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Walking Tall costume characters make for marketing might

As many licensors get set to once again have the oversized walk-around models of their characters roam the halls of Javits, it's hard not to notice that these larger-than-life costumes have become an integral part of any good L & M marketing strategy. These giant versions of characters transported from a movie or TV screen to meet-and-greets with their fans at live shows, autograph signings, theme parks, parades and shopping centers are indispensable. And the question remains for IP owners without some costume characters in their arsenal - what are you waiting for?
February 1, 2008

As many licensors get set to once again have the oversized walk-around models of their characters roam the halls of Javits, it’s hard not to notice that these larger-than-life costumes have become an integral part of any good L & M marketing strategy. These giant versions of characters transported from a movie or TV screen to meet-and-greets with their fans at live shows, autograph signings, theme parks, parades and shopping centers are indispensable. And the question remains for IP owners without some costume characters in their arsenal – what are you waiting for?

‘Costume characters serve as terrific tools for event-driven marketing and publicity initiatives,’ says Daisy Kline, director of marketing and brand management for Scholastic Media. More importantly, she says, they create an immediate, tangible connection between kid fans and the character. However, getting to that point does take some doing.

Creating the walk-arounds often takes anywhere from six months to a year in which a brand’s art director works with a professional costume shop on the painstaking process of developing a first prototype. Initial steps include looking at videos and stills to make sure the overall appearance of the costume is true to the animated image. The head is the most challenging piece to construct, sometimes taking up to three months to make.

Attention must also be paid to the costume’s eventual inhabitant. ‘We make around a dozen licensed costumes each year and always try to keep them as light as possible to be sensitive to how much a person can carry. Ease of movement is important as characters sometimes have to dance and move around a lot,’ explained Chris Vesper, manager of costumes and creatures at Minneapolis-based VEE Corporation, which has been in the business for 27 years.

As for cost, the item doesn’t come cheaply – the price tag can run anywhere from US$10,000 for a basic model to as much as US$50,000. The total will depend on the intricacy of the costume, quality and quantity of fabrics used, and any unique embellishments required to complete the ensemble.

But the licensors we spoke to were emphatic about the value of the investment. The Nickelodeon Recreation team has been using costumed characters for more than 10 years and has roughly 30 in rotation. Aang from Avatar and all three Wonder Pets are set to join the roster later this year.

‘Our costumes have made appearances all over the world for many different events,’ says Stuart Rosenstein, SVP of resorts and theatricals for Nickelodeon Recreation. SpongeBob has been to the Great Wall of China and he’s posed for photos with celebrities like Mike Myers and Justin Timberlake. But, he says, it’s the look of excitement on kids faces when they get to meet him or other faves Dora and Diego that drives home the importance of having the walk-around characters.

American Greetings put the power of costumed characters to the test this past September when its Care Bears invaded New York City to celebrate their 25th anniversary. Sixty costumed characters converged on high-traffic areas giving out free stickers, coloring sheets and hugs. Later in the day, the group gathered at Toys ‘R’ Us Times Square, handing out cupcakes and getting more hugs from their favorite friends. When it was all said and done the company estimates the stunt created 30 million impressions.

And regular appearances can help keep a property top of mind. According to Gary Krakower, SVP of business development at HIT Entertainment, more than one million people flock annually to see the Thomas the Train replica engine at its Day Out With Thomas events held across the US and Canada throughout the year. More than 15,000 people also turned out to help Barney celebrate his 20th anniversary during the first 10-city leg of the Big Purple Bus Tour; the second leg kicked off on January 26.

And often, the use of costume characters can help build immediate awareness for a fledgling property. Before Max & Ruby started drawing in viewers on Nick Jr., IP owner Corus Entertainment began testing the waters in its homeland, Canada. The company knew it had something special when 5,000 people lined up for show in Sydney, Nova Scotia where the population tops out at 17,000. ‘We use costumed characters to get some information from the marketplace to see how important the brands are before we launch them,’ explains Mark Northwood, VP of licensing for the Americas at Corus. ‘Big crowds prove to retailers that the property is much more than just a TV show, and can translate very well to retail.’

The extra-large costumes seem to have the same affect across the pond. Excited preschoolers recently stood in lines that stretched the entire length of a football field at Legoland in the UK for a meet-and-greet with Chapman Entertainment’s Roary the Racing Car and Big Chris. The company had similar success with the 2007 Fifi and the Flowertots mall tour, where roughly 1,000 people showed up each day to get a chance to meet the gang. ‘The crowds encouraged store managers to create front-of-store displays filled with Fifi products, and we did see an uplift in sales and three-fold increase in traffic, although these events are more about driving brand awareness,’ says Melissa Brown, head of marketing at Chapman.

But who foots the bill for all this fun? Deals vary, but typically the licensor bears the majority of the costs associated with developing the costume, while the licensee or agent absorbs the shipping, storage and refurbishment costs over the years. American Greetings, for example, pays most of the expenses out of a common marketing fund to which each of its licensees contributes a small percentage, depending upon their sales each year. In national tours for Cabbage Patch Kids, property owner Original Appalachian Artwork funds costume production with OAA and licensing agent 4Kids Entertainment sharing the tab for shipping and production of marketing materials and giveaways. In the case of a live CPK show such as Who’s In the House?, says Colleen Gilday, marketing consultant for the Cabbage Patch Kids, either the licensee or the venue will pay for the appearance.

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