Making a go of it with an entertainment property in the infant/juvenile product market isn’t as simple as setting baby versions of key characters against pastel backgrounds and churning out the goods. But with the US birthrate up by 1.6% and affluent boomers aging into the grandparent bracket, the industry may be poised to see some steady growth over the next few years, and licensing stands a decent chance of figuring into that upswing.
Before you dive in head-first, though, there are a number of factors to keep in mind. First and foremost, as president and CEO of licensing agency Joester Loria Group Debra Joester points out, babies don’t play favorites. ‘You don’t have that kick-in-the-knee factor where the child is telling the parent they have to have their favorite character.’ Since parents are the target consumers for infant products, the property has to resonate with them – particularly moms – and new, kid-centric IPs that aren’t on the radar of grownups will have a tough time breaking in.
Recent research conducted around the Care Bears, which Joester and owner American Greetings have had in the infant market since 2003, revealed that moms evaluate every product that enters the new nursery very carefully. ‘Getting ready for a baby is expensive,’ says Joester. ‘And mom doesn’t want anything that’s too faddish; she is prone to buying characters that she knows by name.’ Echoing this insight, Warner Bros. Consumer Products SVP of worldwide marketing and TV & studio licensing Maryellen Zarakas – whose Baby Looney Tunes juvenile goods have been at retail since 1993 – says moms who are open to licensed goods typically look for characters that evoke their childhood memories, characters they want to share with their newborns.
Winnie the Pooh: Category king
Of course this penchant for the past is a significant factor contributing to one of the biggest obstacles an upstart licensor faces when trying to attract licensees and retail placement: Winnie the Pooh. As a brand that stretches from infant to adult merch, Disney Consumer Products’ juggernaut pulled in US$6.9 billion in global retail sales last year and dominates the licensed infant market. Infant products comprise the largest percentage of Pooh merchandise available. And according to industry researcher The NPD Group’s most recent tally, Pooh tops out in the significant infant licensed apparel segment. Additionally, Pooh infant goods have found shelfspace at virtually every level of US retail, including Wal-Mart, Target, Babies ‘R’ Us, department stores and specialty stores.
The first range of Pooh baby product rolled out in 1995, and the property now has a presence in most infant categories, including home furnishings, room décor, bedding, apparel, toys, feeding systems and diapers. Because of the property’s dual lineage in literature and animation, DCP has been able to triple its product offerings with three unique lines: Classic Pooh (evocative of E.H. Shepherd’s line drawings), red-shirt Pooh as seen on TV and in feature films, and a newer baby Pooh.
Segmentation also presents the ability to ramp up retail exclusives and expand reach. In the last two years, for example, DCP has had quite a bit of success with the Classic Pooh line offered exclusively at Target, which began with featured apparel, bedding, diaper bags and gift sets. In 2005, sales grew by 20%; and the following year, DCP expanded the line considerably, moving into furniture, stationery, framed art, health & beauty and even outdoor garden categories.
Solid sell-through has continued since then, and a Classic Pooh pack-and-play, swing and walker have been added to the range and now lead Pooh infant product sales at Target. Elsewhere, DCP launched two new infant Pooh lines last year that got snapped up by high-end boutique retailers.
According to Simon Waters, VP of global franchise management for infant, toddler and preschool, Pooh’s ability to be both gender-neutral and gender-specific has also driven his success. Waters says current US figures show 80% of moms know the sex of their child before it’s born, so creating sex-specific product is becoming increasingly important. The gender treatment is determined by category. So for products where gender doesn’t matter, like feeding sets, SKUs feature Pooh and friends. But for bedding schemes and apparel for newborns, separate ranges will be defined by boy- or girl-appropriate colors and art.
Re-inventing classics for today’s parents
Heritage does count for a lot when it comes to attracting parents, but as Sesame Workshop learned, licensors also need to look for a unique way to broach the market. The non-profit’s Sesame Beginnings infant line, which features baby versions of Elmo, Cookie, Big Bird and crew on product and in a line of DVDs, entered the market in 2005 with the aim of serving parents’ needs as much as baby’s.
The DVD content that underpins the line is all about teaching parents how to play and interact with their newborn, something anyone who’s ever struggled to remember the words to a nursery rhyme can appreciate. This then carries through the rest of the product line, so packaging on Sesame Beginnings feeding systems, for example, comes with tips and handy hints on how to use the product, while toys encourage sing-alongs and lap games. Beginnings launched Sesame into the juvenile products aisle, and so far, says global consumer products VP and GM Maura Regan, it has expanded brand opportunities as opposed to cannibalizing them.
After the Care Bears’ initial foray into infant products, Joester had to do some fine-tuning. Her experience in the category helped steer the program away from hard goods such as strollers, travel systems and large-scale furniture. ‘That is competitive space, dominated by large products, and there’s not enough floor room at retail,’ Joester explains. Sticking to soft goods, the licensee roster has grown from three – Baby Boom (infant bedding), Kids II (infant plush) and infant layettes (Gerber) – to more than 10, including infant apparel and playsets by Children’s Apparel Network, feeding systems from Zak Designs and a direct-to-retail deal with Target for diapers.
Additionally, research has shown moms prefer Care Bears for girls, so boy-skewing and gender-neutral offerings were phased out of the lineup after the first year. Some might find it limiting, but Joester contends going gender-specific can increase product turnover and retail floor space, if it resonates. For something like nursery décor products that rely so much on coordination (the bedding must match the blankets, lamps and carpets, of course), SKU numbers can quickly pile up, and significant sales are possible. It’s also important to make sure marketing efforts present the product as one grouping. For example, Joester worked with Sherwin Williams to coordinate paint colors with Care Bears bedding. ‘You have to help make parents’ choices easy and make the execution of the nursery successful,’ she explains.
What works and doesn’t, and when to say no
At the heart of the nursery is the baby’s crib, and in order to get mom to buy into an entire room-scape, you’ve got to start with compelling bedding, making it a fundamental product in this space. ‘If a mom comes on with bedding, you have to believe, at least at the mass level, that she is going to look to accessorize the room with a matching mobile, lamp and wall borders,’ says Jonathan Breiter, EVP of The Betesh Group, parentco of Baby Boom.
For Barbara Laiken, president of El Segundo, California-based room décor manufacturer Lambs & Ivy, it’s important that licensed bedding be equal in quality to non-branded offerings because the category is very competitive. And with licenses Hello Kitty and Snoopy, the company is constantly refreshing the look of the product and adding up-scale fabrics such as ultra suede, quilting and chenille to blankets and comforters. New themes with different color stories and fabric assortments roll out every 18 months or so. She adds that infant bedding and accessories sometimes feels like a recession-proof business. ‘No matter what goes on in the world, parents are still doing their nurseries – they may not buy a new car or take a trip, but they’re going to take care of the nursery.’
Of course, the product is built on the style guide, and special care has to be taken on the licensor’s part to provide appropriate material. Breiter encourages licensors to explore coordinated color themes thoroughly and has found, ironically, that infantilized characters don’t always work on infant product. ‘We’ve fared better when the character stays intact and the backgrounds become different,’ he says. ‘It maintains the true appeal of the character.’
Care Bears’ infant style guide, for one, reflects the property’s classic illustrations rather than the look of the animated characters. ‘It’s really designed to meet mom’s needs and appeal to her desire for something that is more classic and less promotional,’ says Joester. The guide is also updated seasonally with new color palettes and themes.
As for what doesn’t work, licensors need to keep an eye on product and character appropriateness. Sometimes, you just have to know when to say no. For example, Breiter’s Baby Boom found the one category in which Care Bears didn’t sell was diaper bags. The property’s girl skew, it seems, may have been too much for dads to bear. ‘A diaper bag is very visible,’ says Breiter. ‘And I don’t think many men want to walk around with mommy’s diaper bag.’ Care Bears has since found another bag licensee, but Breiter says his company has been more successful with gender-neutral styles and brands such as Carter’s.
There are also some characters that are just not a good fit for infant products. WBCP’s Zarakas says the Looney Tunes characters were able to age down successfully, and a 2006 property refresh has softened the characters’ lines and colors even more. Also, the personalities of baby Bugs, Taz and Daffy seem to correspond to children’s growing personalities, which moms like. However, Zarakas doesn’t think the new DC Comics SuperFriends toddler line that’s rolling out this fall with chunky action figures intended for preschool hands would work for infants. ‘I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to not just take any property and make baby versions,’ she says. ‘It has to make sense and be appropriate for that target.’
With files from Emily Claire Afan (email@example.com)