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Fantasy, multi-platform build buzz at Brand Licensing ’06

Brand Licensing's shift from Earl's Court to London's Olympia convention complex, lower prices and a date change this year persuaded Disney Consumer Products, Warner Bros. Consumer Products and Universal Consumer Products to rejoin the ranks and drew the likes of first-time floor exhibitor Nickelodeon & Viacom Consumer Products. But a bevy of developing industry trends and the multi-platform revolution is all the buzz leading up to the eighth incarnation of this growing annual market.
September 1, 2006

Brand Licensing’s shift from Earl’s Court to London’s Olympia convention complex, lower prices and a date change this year persuaded Disney Consumer Products, Warner Bros. Consumer Products and Universal Consumer Products to rejoin the ranks and drew the likes of first-time floor exhibitor Nickelodeon & Viacom Consumer Products. But a bevy of developing industry trends and the multi-platform revolution is all the buzz leading up to the eighth incarnation of this growing annual market.

While it’s a trend that’s been brewing for some time, licensors claim the fantasy genre popularized by franchises like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings has spawned a previously undertapped demo for character-licensed merch.

‘Character merchandise is moving outside of its traditional area of four- to nine-year-olds and is being adopted by tweens and teens,’ says David Binnie, general manager for Warner Bros. Consumer Products UK. WBCP will hit Brand Licensing 2006 with a new strategy for the uber-brand Harry Potter – and its fifth film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – to super-serve the growing demo. ‘As the characters in the films and the original audience of the books and movies grows older we will be segmenting the market,’ says Binnie.

The four to nine set will still be a focus, but WBCP is targeting tweens. ‘We’ll be selecting partners who have a different formula, who may not have done character licensing before and who develop products that appeal to the demographic,’ notes Binnie. So staples such as t-shirts and stationery will be part of the mix, but they’ll reflect the edgy and fashion-forward direction set out in the new Harry style guide. As such, the retail strategy for the program will target alternative outlets such as music retailers that attract older kids.

‘The category of fantasy, particularly the boy area, is now gaining credibility in the character merchandising market,’ says Carl Lumbard, managing director of Twentieth Century Fox L&M Europe. The studio’s new film trilogy, based on the Eragon book series by Christopher Paolini, certainly fits the bill.

Lumbard’s introducing the brand to prospective partners at the show and will stay true to the publishing franchise by developing a tight program focused on categories such as role-play costumes, puzzles & games, standees and collectibles for eight- to 15-year-olds. Vivendi Universal already has an interactive game in the works.

The phrase multi-platform brand building may have entered into the general lexicon of producers, distributors, licensors and rights holders, but its next-gen promise has yet to truly register with licensees and retailers. But that’s about to change, say industry insiders.

‘Licensees and retailers are becoming more aware of life outside of film launches and TV ratings and it’s clear that they recognize the value of multi-platform because they are beginning to ask ‘What are you doing in the mobile area and online?” says Lumbard.

WBCP’s Binnie agrees, adding large licensees are beginning to use on-line as a marketing platform, while retailers have made big strides in e-commerce. ‘All retailers are generally looking at ways to increase traffic to on-line stores, putting together virtual retail areas by brand or promoting brands virally through e-mail,’ he says.

However, licensees and retailers aren’t yet capitalizing on the opportunities emerging platforms offer in terms of cross-promotions and in-store events. And licensors are looking to nudge the needle on that front. ‘What we’re trying to do is get our licensees to work together with our mobile and on-line partners on promotions, such as offering free wallpaper with our DVDs,’ says Sean Clarke, head of licensing for Aardman Animations.

Aardman will look to tap multi-platform partners for its new property, Shaun the Sheep. Based on a character from the 1996 Wallace and Gromit short A Close Shave, the show follows the adventures of Shaun and the rest of his farm flock as they join in his madcap schemes, from synchronized swimming in the sheep-dip to disguising themselves in the scarecrow’s clothes. Since the show launching on CBBC in January 2007 is free of dialogue and focuses on visual humor, Clarke expects it will have global legs on mobile, on-line gaming and interactive platforms.

In territories with built-in awareness for Wallace & Gromit and Shaun, Aardman is targeting kids ages three to six, with young adults as a secondary audience. U.K. licensees on board include Golden Bear (plush) and Danilo (stationery). Clarke hopes to sign a publishing partner by the end of 2006 and is looking for licensees in hard goods and apparel to round out phases two and three of the program.

Aardman will launch the series at MIPCOM in October, looking to place merch rights alongside broadcast sales. To date, the show has been sold to WDR in Germany and ABC Australia, so look for plush-driven programs to launch in those territories in 2007/2008.

Let’s not forget the other side of the multi-platform coin – properties built and driven by new media. While KOL has made strides in the U.S. market with Princess Natasha, sparking a broadcast sale to Cartoon Network and a licensing program, the jury is still out in Europe as to whether such brands can sustain a consumer products program without TV support.

‘It’s very hard to convince a licensee to create merchandise off the back of an on-line platform,’ says Clarke. ‘Seeing new media outlets as brand platforms in their own right is a fair way off.’

Jennifer Bennett, VP of merchandising and licensing at Alliance Atlantis (which has preschool property Lunar Jim at Brand Licensing with agent BBC), agrees it’s only a matter of when the new media brands will breakout. She expects new media will follow in the footsteps of video game properties that have come into their own and spawned licensing programs.

Bennett believes that another trend shaping the current market is the dip in global appetite for traditional boys action, though she points out that the genre’s popularity is cyclical and expects it to ramp up again with the 2007 launch of the Transformers movie. And the next generation of action-adventure properties appears to be picking up steam, with Nickelodeon & Viacom Consumer Products rolling out Avatar, the Legend of Aang at the show. Nick will launch action figures and vehicles (Fisher-Price), trading cards (Upper Deck), DVDs (Paramount Home Entertainment) and video games (THQ) in the U.K., France and Benelux in Q4 2006 and spring 2007 in Germany.

Currently the third-most-popular show on ITV for kids five to 14 (BARB June 2006), Avatar’s sweet spot will be a slightly older audience of kids six to 11 (which taps into the mystical/fantasy trend mentioned earlier).

‘We’re hoping to develop the interest of an older demo with the launch of an international website and will start developing retail events in 2007,’ says Jean-Philippe Randisi, VP and MD of Nickelodeon & Viacom Consumer Products Europe.

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