (minus the murder), as well as plans for educational and English-language software products in China, possibly using Caillou as the basis. Caillou books are already available in Hong Kong through Cinar’s Montreal publishing company Carson Dellosa.

Preschool’s overwhelming teen following isn’t the only cultural difference Westerners should watch out for in Asia. There are many more subtle differences that can lead to the inevitable innocent cultural blunder. For example, McAfee says Hallmark once sent out a ‘Noah’s Ark Survival Kit’ trade mailer to promote the series in China that included giant beach towels covered with brown lettering.

‘Brown letters in China means death. We didn’t use the beach towels in Taiwan. Those are the kinds of things you look out for,’ he says candidly.

Another potential difficulty in Asia is copyright infringement. Tierney says you must have a definite licensing and merchandising plan firmly in place before you launch a property, because if you don’t, bootleg merchandisers will move in quickly and won’t bother to send you a royalty check.

‘One of the things we’re learning through Journey about licensing and merchandising is the way a Chinese company can work to create product and a system of distribution that will allow them to make money and maintain their copyright,’ says Cinar’s Tierney. ‘That’s why we’re looking closely at the Journey to the West experience-we want to grow our business in China and not give away our trademark.’

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