A kid’s-eye view on character tie-ins

Marketers who target their products at kids and teens often unknowingly doom themselves to failure by falling into the trap of neglecting to analyze their brands and tactics from the perspective of their target audience. And this trap is especially prevalent when it comes to licensing character properties - particularly cartoon characters - to promote or enhance packaged goods, apparel and other consumer products.
April 1, 2005

Marketers who target their products at kids and teens often unknowingly doom themselves to failure by falling into the trap of neglecting to analyze their brands and tactics from the perspective of their target audience. And this trap is especially prevalent when it comes to licensing character properties – particularly cartoon characters – to promote or enhance packaged goods, apparel and other consumer products.

In Q4 2004, Strottman talked to six groups of its own Kid Engineers between the ages of nine and 11. We asked them what characters they like and why, and had them bring in their favorite licensed products from home. We also had them select their favorite characters from dozens of specially made character cards, and then asked them to match the cards up to a variety of products as a conversation starter. Strottman also surveyed 200 kids on-line with research partner to supplement this qualitative Kid Engineer feedback.

Our research identified four ‘untapped secrets’ of character licensing, which are applicable to marketing many types of products.

Character Use Environment (CUE)

When we talked to our Kid Engineers, they told us that they like different characters depending on the environment in which they would likely use the products. We found that most products can be characterized as either ‘public’ or ‘private.’

Products kids use or wear primarily in public places, such as T-shirts, portable CD players and backpacks, have a public CUE. And likewise, products kids usually use or wear only at home or with family, including toothbrushes, boxes of cereal, alarm clocks and bed sheets, have a private CUE.

Conventional wisdom in character licensing tells us that a great many characters become ‘babyish’ once kids reach ages seven or eight, and they no longer want to have anything to do with them. But our tween Kid Engineers told us they still love many characters from their childhood; they just don’t always want to show off this affinity in public. For example, an Elmo umbrella elicited harsh criticism from several of our sophisticated nine- to 11-year-old girls, who insisted they were past the age of Elmo…until we asked them about a pair of Elmo house slippers. Then their comments turned to, ‘Oh, those are so cute!’ and, ‘I would totally wear those at home.’

Similarly, Oscar Mayer’s Spider-Man Lunchables seemed to turn off our boy Kid Engineers, who claimed they would be laughed out of the lunchroom if they brought them to school at age 10 or 11. But a bottle of Spider-Man shampoo, complete with a suction-cup figurine of the webslinger, would be totally fine in their bathtubs. In the words of one tween: ‘Even if people can’t see them, it’s really fun to have a character on your bed or in your bathroom…and it’s a plus that people can’t see them because you won’t get embarrassed if it’s something kiddish or really babyish.’

The lesson? Evaluate your product’s CUE when choosing a property. If it’s a private item, don’t immediately discount characters with a target demo younger than your bull’s-seye target. Look for more emotionally based, nurturing characters or older, classic characters that were at their peak three to five years ago.

And if your product has a public CUE, look for top-rated TV series, the newest feature films or ‘alternative’ characters. The phrase ‘alternative’ brings us to the next untapped secret of character licensing: Tweens want to establish their own personal style. Fitting in no longer means wanting the same things their friends have. They like characters that are outside of the mainstream, especially ones their parents don’t understand.

But many brand marketers on limited budgets must wonder why they should pay so much money for character licenses when licensed products no longer guarantee huge sales in today’s marketplace – especially since once kids turn seven or eight, they no longer want characters on most products anyway! Again, the Strottman Kid Engineers defied this logic, raving about a slew of alternative properties and telling us they often prefer such characters to those that have much higher mainstream awareness.

So what defines alternative? A few characteristics seemed to be consistent across many of the properties our kids talked about:

* very simply designed

* often featuring ‘outcast’ or ‘disenfranchised’ personalities or themes

* are often cute or innocent on the surface, but edgy or ‘bad’ to those in the know

* not widely publicized – may have limited exposure at retail

* not originally created for TV/film, but hail instead from sectors like art, apparel and the Internet

Some examples our tweens were particularly excited about included Julius & Friends by Paul Frank, Naughty Naughty Pets, Homestar Runner and Bad Alice.

Alternative characters can open up the world of character licensing to brands, as well as creating new opportunities by adding value to brands with an older perceived target age. But they’re definitely not for everyone.

If your product’s primary target demo is lower than age eight or nine, or if your brand primarily stands for wholesome family values, then alternative characters are probably not right for you. A better approach may be to take advantage of another untapped secret of character licensing: the Personal Expression Phrase.

Personal Expression Phrase (PEP)

Our tween Kid Engineers regularly tell us they want things that make a statement and that show others who they are. In a nutshell, PEPs are words or short phrases that add expressive personality to a character image on any type of product. Specifically, PEPs can:

* increase age appeal

* guide product usage

* add ‘attitude’ or sassiness

* express self-confidence

Conventional wisdom says that products bearing images of a character only should almost always express the personality of that character. Products bearing images of a character with a PEP, however, also express the personality of the user of the product.

For example, a T-shirt sporting an image of Disney’s Grumpy Dwarf will draw criticisms like ‘Boring!’ ‘Old news!’ and even ‘Who’s that?!’ from today’s tweens. But add a PEP under Grumpy that reads ‘Feeling Grumpy,’ and all of a sudden this 67-year-old animated character becomes relevant to a modern tween girl.

For a more contemporary example, we looked at Oscar from DreamWorks’ animated feature Shark Tale. Oscar’s image alone generated average, wishy-washy reactions from Strottman’s nine- to 10-year-old Kid Engineers. But when we showed them a poster of Oscar with a PEP reading ‘Reprazent da H20,’ the image had a new tween relevance, and also a subtle urban appeal.

How about a SpongeBob backpack for a 10-year-old? Our tweens jeered at the idea until they saw one sporting an image of SpongeBob with hypnotized, saucer eyes and the PEP ‘I’m really confused.’ Then the product was deemed funny, relevant and even cool.

Bringing it all together: Make sure you activate the license

By looking at licensing from our Kid Engineers’ perspective, we learned that integrating character traits makes a product infinitely more appealing than simply slapping on a character image. But more specifically, we started to see three distinct stages of character-based consumer product marketing.

A few examples really demonstrate this concept. Bounty paper towels has a licensed line called Fun Prints, which feature patterns of characters including SpongeBob and Rugrats. We consider this an applied character license. That is, it’s OK, but there is no real involvement or intrinsic relationship between the licensed character and the product itself.

On the other hand, Brawny paper towels began using classic cartoon strongman Popeye a few years ago. The obvious connection between Popeye’s strength and the strength of Brawny paper towels makes this an involved use of a character license.

Then just over a year ago, Bounty came out with a brand-new line of paper towels called Activity Prints. One SKU featuring Clifford the Big Red Dog had a picture of the oversized canine on each towel, along with a diagram of a place-setting and easy-to-read instructions on how to set the table. Another SKU featured Clifford showing kids how to read a clock. With this line, Bounty successfully knit traits of the character (namely, that Clifford teaches kids everyday skills) into the product itself. So this character license was fully activated.

The concept of activating a character license is not restricted to packaged goods. Last fall, Embassy Suites tied into the popularity of Spider-Man with a Spider-Man 2 Web Pack. Guests with children who booked a room using a code from promotional materials received a backpack filled with Spider-Man premiums upon check-in. This was a decent promotion, and a perfect example of an applied character license. But was there a meaningful connection between the Spider-Man character and Embassy Suites? No.

In 2003, Wyndham Hotels announced a SpongeBob SquarePants Sleepover promotion. Kid guests received a Sleepover Package that included overnight accommodations at a special rate, SpongeBob welcome gifts and activity sets, and a SpongeBob themed breakfast experience. In this case, Wyndham successfully involved the license by meaningfully tying the licensed character and its hotels together.

And then there’s Holiday Inn, which will complete construction this spring on a hotel in Florida that epitomizes the activation of a character license. The Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn will contain character-themed kids suites, and the hotel’s décor will feature bigger-than-life character statues, as well as Nickelodeon-themed restaurants, recreation areas and activities.

The moral of this story for marketers who want to use character licenses to promote their brands is not to follow conventional wisdom. Instead, look to the kids. They can tell you better than anyone else what resonates with them and what doesn’t. And then consider the ‘untapped’ secrets of character licensing we’ve discussed to make your significant investment in character licensing deals pay off for your brand.

Brady Darvin is senior director of consumer insights for Strottman International, a promotional marketing agency specializing in youth and family-targeted promotions. Darvin is responsible for providing consumer and industry insights to clients such as Arby’s, Chick-fil-A, Best Buy, Cendant Hotels and the American Heart Association. He may be contacted at

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