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Elements of Style – Making your guide look good and work harder

Grabbing and hanging onto the attention of licensees and retailers is a monumental challenge these days, given the number of kids entertainment properties they have to choose from. But you can give your pitch an edge with a killer style guide. This hard-working tool is at the heart of every CP program, doing overtime as a calling card, a presentation piece, a licensee manual and a brand roadmap all at once. So getting the style guide right is crucial to scoring a merch hit.
May 1, 2007

Grabbing and hanging onto the attention of licensees and retailers is a monumental challenge these days, given the number of kids entertainment properties they have to choose from. But you can give your pitch an edge with a killer style guide. This hard-working tool is at the heart of every CP program, doing overtime as a calling card, a presentation piece, a licensee manual and a brand roadmap all at once. So getting the style guide right is crucial to scoring a merch hit.

To get the ball rolling, you’ve first got to decide whether to handle the project in-house using your own creative resources, or to work closely with a contracted design firm. Most newcomers to the merch business choose the latter approach, and a licensing agent can help connect you with these companies. Prices can vary widely for style guide design; in fact, one indie producer who recently put out a call for quotes to a handful of design firms received estimates that ranged from US$40,000 to US$200,000.

Regardless of who’s handling your guide, the creative process that’s involved is much the same, and it all hinges around research and brand immersion. It typically starts with watching the series or movie repeatedly to become familiar with the property’s sensibility, characters and storylines, and then brainstorming with the creator(s). On the research side, many style guide designers working at studios or larger production companies have subscriptions to trend research services that keep them on top of general shifts in kid culture. And if the company has an established consumer products business, it’s always helpful to talk to existing licensees about category-specific trends that might come into play.

And then there’s everything else. When creative executive director Robin Beuthin and the rest of the Sony Pictures Consumer Products team was gearing up to start working on its guide for Surf’s Up, which is due out in theaters next month, they tapped into the surfing culture for inspiration, poring through surf mags, visiting surf shops, and meeting with champion surfers to ID what’s cool and aspirational about their world. The resulting graphic scheme is raw and organic (as opposed to the slick, computer-generated images that came into play for Spider-Man 3, for example), with lots of layering because that’s what characterizes the posters and mags that surfers grok to.

One tool that style guide designers constantly use to keep track of all the research and artwork that ends up feeding into the final product is a mood board. It’s essentially a big display panel that houses color studies, developing character art, sample materials, patterns, borders, trends, etc. ‘They’re meant to inspire us, and they help us visually communicate to our brand, licensing and marketing teams where we are going with our guides,’ says Jorge Ferreiro, SVP of creative resources at HIT Entertainment.

On average, style guides take between six and eight months to complete, so mood boards are particularly important when a property gameplan involves categories that work with longer lead times, such as toys and promotional premiums. ‘They have to work so far in advance for sculpting, in particular, that it’s imperative for them to have as much information as possible early on to get the flavor of the property,’ says Sony’s Beuthin. Elements from the boards – including a character size chart, color palette and fonts – serve as the foundation of the pre-pack, which is like a sneak-peek of the finished guide.

Most guides start off with a general description of the film or TV show and then get into the nitty-gritty graphic components, including icons, logos, color guides (breaking out main, secondary and accent palettes), character and background art, prints, borders, patterns, phrases and text that can be used, fonts and sample product applications. Accompanying the physical book is a disk with digital files of all the graphic elements that manufacturers have at their disposal to use on the licensed products.

Kyra Crilly, art director for Spin Master’s Marshmallow furniture line, says it’s really important to create layered files so that elements can be easily dropped in and out during product design, and providing both Illustrator art and flat vector images is just as key. She also likes to have a lot of background art so that she can build scenes onto her products, and says Sesame Workshop does an especially good job at providing its licensees with really complete and intuitive guides to work with.

The other component that most guides devote a fair bit of space to is outlining the parameters of how the art and graphics can be used, and there are two divergent schools of thought governing this terrain. On one hand, IP owners often need to make sure their licensed lines are aesthetically unified to make an impact at retail, and strict usage guidelines can prevent manufacturers from creating product that doesn’t fit into that brand vision. But on the other hand, hampering your licensees with too many rules can prevent product innovation.

With 1,000 licensees working across 45 product categories on Barbie, one might expect Mattel’s guides for the property to be really restrictive. But Tim Parsey, VP of lifestyle design for Mattel Brands, says he prefers to work closely with licensees and monitor the direction of the design process all along, rather than steering it from the outset with a narrow creative tunnel. ‘But you do need a few rules, because that’s how a brand becomes clear and cohesive,’ he adds. Some common elements that licensors outline parameters for include character poses, logo treatments and packaging elements.

Another challenge for IP owners lies in determining how often to update their style guides. Fashion-driven soft line categories such as apparel and accessories need to keep up with seasonal trends, which change every few months, while less fickle categories like consumer electronics can support the same product range for a much longer period of time.

Licensors with broad CP programs for evergreen brands often create a master style guide that gets updated every couple of years, and then supplement it with category-specific or seasonally themed (Halloween, Valentine’s Day, etc.) mini-guides that give licensees in fast-moving product sectors an opportunity to generate excitement at retail with new product. But Axiom Design Collaborative founder and creative director Brent Watts, whose company has done work for Universal, Warner Bros. and MGM, cautions that too-frequent refreshes can lead to over-exposure. ‘We’ve seen companies run their properties into the ground by not letting them rest – people get tired of them,’ he says.

Format is also debatable these days as the need for cost-efficiencies, speedier access and greener business practices move more style guides into the digital realm. Instead of printing physical guides, with a typical first run of up to 1,000 copies, many companies are opting to post password-accessible PDF versions online. Hyperdesign president and creative director Chris Metzger, who has done work for Pokémon and Marvel, says only 60% of the guides his company designs are printed now. But what you save on budget, you may lose in effectiveness. Hard-copy guides can benefit from unique production techniques like foil printing, specialized inks and textured paper that may inspire more creative product design, says Metzger. ‘With a printed guide, you have a tactile experience. It helps to hold it in your hands and peruse it at your leisure to get a brand overview.’

If you do decide to go the printed route and if you have some room in your budget, it doesn’t hurt to add bells and whistles. For Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Cartoon Network Enterprises created a die-cut style guide in the shape of the house where the characters live. And inside the book, each product category was contained in a different and appropriate room. So applications for party goods, for example, were housed in the Party Room. The guide’s innovative approach earned CNE style guide awards from both HOW and Communication Arts magazines last year.

But Hyperdesign’s Metzger points out that all the fancy printing apps in the world mean zilch if a guide loses sight of its core purpose, which is to provide licensees with the info and assets they need to produce high-quality product that upholds the integrity of the brand it stems from.

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