It’s no coincidence some of the best properties are a joy to work on for both the suits and creatives involved in bringing them to market. When the two groups understand each other’s motivations, it tends to end up with a commercially viable and creatively excellent product. And the thing proving to be the genesis of the next round of really hot properties is the teams that are willing to work in lockstep, where the creatives can do a deal and the suits understand the nature of storytelling. A wily marketing campaign might help pull the wool over the children’s eyes temporarily, but it won’t build a brand.
We’re going to take a forensic look at four properties culled from a list of more than 45 that the staff at Kids Industries identified as hot. However, their ownership, marketing plans, licensing agreements and management are not a measure of their heat. They cannot be. The only thing to really consider is how these shows work for the children. Do they love it? Does the property complement their developmental stage and therefore engage them? Let’s explore some key facets of the following hot property contenders.
Case File #1 – FRANCES
Frances targets older preschool girls ages three to six. Developed by New York’s Jim Henson Company, with Brian Henson in the director’s seat, the 52 x 11-minute series is currently being co-produced with HIT Entertainment for a spring 2007 delivery. It’s quite possibly the most beautiful-looking show you’ll see this year, and rumor has it there’s significant international broadcaster interest in the project.
In the later stages of the show’s development process, Kids Industries researched various aspects of the brand and its potential to connect with young children and their caregivers. Before we get started, it’s worth noting that all children follow the same developmental path – the culture a child is born into becomes increasingly important as the he/she gets older, taking precedence from approximately the age of seven onward. This is one of the key reasons excellent preschool series export so well – globally unifying themes that are incredibly difficult to replicate for children after the age of seven.
Much of the current thinking in this area is derived from the work of the Russian social psychologist and behavioural theorist, Lev Zygotsky. We therefore decided to explore some aspects of Frances in the context of Zygotsky’s theories.
Zygotsky hypothesized a concept called The Zone of Proximal Development. This zone is the space that exists between what a child can do alone and what he or she can do with the support of others. Children both learn and achieve the most in this zone – they are pushed to their limit and so they develop.
It could be argued Frances has been created around this theory. She’s continually pushing her boundaries, taking chances and learning from her mistakes, so she’s constantly in the zone. And maybe it’s because of this that she’s a happy, growing and energetic little girl. Well, badger.
Perhaps the best thing about Frances is it drills far deeper into the social and emotional development of children than many that have taken this route. The two are intertwined and the series works with this to great effect in each episode. For example, during one episode, Frances’s friend drops a papier maché fish and it breaks. Frances is heart-sore and angry at the loss of the fish. So palpable is her grief that during our research session, 21 of our 24 subjects had to go and sit with mom to watch it. But because Frances’s creative team has such an implicit understanding of the target audience, we all end up learning about pride, loss and making up as the badger reconciles with her friend.
We also looked at the series educational aspects. Thought and language are interdependent, so we wanted to see if Frances supported the development of language skills among its wee watchers. The issue of preschoolers and appropriate TV exposure has been making headlines lately and while this isn’t the time to wade into the debate, it’s fair to say children may experience language development benefits from watching television. This depends on the child’s linguistic maturity, age, developmental suitability to the show, the involvement of parents and the quantity and quality of television they watch.
During the investigative process, we asked 24 mothers what they thought about several key aspects of the show. Most of all we wanted to understand whether children’s language skills could be encouraged. We explored what transpired between the kids and their caregivers after watching the show, and the responses were universal. All of the children engaged in unprompted conversation with their mothers/guardians about what they had seen and continued to do so for at least two days after the viewing, exploring detailed aspects of the emotional and social goings on in Frances’s house with their families. Not a bad start.
Layered humor is another key to the little badger’s appeal. We believe this is why the show achieves a clear audience stretch. Children from ages three to seven are engaged by a wide variety of humor techniques. But this group can’t process and understand puns, sarcasm or innuendo. The more appropriate comedic forms for this age group would be physical action and sudden surprise, among others. Frances contains and uses all these methods in both obvious and subtle ways.
The use of motion capture to animate Frances allows her to make comical faces and playful gestures. This removes the distancing effects of much TV animation created by such things as limited character movement, giving her an instant appeal. It is rare that children experience this detailed style of humor when watching animation made for TV, as it is more associated with big-budget, Pixar-style fare. But when this badger makes it to the little screen, we believe she’s going to have some pretty big impact.
Case File #2: BRATZ
There are some basics about girls and the choices they make that we know to be true and irrefutable (see the ‘What makes girls tick?’ chart below), and whether a girl is a tomboy or a girlie-girl, they still apply. If we look at the entire and seemingly endless Bratz franchise, its brand values are simple. The characters are a group of friends and play is relationship-centric. There are more than 40 female characters of different styles and ages, and male characters, too. The Bratz lines are infused with collectibility, aspiration and social autonomy driving the numerous arranging and organizing play values/patterns into the hearts and minds of the Global Girl.
Aside from fulfilling the basic needs of girls, the brand bridges gaps between ages and play patterns. Dressing up is an inherent (but perhaps, learned) part of a girl’s development and the Bratz brand has tapped into every aspect of this play pattern and its associated rituals.
As girls around age seven move away from playing with dolls and their interests turn to makeup and clothes, they are drawn to predominantly pretty and glamorous images. Sparkly eyes, lipstick, hair and shoes are the four main elements young girls focus on, and the Bratz dolls work it. They have large, made-up eyes, huge hair, big shoes, and their non-existent noses accentuates their lips. Finally, the characters themselves are portrayed as teenagers, not grown-ups, making them more aspirational – not to mention the fact that their clothes are, like, so this season.
When it comes to TV shows, it’s usually easier to replicate these dynamics using live action rather than animation. Two of a Kind with the Olsen twins, Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Zoey 101 allow their characters to be part of a group dynamic, have a strong family network and focus on fashion. But there’s something more brilliant at play with the Bratz TV series. It’s managed to successfully build on what has made Bratz the brand (brand first – not TV, remember) such a hit. Every episode, like every product line, is infused with friends, fashion and dilemmas. A masterstroke in brand management? Or the suits talking to the creatives?
Case File #3: SHURIKEN SCHOOL
This show, on a very selfish level, is one of my favorites. There’s simply so much in it to understand and explore. It’s European and comes from a slightly different creative starting place than many boys action-oriented series. The Xilam (France)/Zinkia (Spain) co-production has already proved a hit on Jetix U.K. and ITV, and is scheduled hit U.S. airwaves in September on Nicktoons Network.
The combination of anime and European style fuses to create, what we think, will be a truly global proposition. There is so much to say about this one, but we’re going to focus on two areas: structure and identification.
Shuriken School doesn’t follow a strict three-act structure or begin each installment with the episodic problem. Rather, a gently paced introduction sets up characters and situations and then music and humor help to pick up the pace, drawing children from six to 10 into the narrative. The principle problem, when it eventually does present itself, ends up propelling the humor. And that’s what makes this show so great – with humor as the driver, it becomes a comedy/action toon as opposed to an action vehicle (as its Ninja roots might suggest). This is perfect for boys six to 10. They love the funny stuff and the action. Mix this with the richest characterization we’ve seen in a long time and you’ve got something special.
Children need to identify with their TV heroes in order to engage. Identification can come in a wide variety of formats and it differs from child to child. One of the key factors for the success of the show is the incredibly rich and solid cast of characters. Ordinarily, we might find six or so principle characters. But at Shuriken School we get to know more than 20 characters very well.
While it’s easy to dilute character presentation and end up with nothing much at all, Xilam and Zinkia created character riches in excess. And this means identification – the cognitive emotional process a child goes through when deciding their preference – has a much wider scope. There are simply more characters the children can identify with on a personal level.
There are, of course, the three lead characters that demonstrate another little piece of structural acumen. The lead Eizan and his support Jimmy B and Okuni are like Harry, Ron and Hermione – or Luke, Leia and Han. The three work and operate as a team whilst conveying different views and opinions, creating three extremely strong identification patterns and offering the audience a choice of lead character. And this widens the appeal and stretches the show’s demo. Simple.
Shuriken is essentially a playground show and has all the safe and familiar qualities that make these programs work. But it is also epic: It has its own incredibly rich and detailed universe with good and evil at its epicenter. The experience for the children is one of grand storytelling with history, tradition, culture and one hero’s journey. In short, the show is so much bigger than it at first appears and this is why we believe it has a longevity that will see it run.
Case File #4: STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE
The thing about Strawberry Cake, as we affectionately call her, is she’s 25-years-old but still looks eight. Strawberry is now a perennial and it’s probable that she’ll stay that way. She’s transcended two generations, and with the support she’s likely to be getting over the coming year she’ll make it to her third generation without breaking a strawberry-scented sweat.
Perhaps one of the strongest aspects of Strawberry Cake is she has great brand width – she’s able to move between demos from as young as two to as old as nine (perhaps even older in some cultures). A good example of this came last summer when a Strawberry QSR premium was distributed throughout the U.K. Girls ages two to 10 were seen wearing their clip-on Strawberry-themed lip balms. Yes, wearing them. There was pride in these little girls as they walked through the mall with perhaps three or four of the clips adorning their clothing. Little girls don’t usually do this unless they’ve invested money and emotion into something. And they certainly don’t do it if their younger siblings do.
But why does Strawberry Cake warrant a PSI? Her strawberry scent is what sets her apart. During the summer of 2005, we asked 78 mothers what they would like their children to smell of – and 72% said strawberries.
Moreover, children learn via their senses from birth. Interestingly, there’s been little research conducted to date that looks at the sense of smell and its impact on our psyche. It’s one of our strongest senses for evoking memories. So, when a girl receives a gift of an SSC product, it’s likely that she’ll be happy – she’s just received a gift. Strawberry smells nice to most little girls and the brain categorizes that moment in a cerebral filing cabinet labelled ‘Good Memory.’ The child and Strawberry Cake have built a positive association that cannot be erased, and in brand terms that’s as good as it gets.
There’s not enough space here to perform a forensic examination of each attribute that makes these brands work. We have focused on just one or two key elements. However, there is one overriding factor connecting each of these properties – they simply and effectively tell excellent stories that are developmentally appropriate for the target audience. It boils down to that old adage: Understand your audience and tell the story they need to hear.
Gary Pope is a partner at Kids Industries (kidsindustries.com), a U.K.-based research and consulting firm that helps companies understand how their brands, properties and products connect with kids. KI’s client list includes The BBC and 4Kids Entertainment. Contact Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org.