Consumer electronics and appliances have traditionally been tricky categories for licensors working with kids properties. These products tend to retail in the upper tiers, and they’re not disposable. Chances are that pricey waffle iron will be kicking around for a few years, so if parents suspect that junior’s affections for the character it ties into might be fleeting, they aren’t likely to plunk down any cash. And since no one wants the black mark of a high-end retail failure on their rap sheet, IP owners have tended to tread lightly.
Of course that hasn’t stopped some licensors – particularly those with classic family-skewing franchises – from stepping into the fray. Several players have nurtured fun lines of juvenile consumer electronics and small appliances via traditional licensing agreements. But only the House of Mouse is rethinking its approach to these categories entirely.
Disney Consumer Products flipped its business model around roughly three years ago when it began incubating product designs internally and producing product through direct-to-retail deals or with private-label manufacturers. The idea was to create unique electronics and appliances priced at a discount compared to national brands, but not so low as to make a decent sales margin impossible to achieve. Since its first basic line of TVs, DVD players and boom boxes hit retail in mid-2003, DCP’s consumer electronics division has seen year-on-year wholesale growth of more than 100% and expanded its U.S. retail presence from 2,700 storefronts to more than 7,000.
Initially, says division VP Chris Heatherly, the design team’s plan was to conduct research into how kids and families were using electronics, and then attempt to make them more fun and user-friendly for kids. With Q3 2004′s Disney Dream Desk computer, for example, an ethnographic research team found that kids were primarily using computers for games and educational pursuits; they hadn’t caught on to the machines’ creative potential. So along with modifying the monitor and keyboard to better suit young users, the team put together a software package that gave kids tools for making their own graphics, music and mini-films.
Since that early effort, the division has branched out into other less traditional categories. A 2004 line of anthropomorphic, family-oriented appliances by South Bluffdale, Utah-based Back to Basics subtly evokes Disney characters and includes a popcorn popper and a smoothie-maker. They’ll be followed by an ice cream machine and snowcone ice shaver this summer, and Heatherly’s team is actively scouting for more appliances that may be overdue for a kid-friendly reinterpretation.
DCP’s business plan has also widened to include electronics and appliances that sport more literal representations of famous characters. The Disney Princess range, for example, will be refreshed in August with the launch of a locket-style digital camera that prints stamp-sized pictures. And for Cinderella’s 50th birthday this year, the division has a karaoke player shaped like a pumpkin carriage in the hopper, as well as a toaster that plays music and leaves a distinctive imprint of Cindy’s glass slipper on its toast.
Winnie the Pooh will step up to help the company make a move into infant electronics in early 2006, when a themed monitor, bottle warmer and crib-side CD player hit stores. ‘We felt that what was being done [in this category] was kind of medical and scary,’ says Heatherly, ‘and it didn’t really fit into the décor of a baby’s room.’ And since Disney already distributes products like coordinating paint, wallpaper and bedding that parents can pool together to create a themed nursery, why shouldn’t the company try its hand at electronics that match? To blend into the nursery more naturally, the baby monitor is disguised as a stylish picture frame, and the CD player sits inside Pooh’s iconic honey pot and incorporates a rotating disk projector that casts a virtual mobile on the room’s ceiling.