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Animated characters take center stage in the kid marketing spotlight

The use of spokestoons in marketing is attracting more interest lately, as marketers find it an effective way to cut through the clutter of increasing media options and product competition by quickly connecting with kids. Tina Imig, co-founder of KidLeo, a Chicago-based marketing consultancy that focuses on innovation and research and runs character camp--which is about understanding kids' relationships with characters and helping marketers use the characters to build brands--says marketers' interest in using existing characters from kids TV series is definitely also on the rise.
October 1, 2001

The use of spokestoons in marketing is attracting more interest lately, as marketers find it an effective way to cut through the clutter of increasing media options and product competition by quickly connecting with kids. Tina Imig, co-founder of KidLeo, a Chicago-based marketing consultancy that focuses on innovation and research and runs character camp–which is about understanding kids’ relationships with characters and helping marketers use the characters to build brands–says marketers’ interest in using existing characters from kids TV series is definitely also on the rise.

One property owner responding to the trend is L.A.-based animation studio DIC Entertainment, which announced in August that its numerous established properties, such as Madeline, Sailor Moon and Inspector Gadget, were available for marketing tie-ins.

Kathi Sharpe, senior VP of marketing and promotion, joined DIC to leverage its 3,000 half-hour episodes (comprising the second-largest U.S. kids animation library) in new ways. ‘We have both been approached and are approaching hundreds of companies about different outreach and promotional and marketing initiatives. And that applies to Internet companies, consumer products companies, athletic footwear companies, QSRs, chain retailers, specialty retailers–there’s really a very eclectic group of people we are pursuing.’

When asked about the impetus to make this push, Sharpe replies: ‘Retail as a whole is pretty challenging. Consumers out there are very sophisticated. It makes the marketers’ jobs more challenging, be it an insurance company, a financial institution or a packaged goods company. Each of these marketers is trying to reach an audience in a very fragmented environment.

‘But when you can make the connection and there’s an allegiance to a property or an emotional reaction to a character, consumers will be more likely to engage in that service or use that product. And I think that’s why, for the right companies, creating that association is a very valuable marketing tool–and the cost is not that expensive.’

As to how the characters will come into play, Sharpe says ‘it’s not only about tying into a property–in some cases, it may be about utilizing our characters as their partners. Right now, we are pitching Inspector Gadget as a very strong spokescharacter for companies that produce electronic gadgets like Palm Pilots, Casios and Hand Springs, as well as for electronics retailers like Radio Shack, Circuit City, Best Buy and Sharper Image.

‘For Sailor Moon, because it really skews from kids to young teens, we’re looking for a major toy retail partner that is based in malls. We would likely generate activity through a mall tour, and then drive people back to the retailer, which might offer a redeemable prize or discounted product.’

DIC is also focusing its energies on new properties like Liberty’s Kids, which will launch as a series on PBS in May 2002, supported by a fully integrated and promotional strategy that will hit classrooms, homes and the community. DIC is looking to bring on four partners, taking a hard look at packaged goods companies, financial institutions, insurance companies and real estate outfits.

The benefit for DIC? Sharpe says it will generate greater awareness for the brand and create a greater leveraged marketing opportunity for the studio’s different departments–home entertainment, television and consumer products. ‘We’re talking about several million dollars in additional revenues to the company.’

Vancouver animation house Studio B Productions is also tapping into the spokestoon trend. The prodco behind several kids cartoon series currently airing in Canada, Studio B has just opened a commercial animation division, and characters from its series What About Mimi?, D’Myna Leagues and Yvon of the Yukon are being pitched for ad work.

According to Chris Bartleman, Studio B partner and co-founder, the impetus behind offering up the characters came from seeing a lot of commercials lately with toon folk in them, such as The Simpsons and Butterfingers union. Bartleman says now that the studio finally has its own characters for which it controls the rights, he and partner Blair Peters thought this character cachet might be an added bonus for advertisers and would help give the shop a different spin. He adds that it would also be a win-win for Studio B, as any additional air time or wider exposure for the characters would help build awareness for their shows and ancillary products.

When deciding to tap into the power of existing characters, KidLeo’s Imig encourages marketers to look at awareness levels and likability, but she also stresses that they need to think about synergy. ‘Look at Q-scores, but look beyond. Ask whether this character strengthens the equity of your brand, or whether you are just borrowing strength from the character’s equity.’ Imig adds that with pure Q-score assessment, if the character falls out of favor, your brand might suffer. However if you have tapped into a property for the right reasons, such as products with an education component hooking up with Blue’s Clues, there’s more inherent longevity.

In a nutshell, Imig says ‘the challenge for marketers is whether to go for short-term buzz or build a more enduring story about the brand.’ Keying into the essence of the character works best for long-term brand equity when the stories match. ‘If the brand story is about adventure and fun, you might want to tap into Rugrats or Scooby-Doo.’ Imig gives the U.S. Milk campaign as an example of doing it right. The campaign uses a variety of characters and keys into each character’s true story to get kids excited about drinking milk.

With files from Cynthia Aristizabal

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