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Gary Pope on why consumer products pros need to break the mold

It's a truism that when times get tough, people tend to gravitate towards what makes them feel safe and secure. And times are certainly getting tougher when it comes to licensing kids products. With shrinking shelf space and relatively static industry sales, retailers are looking for a sure, safe thing, and licensors and licensees are continually trying to figure out how to provide it. But playing it safe with a licensing program can be dangerous for a property's longevity.
June 1, 2005

It’s a truism that when times get tough, people tend to gravitate towards what makes them feel safe and secure. And times are certainly getting tougher when it comes to licensing kids products. With shrinking shelf space and relatively static industry sales, retailers are looking for a sure, safe thing, and licensors and licensees are continually trying to figure out how to provide it. But playing it safe with a licensing program can be dangerous for a property’s longevity.

If a brand is to rise above the clutter in today’s market, it must build a deep and lasting emotional connection with consumers. In order to do this, it’s imperative that licensors and licensees step outside their comfort zone when conceptualizing products. If they don’t, then how will we ever move the industry on? Just think about all the times you’ve seen products that look almost exactly the same – with only slight variations in color and different licenses to set them apart from each other – lined up side by side on a retail shelf. How can it be that two very different brands have almost identical products out at retail? Are the brands you create that homogenous?

And then there’s that pesky term ‘toyetic.’ It’s an unscientific and opinion-driven assessment that plays a big role at times in determining whether or not a brilliant new show gets the greenlight. Typically, a very narrow definition is applied, and toyetic usually amounts to a toy company’s ability to simply recreate the lead vehicles, characters and/or settings exactly as the child sees them in the show. But this isn’t always how children perceive TV shows or want to interact with related product at home.

This is particularly the case with preschool. All too often, toy manufacturers simply don’t know how to build toys that meet the needs of this market. There are exceptions, but in the main, toy designers don’t truly understand the needs of two- to five-year-olds and simply set out to recreate scenes from the show. This is a huge missed opportunity.

Young children perceive the world in a very different way than adults do, and this must be seized upon. There is absolutely no reason why consumer products based on preschsool shows can’t be more imaginative and creative. Preschoolers want to explore, so why not help them explore the values and dimensions of the brand instead of simply showing them a blast-molded miniature version of what they see on-screen?

Preschool shows are usually all about discovery and the excitement it breeds. But you should look beyond this surface to uncover your property’s core DNA. For example, it might be that your main characters approach problems from a number of perspectives to make discoveries – so divergent thinking would be the property’s DNA. A typical preschool licensing program built around feature plush and publishing would do little to tap into this chief asset. We need to dig deeper.

But creativity is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to designing a licensing program and making products. The other 90% is innovation – taking a new product from a creative’s vision to a retailer’s shelf – and it’s here that it all gets a little messy.

To get on your way, you need to do two things. The first is to train your people to think and behave more creatively and with a richer understanding of the target market.

How will training help? You cannot build effective, brand-supporting licensed consumer products without truly understanding the children and the brand, and knowledge of these two core elements is rudimentary at best. Why? Because there isn’t the time, headcount or budget to invest in making sure the product is as good as it can be. Let’s change this.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for making this shift, and exercises usually need to be tailored to individual companies and the employees within them. But if you’ve got a company of adults working on properties and products that are meant to engage children, it’s a good bet that finding out how kids spend their days might get the wheels turning. Managers could take an employee group to a local school (on a day when the kids aren’t in class), sitting executives down in the wee seats and getting them to take in the smells, textures and activities of the classroom. They’ll not only start remembering what it was like to be a child, but they’ll begin to get some sense of how their ideas and concepts will impact children today.

Another good group exercise that I like to call ‘now and then’ lets participants compare their own childhood to that of modern-day kids. Frame the conversation by exploring such things as best pop group, film franchise, toy and biggest fear and aspiration from your day, and then compare the answers to what’s happening now. The ensuing discussion and debate often leads participants to distill the unchanging aspects of childhood and the differences with today’s kids that need to be taken into account. It doesn’t have to be a marathon session. If each person learns one thing or has one new idea during a two-hour think, then that’s a good start.

The second thing we need to do is to improve the quality of collaboration. Property owners and licensees have to work closer together. It’s no use issuing the ubiquitous brand bible/style guide, which is often an ineffective collection of pantone references and character elevations. You need to share research, share vision and even let the original creators of your show loose with your licensees during a brand immersion day. Creative types aren’t as sensitive and inflexible as you might think.

Pick a day to bring everyone together and get all parties involved in analyzing and deconstructing the property. In an open forum like this, where people are encouraged to stand up and throw their two cents in, you’ll find individuals become increasingly invested in what they’re doing. And by the end of this process, you should have enough knowledge and fresh ideas to define the parameters and core characteristics of your property that will guide all future development.

Ultimately, you have to find the time and the money to make a difference. Your product is your marketing program. Properties are built by children talking about them, not necessarily by the number of episodes your broadcaster agrees to air. When you make television, you think of your audience. And when you get it right for the children, nine times out of 10, the parents or caregivers will give it their stamp of approval. Why don’t the same principles apply to licensed product? Will someone please just do what needs to be done? If you think about the children first, the cash will follow.

Gary Pope is a partner at Kid Industries, a London, England-based research and consulting firm that helps companies understand how their brands, properties and products connect with kids. KI’s client list includes Crayola, Nickelodeon and 4Kids Entertainment.

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We would love to hear what you think about the issues and ideas presented in this opinion column. If you’d like to respond, please e-mail your comments to KidScreen Editor Jocelyn Longworth (jlongworth@brunico.com).

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