Graphic brand blitz shifts to boys

Widely embraced by tween girls, graphic concepts have yet to hook entertainment-craving boys in the U.S. But property creators Inkmonster and Crank2 are ready to gamble with two new boy brand concepts.
June 1, 2002

Widely embraced by tween girls, graphic concepts have yet to hook entertainment-craving boys in the U.S. But property creators Inkmonster and Crank2 are ready to gamble with two new boy brand concepts.

California-based Inkmonster, the graphic arts studio behind Mischievous Girls and L’il She Creatures, developed Pure Edge to fill a perceived mass-market void. ‘We went to skate parks in the San Francisco area to keep an eye on what was happening on the skate scene, and we saw that the high-end skate market was appealing to older boys who could afford brand-name boards and apparel,’ says Inkmonster co-founder René Cigler. ‘But it wasn’t really trickling down to mass.’

Targeted primarily at tween boys dabbling in extreme sports, Pure Edge is also designed to appeal to mothers who want something moderately priced and not too edgy. The designs show two icon characters–Moto and Skeeter–performing street tricks in silhouette.

For its part, Crank2–home of She’s Charmed and Dangerous–noted the lack of boy lifestyle brands and decided to test the market with accessories brand Tech No Prisoners. ‘It’s for boys who are slaves to technology, kids who spend all their time on-line or playing video games,’ says Crank2 president Robert Reda. ‘The icon character is a young boy robot, so it combines the robotic graphics that are hot right now with a real-boy personality.’

Crank2 and Inkmonster (which have occupied neighboring booths at Licensing Show for the past couple of years) have mapped out strikingly similar licensing strategies for launching their new boys graphic brands.

‘Girl properties are a lot easier because there are so many different items, and girls will buy more product,’ reflects Cigler. ‘With boys, there are a limited number of SKUs that you can go across the board with, so you have to target specific accessories that boys carry and use day-to-day–like apparel, backpacks, skateboarding accessories, hats, toys and figurines.’

Crank2′s Reda concurs, and will look to license Tech No Prisoners in categories that include electronics, CD cases, key chains, dog tags, lanyards, T-shirts and boxer shorts. ‘This will be a retailer’s answer to a private-label situation–consumers will be able to go into the boys department and find everything they want under the Tech No Prisoners umbrella,’ says Reda.

Securing licensees in core accessory categories should go some way towards establishing Pure Edge and Tech No Prisoners as viable lifestyle brands. But convincing licensees to take a gamble on properties that offer such limited windows of opportunity will prove a challenge. ‘I find that the boys side of character-based licensed apparel has to be more action-driven,’ says Henry Stupp, president of NTD Apparel, pointing to Spider-Man, Power Rangers and The Hulk (for which NTD picked up an apparel license for 2003) as examples of such properties. ‘The characters have movement, expressions and attitude,’ he says.

To persuade Stupp to consider a graphics-driven property, the licensor would need to come armed with a demonstrative style guide and market research indicating brand awareness. ‘Look at the obstacle that we’re faced with as licensees,’ he says. ‘To get retailers on-side, we have to show that there’s awareness for these characters and that there’s a demand for product.’ Locking in a group of licensees in a variety of categories is also paramount. ‘It’s very hard to be the sole manufacturer promoting a brand. We like to do it in groups of related categories.’

British licensees, on the other hand, have already embraced graphic brands. The difference may lie in the fact that the U.K. has developed a more sophisticated ability to niche-market, as Loonland UK’s head of licensing and merchandising John Knox pointed out in a recent interview comparing the U.S. and Euro licensing markets. ‘Today’s kid consumers are resistant to being lumped into the masses, so they tend to connect with niche interests with which they find an affinity,’ says Knox. ‘It may be extreme sports or music–and then there are further subdivisions within each of those areas.’

As indicated throughout our Licensing Show 2002 special report, extreme sports continue to offer solid licensing opportunities. London-based Meiklejohn Graphics Licensing spotted one back in 1995. ‘We already knew from the heavy metal imagery we had been producing since the early ’80s that young boys loved all things gruesome,’ says managing director Chris Meiklejohn. ‘So we married two concepts by designing horror characters engaged in various sports, and the Extreme Zombies were born.’ The property now boasts 21 U.K. licensees (including Aykroyd & Sons, Somerbond, Smith & Brooks and Samuel Eden) and has distribution in leading British retailers such as Woolworth’s, Harrod’s, WH Smith, Tesco, Asda and British Home Stores.

The Extreme Zombies formula for success? Direct, daily feedback from its eight to 14 target demo via the website. ‘We have no interest in an opinion unless it comes from a member of the target audience,’ says Meiklejohn. ‘A licensee once said that she wasn’t taking the Extreme Zombies license because she didn’t like the characters. I convinced her that their very success relied on her not liking them, and she is still an EZ licensee today.’

Despite Extreme Zombies’ grip on the market, its appeal was limited with no TV series to show that its grim-looking characters were actually good guys. To win points with moms and further capitalize on the extreme sports boom, MGL created Hot Foot for boys ages five to 12. ‘We wanted to produce a concept that would not have Mom recoiling, but would still appeal to kid tastes, so it had to have a certain amount of street credibility,’ says Meiklejohn. Thus, Hot Foot graphics took on a bold, colorful, graffiti feel that found its niche with the six to 10 crowd and a 20-strong U.K. licensee roster. In May, Hot Foot characters were featured in venerable U.K. comic strip The Beano, which hasn’t seen a new external character in more than 30 years.

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