Eurotoys battle U.S. imports for classic status

These days, no one likes to think of their property as being a fast-burn phenomenon. Even if you make a fortune at retail in year one, the ultimate goal is to create a classic that can generate revenue year after year....
February 1, 2000

These days, no one likes to think of their property as being a fast-burn phenomenon. Even if you make a fortune at retail in year one, the ultimate goal is to create a classic that can generate revenue year after year.

As a result, European properties debuting at Toy Fair will find that the greatest competition for shelf space comes from well-established brands that can demonstrate ongoing TV exposure, substantial marketing support and a proven track record at retail.

For older kids, Europe is poised to see a new wave of Bandai-produced Power Rangers toys says Saban Merchandising Europe managing director Jean-Philippe Randisi.

Power Rangers product sales in France increased 20% last year according to Randisi, and he predicts a similar sales increase continent-wide in 2000. ‘It took us a while to get the trust of retailers. But the show is looking stronger, and Bandai has some great product lined up for next year, which should help our efforts to turn Power Rangers into a classic.’

Something similar is going on at Copyright Promotions Ltd. (CPL), where the big push in 2000 will be Star Wars. CPL director of brands Paul Southern says: ‘We had a good year with Star Wars in 1999, but we had an important job to do managing unrealistic expectations.’

The major product partners on Star Wars are Lego, which did well with a Star Wars line in Germany, and Hasbro. Both are on-board until 2005, when the third prequel in the current run will be launched. Other partners underline the depth of support for the franchise. Among these are publishers Havas, Bertelsmann and Dorling Kindersley, along with Cadbury’s and Heinz.

In 2000, the main promotional hook for new Star Wars product lines is a video launch in April. But Southern stresses that ‘Star Wars has emerged as a toy brand in its own right. The movies provide a boost in exposure, but the toy line is not dependent on them.’

Of course, nothing can staunch the spontaneous combustion of a kids phenomenon. And both of the above properties will face potentially explosive hits such as Pokémon and Toy Story 2 in 2000.

For properties skewing older than preschool, high-profile titles usually prove themselves in the U.S. before making headway in Europe. This was certainly the case with Pokémon, which was ignored by Europe for a year, but has now been snapped up by most major European terrestrial broadcasters. In terms of licensing product, it is too early to say if it will repeat the U.S. pattern-but expectations are high.

Not many companies can compete without synching into U.S. marketing muscle in this older age range. One company with European ties coming to Toy Fair with a slew of properties for older kids is U.S./France producer and distributor BKN, a company with the advantage of a head office in New York and a U.S. syndicated network to garner exposure for its properties.

BKN senior VP of international consumer products Veronique Angelino has three kids properties at different phases of development. Roswell Conspiracies is the most advanced, with terrestrial TV deals in the U.K., France and Germany.

Italy’s Giochi Presiozi is poised to launch ‘a line of toys that reflect the show very well,’ says Angelino. There are transformer trucks, walkie-talkies, weapons and four action figures that ‘if you buy them all, allow you to assemble a fifth.’

Monster Rancher is another priority for BKN. In partnership with Playmates Toys, the property is inspiring particular interest in France, Spain and South America, says Angelino.

The newest property on the BKN slate is Kong, a futuristic retelling of the giant gorilla classic. At Toy Fair, Angelino will start discussions with ‘potential toy and interactive licensees.’

In the context of Kong, Angelino puts her finger on an interesting trend in licensing circles. ‘My view is that children are leaving toys younger and younger, and looking for something more from a property. So we increasingly give interactive companies an early sight of scripts and characters to ensure they can develop a concept that works.’

Preschool in Europe is not dominated by the U.S. in quite the same way. But this has only served to intensify the competition. The most significant change in the European market has been the recognition that TV exposure alone is not enough to win a retailer’s heart. You also need to support properties with weighty marketing budgets.

BBC Worldwide started this trend with Teletubbies-which continues to sell well-and extended it to Tweenies in fall 1999. Both properties will continue to receive massive on-air and retail support throughout 2000. HIT’s Bob the Builder and the Carlton/Henson show Mopatop’s Shop also launched major consumer campaigns in 1999.

In 2000, Henson’s Bear in the Big Blue House will get similar treatment. Product starts to roll out in the U.K. in April, with a view to a major push in the fall. There will be books, toys and videos, as well as sniffing and dancing bears.

Henson’s U.K.-based licensing manager Adrienne Collins was recently appointed to work on properties and publishing in the U.K. and Ireland. She stresses that ‘you need to show a real commitment to supporting the licensees. For Bear, we will start with a dedicated consumer products PR campaign, and in fall provide some sort of consumer marketing support for the property.’

According to Children’s Television Workshop regional VP, Europe, Barbara Herzinger, for a product to succeed, it is crucial to create some point of difference in the market. She says CTW will emphasize Sesame Street’s educational brand values more in 2000.

CTW’s big European toy launches for the next year, created by master toy Mattel, will be Rock `n Roll Elmo and Ernie. The toys will be pushed State-side as well, but the European versions will have a major difference. ‘We are localizing these items by placing country-specific voice chips in the toys. That will more closely reflect the way we produce the show for individual European markets.’

This year will also see the start of a European push, in partnership with Hasbro, on CTW/Columbia TriStar co-pro Dragon Tales, ‘a property that will allow us to break into the older five- to nine-year-old audience,’ says Herzinger.

Compared to the U.S., European toy licensing is a relatively immature business-which means there are still some important structural trends emerging.

At Fox, for example, great efforts have been made to integrate TV and licensing activities. The main effect is that Fox is now better placed to provide on-air exposure and marketing support to third parties. ‘We used to be very reliant on Saban properties,’ says Randisi, ‘but now we are seeking to work with third-party producers in areas of programming in which we are not so strong.’

Recent ventures include a Fox/BKN link up in the U.K. on Monster Rancher and a Fox/Britt Allcroft Group partnership on Thomas the Tank Engine in France.

Although this model doesn’t offer the same exposure as a terrestrial deal, there are other benefits, says BAG commercial director Charles Falzon: ‘Terrestrial is only the answer if you can make assumptions about scheduling and promotion. With Fox Family, we have found a partner that will help us build the brand strategically.’ The property will be boosted by a June movie release.

Randisi also believes that Europe needs to be originating properties capable of export worldwide. ‘It is hard to justify developing ideas on a market by market basis. We need to source ideas that can work for the U.S., Europe and Asia.’ Traditionally, this has been best achieved by the U.S.

He has high hopes for classic Italian property Diabolique, which Fox will push in Europe during 2000 (aided by Giochi). There are also plans to reinvigorate the Princess Sissi property. Further down the line, Randisi expects the arrival of Nascar racing spin-offs to be a prominent feature in the European market.

Ravensburger subsidiary RTV Family Entertainment is also planning to increase its international activities in 2000. Its key property is classic German duo Fix and Foxi (52 x 30 minutes), which started life as a comic strip and now airs on ARD and Kinderkanal at home. The show has been sold to 25 territories.

A range of products (games, puzzles, beanies, CD-ROMs, etc.) will be launched for the German market in February 2000-closely followed by a TV movie. Subsequently, the property will spearhead RTV’s ambitions in the U.S. and Europe. However, any merchandising plans will depend on the success or otherwise of the TV show. Another property called Philip-which features a charming gray mouse-is also being geared up for international rollout.

RTV’s Andrea Keidel says the U.S. is a key target-but a tough market to crack. ‘We recently signed an output and co-production deal with Nelvana, which should help us build up contacts in North America. In return, they get better access to Europe.’

Because screen-based characters have been hit-and-miss in recent times, Link Licensing managing director Claire Derry believes retailers will ‘return to core values by marketing products with great features, not just a nice picture on the side.’ She has recently been appointed to work with Mattel’s preschool brand Fisher-Price on its two major lines, Play Families and Bright Expressions. She expects to drive those hard in 2000.

CPL, meanwhile, was recently appointed to handle Mars confectionery brand M&Ms in Europe. Southern expects there to be growth in spin-offs from advertising brands. ‘This is a much bigger sector in the U.S. and we will look to launch a range of product in a sensible fashion from the summer onwards.’

Because of the risks inherent in launching new properties, there is also a growing trend towards revamping classic shows. BBC Worldwide is rejuvenating its 1960s preschool show Bill & Ben, while Carlton International will make a great push on cult puppet series Thunderbirds in 2000. The show will air fall 2000 on BBC 2, and toy, video and publishing deals have already been signed.

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