A marked lack of broadcast shelf space, an ultra-competitive character merchandising market and a tough retail environment have created a new paradigm for launching kids series. Producers, broadcasters and merchandising rights holders are increasingly coming together to identify a property’s point of market differentiation and, from there, develop international broadcast and licensing strategies simultaneously.
And niche targeting a property to a hot new programming trend, such as the tween girl toon boom, is no longer enough. Thus, in creating Totally Spies, French prodco Marathon honed in on three main series components at the outset–fashion (teaming with French fashion agency Promostyle to design 1,200 animated outfits for the series’ three main characters), super-hip spy gadgets (boosting toyetic appeal) and music. Since fashion is intrinsic to any brand-building effort targeted to tween girls, music took center stage in series development, spilling over into broadcast and merchandising launch plans in several territories.
‘You need good music to make a good show,’ says Marathon Productions managing director Vincent Chalvon-Demersay. ‘And it helped us to have a well-known composer–Brian Higgins, producer for pop bands Saint-Etienne and Sugar Babes–on board.’ The soundtrack for Totally Spies–which started airing on Fox Kids Europe channels in November 2001, on ProSieben in Germany and Channel 4 in the U.K. in March, and on TFI in France earlier this month–has been localized to suit territorial tastes (English lyrics for the U.K. and Germany, and French lyrics for France). Marathon is currently employing equally distinct music initiatives coinciding with merch launches by agents MM Merchandising in Germany and Saban Consumer Products Europe in the U.K. and France.
Aiming to establish Totally Spies as a strong media brand capable of serving as a licensing launch pad, MM Merchandising partnered with German broadcaster and MM parent company ProSieben in recruiting a Totally Spies band for the express purpose of promoting the series. Using ProSieben talk show Arabella as a platform, the two companies began their search for a trio of girls to sing the Totally Spies theme song in January. A panel of judges (including a vocal coach, choreographer and stylist) selected the 20 best demo tape/video entries, and these contenders battled it out on-air, with German teen mag Bravo inviting readers and Arabella viewers to take part in a vote to determine the three finalist bands. The winning band was announced March 1 on-air (capturing a 33.9% audience share among Arabella viewers 14 to 19), and released its first single–’Totally Spies’–on March 25 through record label EMI. The band is slated to receive a live market introduction this month as the opening act for Brit boy band Westlife’s German tour.
‘The plan is to eventually create an entire album and establish and promote Totally Spies as a real band,’ says MM Merchandising’s managing director Dirk Fabarius. The bandmates borrow a lot from their animated counterparts, taking the names of the characters, dressing like them and copying their hairstyles. In videos, clips of the animated characters will be cut in with clips of the band, making for a seamless brand extension.
So far, MM’s Totally Spies merch plans don’t extend to the band, but the idea would be considered in a very limited way–sticking to traditional music merchandise like T-shirts, caps, posters and calendars–if the band becomes a hit with its 12 to 14 target demo. The band is aimed at early teens in order to create aspirational buzz among the eight- to 12-year-old core target of the animated series and merch program.
Attempting to facilitate high merch demand by releasing limited product tied to apparel, publishing and music this month, MM will launch a TV/print teaser ad campaign before the main German product release in August and September. Licensees on board include: Diamond Publishing (a play-along coloring magazine), Franz Schneider (novelettes), Panini (monthly mag/stickers), Belltex (bedding/towels), The Blues Filobranca Group (knitted apparel) and Vidal (bubblegum). Categories still open include toys, games, multimedia, accessories, cosmetics and lifestyle products.
The Totally Spies brand will also receive a major awareness boost in the U.K. this fall when Marathon releases the first Brit single introducing a new singer named Moon Baby (record label unconfirmed at press time) and Saban unleashes its U.K. merch program.
Launching music and merch simultaneously made sense to both parties since ‘a key element of the program is the soundtrack–it adds another dimension to the viewer’s enjoyment of the show,’ says Saban Consumer Products UK managing director Ian Downes. ‘So from a promotional and marketing point of view, it is natural to look at areas of synergy with a music label or act.’
Licensees that have signed up for the Totally Spies program in the U.K. include Akyroyds/TDP (intimate apparel), Blues Apparel (leisurewear), Character World (bedding), Fashion UK (fashion accessories for trend retailers Claire’s and New Look), F.E.V.A. UK (distribution of action dolls and accessories from European master toy licensee Hong Kong Toy) and Lightbody (celebration cakes).
A monthly magazine by Panini will hit the market ahead of the merch push in May. Because an eight- or nine-year-old girl is interested in both licensed characters and the type of aspirational topics found in lifestyle books, Downes says the Panini mag is designed to combine the best of both worlds. ‘The Totally Spies girls are such strong individual characters that it seemed logical to use them to present sections of the magazine. The publication is a reflection of the series in that the girls are interested in clothing, makeup, pop music and going out–all things which make for great magazine content.’
On the merch front in other European territories, pan-Euro licensees such as Hong Kong Toy (working through local distributors) and Blues will release product this fall in France, Benelux and Scandinavia. The bulk of product will hit in 2003, however, at which point Saban will launch initial product in other European territories.
As far as music-related plans in the property’s own country go, this September, Marathon will create a French-language theme song with Sony, which will also heavily promote the track before and after each episode airs. Based upon that title’s success, Marathon will consider releasing an entire album with the record label in January 2003.
But while Marathon and its licensing agent partners can create a fairly cohesive fashion-forward merchandise program across all European territories, the fact that different musical acts are involved in different theme songs and albums could be a recipe for brand confusion. Marathon is covering its bases through legal restrictions preventing the bands from releasing music outside of their homebase territories. Based on the respective success levels of the two groups, Marathon may allow wider distribution for whichever band is the biggest hit–which could adjust its strategy for France and, later, Italy. ‘It seems complex, but nobody can predict success in music, and we’re trying to give the property as many chances as we can,’ says Marathon’s Chalvon-Demersay.