The children’s apparel market moves as quickly as a toddler outgrows sizes. Add the dynamic of licensing – with its shifting landscape of hot and cold properties – and it’s easy to see why retailers, licensors and manufacturers are finding new ways to work together to gain a foothold.
But that has become an XXL-sized challenge. While new brands and properties continue to flood the marketplace, the number of retailers has shrunk, and those that are still around are taking on fewer properties at a time. This has shifted the balance between licensors, licensees and retailers, blurring the role each one plays, says Nickelodeon’s VP of consumer products Hal Snik. Licensors and licensees are visiting retailers together to talk not only about product development, but also promotion, signage and marketing – a new strategy for apparel (though it’s long been used in other categories like toys). ‘Ultimately, we’d like to see our partners sit down with us, identify their top-10 retailers and put together an integrated marketing campaign for each one to drive our product,’ Snik says.
Licensors are starting to play a bigger role in how things are merchandised, and retailers are more eager to deal with them than they have been in the past. The major studios have been instrumental in pushing this trend by adding their marketing muscle to the mix. Andrew Barnett, VP of licensing for L.A.-based apparel manufacturer Evy of California, says the offer of signage, promotional activities and ad campaigns can sweeten the deal for retailers, but these bonus support carrots are often beyond the financial reach of smaller companies. ‘Small licensors try to be involved, but they just don’t have the relationships with the retailers,’ says Barnett. ‘They come to us so they can develop these connections through our contacts.’
Mark Nawrocki, Mervyn’s senior manager of events, marketing and licensing, says in-store boutiques, marketing events and licenses are an integral part of the Hayward, California-based retailer’s strategy to stand out from the pack. ‘It’s a give and take, and we look for companies to do more than just supply us with product to put on the rack,’ he says.
Having the clout that will convince retailers to merchandise your product by brand can also make a huge difference in sell-through. Starting in October, Nickelodeon will be opening more than 600 dedicated Nick shops in JCPenney stores. Snik says the in-store boutiques are a key plank in the company’s strategy to create brand awareness that stretches beyond individual properties. Having all the properties under one recognizable Nick umbrella means more flexibility in the way new licenses are introduced and guarantees better placement.
Of course, Nick is not alone. Disney is the most obvious example of a single well-known brand housing a roster of properties, and more companies are following in its footsteps. Cartoon Network began marketing the Powerpuff Girls to high fashion this year, taking a two-pronged approach to apparel that encompasses both the TV line and a graphic design element. ‘We have to behave more like a brand than a property,’ says Simon George, the net’s VP of off-channel commerce for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. ‘TV is one part of the mix, but not the entire mix.’
Hot Topic’s senior VP of strategic analysis and investor relations Jay Johns says the right brand on the right product is pretty much the only thing that influences the teens and tweens who frequent the City of Industry, California-based chain’s 420 U.S. locations. ‘Having it in the back or the front doesn’t matter; the biggest difference is what you’re selling,’ he says.
Joel Barnett, VP of licensing for Van Nuys, California’s Wish Licensing, agrees that an item without the right style won’t sell no matter how well it’s promoted. You need to have the colors that pop and the right property and look, especially since apparel doesn’t require much in the way of packaging. The key to strong sell-through once you have the right style elements is letting your product be seen. Rounders do not work well for licensed product, and you won’t find any in license-driven retailers like Hot Topic. Barnett also cites Mervyn’s as a retailer that does a good job of creating a space for certain licenses and constantly bringing in new screens.
But packaging can make or break a sale if you have competing apparel lines with all the necessary style. ‘If you have three girl brands in front of you and like the three equally, the cutest merchandising and what catches your eye first will win out every time,’ says Cartoon Network’s senior director of off-channel commerce Julie Gibbons.
Add-ons were a big part of Cartoon’s strategy for its Powerpuff Girls apparel line, which featured a lip gloss or a secret code on hangtags to help kids play a web game, and its Dexter’s Lab range, which featured a mini CD sampler as a hangtag. Nickelodeon has also focused on hangtag promotions over the last year, including a free backpack-shaped change purse with Dora the Explorer apparel and a secret code on Jimmy Neutron apparel hangtags that let kids shoot rockets higher in a game on the Jimmy Neutron website. Nick promoted the hangtags with web banners and TV spots.
Both Gibbons and Nick’s Snik stress that hangtags must have the value-added element of either a gift-with-purchase or a larger promotional tie-in to be effective – particularly for selling into retail. ‘Assuming that you can move the needle simply with an innovative hangtag is a little naïve,’ says Snik. ‘If you have an integrated marketing program driving people to retail and telling kids to look for that special hangtag, that’s when it’s most effective.’
Interactivity is another key to brand awareness, and more and more retail outlets are allowing licensors to take over the store for a day to host a promotional event.
‘I’m a firm believer in retail-tainment,’ says Wish Licensing’s Barnett. ‘A lot of retailers got out of that and went back to the basics of value, price and service. But when people shop, they want some kind of visual entertainment, whether it comes from the merchandising or the product itself.’ In the U.K., Cartoon Network paired with High Street retailer Topshop for competitions, makeovers and a sweepstakes to win a trip to Tokyo for Powerpuff Girls. State-side, Mervyn’s recently offered a sweepstakes to win a sleepover with a Disney Princess to promote its in-store boutique. It also created a Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat float with Sesame Workshop for the San Francisco and L.A. Chinese New Year Parades, along with hosting in-store appearances by author Amy Tan.