Remember The Simpsons episode when Malibu Stacy came out with a new hat, and a stampede of little girls (not to mention Smithers, who turns out to be a raging Stacy-holic) cleaned out the entire retail supply in a nanosecond? Unfortunately, reinvigorating a property at retail isn’t that simple in the real world – especially when you’re dealing with a hit TV property whose ratings and sales have both leveled off from the stratospheric highs of the good old days.
What do you do, a few years into a property’s life cycle, when you’re staring down the barrel at softer retail activity and a crop of new properties are clamoring for your shelf space? Let’s take a closer look at some strategies du jour for transitioning properties from red-hot to evergreen status, all the while avoiding the ignominy of the discount bin that awaits flash-in-the-pan performers.
You don’t always have to act your age
Sometimes it’s a matter of looking beyond your core audience to see if other demos want what you’re selling. Sesame Workshop’s tween/teen-targeted line of Sesame Street apparel and accessories is a good example. The line launched in trend-setting tween retailer Hot Topic in February 2003 and has exceeded expectations, with more that a million juniors and young men’s T-shirts selling through in the first six months of the program. This first-phase success has convinced the Workshop to take on teens at mass retail this fall with
a follow-up line of apparel (Coastal Concepts, MJC, SBH Intimates), accessories (Fada Industries, Berkshire, Bijou) and footwear (SG Footwear).
Tamra Seldin, the Workshop’s VP of marketing for global consumer products and international television distribution, says the programs help keep the property in teens’ lives until they re-embrace the brand as parents. ‘I think it puts us in a much stronger position for preschool sales five to 10 years from now,’ she explains.
Boasting 35 years on-air, consistently strong ratings on PBS (racking up an average 5.7 share of kids two to five in 2003) and more than US$1 billion in ’03 retail sales, it’s no wonder that Sesame Street’s regeneration model is one that draws a lot of curious attention from licensors with younger properties.
In fact, when Ragdoll’s U.S. office was casting around for avenues in which it could rebuild its State-side Teletubbies consumer products program, the company’s VP of marketing and strategic alliances, Andrew Kerr, lit onto Sesame’s Hot Topic program early on. ‘We saw that Sesame Street was represented in a non-injurious way,’ he says. ‘Its characters were not placed on items and mocked. You could find a lovely iteration of Cookie Monster or Elmo at Hot Topic. It was the irony of that juxtaposition [of the preschool characters on teenager's clothing] that made it work.’
The Teletubbies enjoyed a spectacular U.S. debut on PBS in 1998, and Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po were everywhere by 2000. But the disintegration of the property’s former North American licensing agent itsy bitsy Entertainment Company brought the brand low. On top of the internal problems that led to itsy’s closure in 2001, its Teletubbies merch program became unwieldy. Kerr says during this time, the property simply had too many licensees, and the resulting glut of product choked its retail supply chain. By the end of 2001, the Tubbies had no master toy licensee, and its on-shelf presence had been diminished to a contingent of shelf-worn, discounted product.
Ratings have also fallen off the benchmark a bit. Compared to an 8.4 average share of two- to five-year-old viewers at its pinnacle in 1999, the show pulled in an average 3.4 share for the 2002-2003 season. But PBS has the broadcast license until 2008, and Kerr expects to see ratings perk up as the Teletubbies acquire new real estate on U.S. retail shelves.
The Hot Topic line has been a catalyst for this movement. ‘It’s barometer retail,’ says Kerr. ‘We know people look to Hot Topic to see what’s hip and where the next mass-market trend may come from,’ so it was important that Teletubbies be featured there as Ragdoll embarked on the comeback trail. A line of tween/teen apparel, accessories and bags from licensee Enzania hit Hot Topic’s 600-plus stores in January as part of a retail exclusive, with in-store signage and a button on the retailer’s website. So far, Kerr says sales have been ‘okay – not super-hot, not horrible, just okay.’
Interestingly, Kerr is again looking outside the Teletubbies’ traditional preschool demo in preparation for the next target for regeneration – the property’s toy business. Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Play Along signed on as master toy licensee in 2003 and has buttressed a line of plush produced and sold exclusively by Toys ‘R’ Us from 2002 to 2003 with new offerings. The toyco introduced two new plush SKUs and some smaller plastic figurines in mass chains Target and Wal-Mart in February, and Kerr says Wal-Mart is experiencing a 70%-plus sell-through rate with the plush. The chain has already placed orders for Play Along’s fall offerings, the Magic Dancing Teletubbies plush and the Teletubbies’ Come and Play playset – featuring the Tubbytronic Superdome, complete with working windmill, pop-up toaster and the four Tubbies figurines.
Ragdoll is now planning to shift its demo expansion plans down to the infant and toddler end of the kids spectrum for the first time. The Teletubbies’ initial success with its core preschool target was resounding enough that there wasn’t any need to create product for younger fans in the early days. But Kerr says the show has always engaged infant viewers as young as six months old, and now – with the preschool landscape becoming increasingly competitive – it’s ‘a nice opportunity to own that real estate.’
Play Along is coming out with a line of developmental toys, including a plush version of Teletubbyland and stroller and carseat activity toys, in spring 2005. Toy packaging will emphasize how babies understand and respond to the Teletubbies, as well as sporting a new tagline – ‘Teletubbies Teaches Happiness’ – and messaging for parents that explains the educational components of the property.
Time to reinvent the wheel
Sometimes breathing new life into a property’s merch program involves a significant rethink of the source material and its fundamental play patterns.
Having generated US$2.7 billion since its 2000 retail launch (US$300 million last year alone), Blue’s Clues is one of Nickelodeon’s flagship preschool properties. But Jim Davey, VP of marketing and toys for Nick Consumer Products, says sell-through of traditional toys, while steady, has declined from the heady heights experienced in 2001. Enter talking Blue.
While she debuted in a special last winter, beginning this fall, each new episode of Blue’s Clues will feature a segment in which a 3-D puppet version of Blue talks, sings, asks her viewers questions and plays with new characters Doodleboard, Polkadots, Sillyseat and Roary the dinosaur. ‘We felt that letting her speak and giving her a new cast of friends and a new range of games and songs would create a connection with Blue that preschoolers have never had before,’ says Davey.
It’s also allowed Nick to refresh key toy and interactive product ‘where talking and singing is so critical,’ as well as introducing new features to traditionally non-interactive items. The first toy to take advantage of Blue’s new vocal skills is Fisher-Price’s Sing & Boogie Blue, a talking, singing and dancing interactive plush that will debut at mass retail this fall. Jakks Pacific’s Handy Dandy Notebook, which Davey says is one of the best-selling Blue’s products, will also be retrofitted with new talking specs this fall.
As far as the new cast goes, the introduction of Doodleboard, in particular, should encourage another new play pattern. A big part of Blue’s room centers around drawing and craft-related activities, and kids will get a chance to play with Doodleboard off-air via a new product from Jakks called Blue’s Room Jumbo Magnetic Doodle Board. Hitting retail in the fall, the toy lets kids recreate Doodleboard’s drawings on its over-sized, erasable surface. Davey says retailer response to the new product has been very strong so far.
Meanwhile, HIT Entertainment is betting that its new version of Bob the Builder will excite U.K. and U.S. retailers in a similar way. Sales for the franchise, which represented 30% of HIT’s turnover last year, were down 8.5%, according to the company’s 2003 annual report.
With 117 episodes under his tool belt, Bob has ‘pretty much fixed everything he can’ in Bobsville, says Katie Foster, HIT’s brand business director for Europe. Recognizing that the franchise needs a shot in the arm, HIT is planning to significantly retool the property, and a new series is currently under construction at CGI studio HOT Animation.
Like every tradesman, Bob is going where the work is, moving three miles down the road to a new town giving out contracts for some full-scale building projects. All the key elements for The New Adventures of Bob the Builder (working title) are in place. Bob will be building everything – his home, a garage for his machines, you name it – from the ground up, balancing the need for shelter against respect for the environment he’s building into.
From a merchandising standpoint, HIT will be kicking off the revival with an overhaul of Bob’s toy line. Hasbro’s U.S. master toy license was not renewed last year, and HIT appointed RC2 to the role last fall. Lego is still the property’s construction toy licensee, and both companies are gearing up to produce new toy lines for sometime in 2005 that will focus on role-play and construction sets. The first playset in the works mirrors the story line of the new show’s initial episodes, in which Bob arrives in town and must build a garage to house his machines and tools. The RC2 toy will allow kids to do the same thing and then collect vehicles to fill the space.
‘We’re not looking at toys as individual items,’ says Jamie Cygielman, senior VP of HIT’s brand business group in the U.S. ‘We’re looking at them as the entry point to an immersive world that will allow children to build along with Bob and drive collectibility.’ HIT would like the Bob program to eventually function in the same way its Thomas the Tank Engine business does: Kids buy individual Thomas track sets and corresponding trains, and then they start to collect new pieces to complete these environments. To facilitate that building play pattern, the RC2 and Lego playsets will be compatible in terms of size and connectibility, eventually allowing preschoolers to draw from either line to reconstruct Bob’s new world.
To fill the gap between now and the 2005 rollout of the new show and merch, HIT is turning to home entertainment. The company will seed the market on both sides of the pond this fall with a new DVD release, as well as supporting it with a unique consumer products line for the first time.
Snowed Under – The Bobblesberg Winter Games is a feature-length musical that will introduce preschoolers to some of the elements of Bob’s new world, including new vehicle characters Zoomer (a snowmobile) and construction machine Benny.
In the U.K., master toy licensee Martin Yaffe has a playset based on the direct-to-DVD title in the works, and BBC Children’s Books will cover publishing. In the U.S., Snowed Under winter apparel from Children’s Apparel Network will hit stores this fall, and in lieu of larger toys, a limited quantity of Zoomer diecast vehicles will be bundled with the DVD. Foster expects Snowed Under sales in the U.K. to match those of Bob’s Christmas 2003 home video release A Christmas to Remember, which sold in excess of 430,000 copies.
If it ain’t broke, tinker with it a bit anyway
Sometimes the bloom doesn’t have to be completely off the rose before licensors start thinking about a refresh. And what better way to give a property a boost than to spin off a popular character into a new series?
Scholastic Entertainment has an undisputed preschool hit on PBS with Clifford the Big Red Dog. The show debuted in 2001, and its overall ratings for 2002-2003 averaged a 7.7 share of kids two to five, making it the channel’s number-two preschool show behind Dragon Tales.
But after three years and 60 episodes, Scholastic figures it’s time to bring something new to the table to keep the franchise fresh with retailers, says Leslye Schaefer, senior VP of marketing and consumer products. Thus Clifford’s Puppy Days was born. It’s a 25-episode prequel to the adventures of Clifford on Birdwell Island, depicting the middle-aged dog as the puppy seen in the back story that opens each episode of Clifford.
Puppy Days started airing on PBS’s Tail Wagging Wednesdays in September 2003, and by year’s end, the show was pulling in a 7.0 share of the preschool demo. As part of a new consumer products line that’s currently rolling out, Schaefer plans to transition some of Clifford’s current licensees to puppy product and is putting the spotlight on Puppy Days at retail, although promo plans have yet to be locked down.
Over at Nick, you can expect to see 2005 season entry Go, Diego, Go! giving a boost to the US$1.5-billion Dora the Explorer franchise – which pulled in more than US$400 million in sales last year alone. The new series focuses on the adventures of Dora’s trilingual buddy Diego (he speaks English, Spanish and Animal) and is set in his family’s animal rescue camp. Davey expects to take the same patient consumer products approach implemented for Dora, and doesn’t foresee a Diego rollout of products that skew towards preschool boys until 2006.