Arguably an original TV series that translates into a successful licensing and marketing property is looked upon as something of a miracle right now. However, most of the ones that do break through don’t just magically spawn product on retail shelves that awaits the embrace of eager fans. In order to make it that far, all partners – including series creatives and licensees – have to be on the same page, pushing the IP’s exposure to consumers. There’s got to be a master plan, an IP roadmap that plots the first five or so years of a property’s life beyond the TV screen.
To resource- and time-strapped independent creators and producers, mapping out the next half decade while you’re busy cobbling together financing seems like a luxury. And certainly, the cost of even the most bare-bones brand plans can add up in terms of the hours it takes to hatch one, let alone implement it. But if the series in question begs any longer-term brand development (and most do), a company can’t start thinking about style guides, licensing, consumer marketing and PR when it’s ready to go to air. As Pierre Sissman, CEO of French prodco Cyber-Groupe Animation and former Disney Europe exec, notes, it’s simply ‘too late’ then.
Since its 2005 broadcast launch in France, Cyber-Groupe’s CGI preschool series Ozie Boo has moved into its third year in production, and the property now has more than 300 product SKUs, including DVDs, toys and apparel. Sissman maintains that Ozie Boo wouldn’t have made it this far without a well-plotted map. ‘If the brand plan is not defined enough, you’ll make mistakes and won’t be able to sustain the brand,’ he says.
Drilling into the core
The goal of the plan is to determine what the property’s brand positioning will be for the next five years, so taking time to dig around and distill the core attributes of the series is key. And that can start with an exercise as simple as creating a list of words that identify its values. (For example, a gentle preschool property might evoke words like warmth, family, laughter and exploration.) From there, delve into the series’ bible and look at story arcs, central character motivations and relationships. A clear picture should soon emerge of what the series is trying to achieve, and what would and wouldn’t be appropriate in terms of brand activities and partnerships. Throughout the process, the creative vision of the series must stay top of mind. ‘You do not make a series just to sell diapers,’ says Sissman. ‘Creative has to be the primary driver, and then it’s up to the marketing division to figure out how to sell it.’
And we’re off
Once the attributes have been laid out, it’s time to bring in licensing and marketing types to figure out what kind of products and marketing/PR initiatives will suit the brand, keep it on track and define its unique selling proposition. Charlie Day, president of US licensing agency The Sharpe Company, says he likes to become involved as early as possible during the development of a series. ‘You need to have some input,’ he says. ‘An early presence helps identify play patterns and merchandise values inherent in the show, and it gets planning started.’
For a series in development with a bible and a few eps written, it takes about six months to research and formulate a full plan. Most start by defining two primary demos: kids who will watch, and kids who will purchase. Often they’re not one and the same. And having the core attributes clearly defined will help to further hone in on the proposed consumer base. That said, it’s also worth keeping in mind that demos in the kids space are changing.
Gary Pope, partner at research firm Kids Industries in the UK, says children develop so quickly that there are no longer broad age ranges covering one demo. Categories have shifted and become narrower. Preschool now splits between zero to two and two to four. Core kids are no longer six to 11, but fall into three groups: five to seven, eight to nine and 10 to 11. And Debra Joester, CEO of New York-based licensing agency The Joester Loria Group, agrees. ‘If that’s not the way you’re viewing demos,’ she says, ‘you’re overestimating the reach of your property.’
Once that’s settled, the rest of the research goes into surveying the competitive landscape, assessing similar properties and what retail and marketing opportunities exist in the regions you’re targeting, and determining the property’s point of difference. Without that, pitches to prospective licensing and marketing partners won’t get off the ground. ‘You have to be very clear about what sets the property apart from the other 50 they’re likely to see,’ says Al Ovadia, president of Calabasas, California-based agency Al Ovadia & Associates. If a similar IP went to market and failed, the second one probably will too, he says, adding that if what’s out there is working, consumers will stay loyal and pay little attention to the newcomer.
At this point, it may be time to conduct as much preliminary consumer research as the budget allows. Jamie Cygielman, SVP and GM at HIT Entertainment, says the company regularly consults would-be consumers when developing a brand proposition and plan. ‘We want to make sure kids like it and caregivers feel good about it.’ Often having kids watch initial animation and gauging their reaction is enough to build on. The Sharpe Company’s Day is even more matter of fact. ‘To convince a toy company of the viability of a property [before broadcast], you’ve got to provide them with audience research, however minimal.’
Timing is everything
Now comes the nitty-gritty of plotting a course for the next five years or so. Presuming there’s a broadcaster and air date in place (or at least a target on both counts), the plan’s authors can start plotting timelines and work-back schedules for forging licensing deals, launching product and starting trade and consumer marketing. While exact scheduling varies from property to property, there are some timing tactics most brand managers and licensors agree upon.
Preschool properties traditionally have a much slower rollout and longer build and shelf life than older-skewing fare. Ideally, the plan should allow for 18 months to two years to seed a property on air before launching product. Shows that attract an audience of kids ages six and up can go to market a bit sooner – within six to nine months of going to strip, if TV ratings are solid. ‘These kids are old enough to say they want the property,’ notes Day.
And for shows appealing to kids over nine, Jim Davey, SVP of marketing and retail development at Nickelodeon & Viacom Consumer Products, says six months may be enough time to launch a program. It’s a case of striking while the iron’s hot. ‘Tweens have so many purchasing options, whether they are character or lifestyle, that you just need to seize the opportunity when you have it,’ he explains.
As for the work-back, on the retail side you need to consider retailer production cycles. When do targeted retailers change out product and redesign planograms? How do those plans work with the proposed lead categories and series launch? Then moving back from that, where do trade and consumer marketing efforts kick in?
For example, when HIT launched Bob the Builder’s second series, Project Build It, Cygielman says news and advertising hit the trades 24 months before consumers ever saw it in order to start attracting new partners and building retailer awareness. And to make the biggest splash with consumers, the company created an umbrella marketing campaign. The Watch Along and Build Along message was reinforced in print and TV ads, product packaging and online marketing that rolled out to support the broadcast launch in fall 2005.
And carefully conceived marketing programs are becoming increasingly important. ‘Some retailers have gotten formulaic on how they view a new property,’ says Leslye Schaefer, SVP of marketing and consumer products at Scholastic Media. Their checklist includes broadcaster, master toy partner and program scheduling. But, she explains, if you can sit down and tell them exactly what you’re prepared to commit in terms of promotion, they are more apt to see the property as a good prospect.
Additionally, start-up marketing need not cost the world. It’s an out-of-pocket expense, but Joester estimates a planned outlay between US$100,000 and US$200,000 would enable an IP owner to generate interest with retailers and get buy-in from licensees. She notes a pot that size can deliver stunts and sponsored activities that should take the property through the first 12 to 18 months, getting it to the point where a licensee-led central marketing fund kicks in.
Charting the life cycle
Unless churn and burn is the name of the game, most IP owners try and plan for a five-year life cycle, with the first year dedicated to the series’ production and introduction to the market. The second is usually about getting the show on air and working at forging closer ties with broadcasters, licensees and retailers and familiarizing consumers. At the end of the second year, home entertainment, publishing and other media merchandise should go out to help build brand exposure.
In the third year, it’s all about getting a full-on consumer products program into retail. This is also where a new series or entertainment event and a look at licensing secondary merchandising categories should be factored into the plan. If all goes well, the series peaks in the fourth year and sales begin to settle out. (See ‘Life is a Highway’ on page 68). Of course, this is all best-case scenario planning, but as Ovadia puts it, there’s no choice, if you want to make it work.
And it’s not to say the plan’s set in stone. While it’s unwise to waver on the property’s core attributes and unique positioning, the market dictates what path you follow, and there’s constant reassessment involved once the ratings and retail figures start rolling in.
By the middle of the second year, says Sissman, you should be able to determine whether the property’s operating on a three-, five- or 10-year life cycle. Ozie Boo, for example, is still tracking up. Broadcast and licensing deals coming in for 2008 doubled revenues from year two in 2006. At that point, Sissman decided to put a feature-length film into development that he believes will carry the property past 2010.