Ditching the traditional strategy of rolling out product months after a show bows on TV, HIT Entertainment has been working very closely with master toy licensee RC2 to create a unique ‘watch-along & build-along’ play program for Bob the Builder’s second series Project: Build It.
The serialized format of the show, which launched on PBS last month, encourages kids to build their own town at home as they watch their hero construct one on TV. And these embedded toy touch-points are the result of a process that began two years ago.
HIT first brought RC2 into the fold just as HOT Animation was starting production, and after one visit to the studio, the toyco put a dedicated 12-person team at its Oak Brook, Illinois headquarters to work developing corresponding playsets. HIT sent script updates continually, and the products evolved along with the show. So as an episode hatched about Bob making a shelter for his machines, for example, RC2 came up with the Machine Team Shelter playset – it looks like a mountainside, but unfolds into a vehicle shed with magnetic bricks that can be stacked or used to clear away debris.
The practice of weaving retail opportunities directly into kids programming has traditionally met with great resistance from creative teams reluctant to see their shows turn into product commercials. But times have changed, according to Anita Frazier, an entertainment industry analyst at the NPD Group. Retail shelf space is limited, fewer brands dominate the market, and shows sometimes can’t get a greenlight without a strong merchandising program to cover costs, she explains. ‘There seems to be more willingness to collaborate now, and [HIT's strategy] is a great start.’
According to Jamie Cygielman, senior VP of consumer products, HIT’s creative team never felt like its toes were being stepped on because the toyco’s role as passive observer was made crystal-clear from the beginning. ‘[RC2] did not direct our people to create a show,’ she says. Greg Miller, senior VP of RC2 brands, agrees. It was important that the story dictate the creation of the toys and that they match up with the episode themes; it just wouldn’t work the other way around.
In all, RC2 came up with a combined 30 playsets and vehicles, all of which are available at retail now for between US$4.99 and US$29.99. It’s worth noting that the 2004 sales performance of preschool playsets and figures bodes well for Bob’s new direction. According to NPD Group stats, the category generated roughly 20% more at U.S. retail last year than in 2003, and licensed properties accounted for 15% of the US$335-million total take.
At press time, the program hadn’t been out at retail long enough to measure results fully. Cygielman says early indicators show that sales are exceeding expectations, and the company is moving ahead with greeting cards and party goods (Hallmark Cards), play balls (Kellytoy USA), pyjamas (Dream Apparel) and flash cards, reward stickers and learning mats (Bendon Publishing) in spring 2006. To build heat for the line and communicate the ‘watch-along & play-along’ concept to parents, HIT and RC2 have embarked on their largest marketing campaigns ever, and Lego has also joined the effort. Ads blanketing TV, print, out-of-home and on-line outlets are targeted to generate 350 million gross impressions by December.
But it remains to be seen whether or not HIT will take this approach with the rest of its property portfolio. ‘It really is a case-by-case basis,’ says Cygielman. ‘With a brand like Bob, which has 92% brand awareness, the strategy made sense. So it would have to be a similar situation, and we’d have to see where a brand was in its life cycle first.’
Despite being so well-known, Bob’s product sales have begun to trail off of late. As HIT was working on the spin-off in ’04, revenue from merch and video product based on the original series dropped by 33%. So it’s not surprising that the company would attempt to achieve retail take-off in tandem with the series launch to get merch momentum moving ASAP. ‘We didn’t think this was a risky strategy because we could see the opportunity was out there,’ says Cygielman. ‘There was a pent-up demand.’ At one point when U.S. retail shelves were cleared of Bob merchandise, for example, consumers started calling HIT directly to find out if there was anywhere they could buy Bob toys.