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Explorers Wanted

When Dora the Explorer premiered on Nickelodeon US in August 2000, no one could have predicted that nearly 10 years after the fact new episodes would still be in production, and Dora's ground-breaking language curriculum would be helping more preschoolers learn English than Spanish in 140 territories around the globe. The series, in fact, has proved to be one of the network's biggest hits, and in creating a character that kids, particularly preschool girls, identify with and want to befriend, Nickelodeon also spawned an international consumer products star.
February 2, 2010

When Dora the Explorer premiered on Nickelodeon US in August 2000, no one could have predicted that nearly 10 years after the fact new episodes would still be in production, and Dora’s ground-breaking language curriculum would be helping more preschoolers learn English than Spanish in 140 territories around the globe. The series, in fact, has proved to be one of the network’s biggest hits, and in creating a character that kids, particularly preschool girls, identify with and want to befriend, Nickelodeon also spawned an international consumer products star.

Heading into her second decade, Dora is moving into rarified CP territory – that of the evergreen property. So far, merchandise based on Dora the Explorer has generated more than US$11 billion at retail worldwide, with master toy licensee Fisher-Price selling 65 million-plus units of Dora product and counting. Dora’s audience also regenerates every two years or so as new groups of preschoolers find her, an ideal situation for maintaining a healthy merch program. But Nickelodeon & Viacom Consumer Products isn’t taking any chances. ‘We have to keep longstanding retail and licensing partners excited,’ says NVCP president Leigh Anne Brodsky. ‘We need to stay relevant to the next wave of Dora fans.’

So using the occasion of the adventurous little Latina’s 10th anniversary, NVCP’s unveiling a new set of property parameters, a refreshed core Dora style guide and no fewer than four design extensions that stretch the character’s reach from infant products right through to edgy teen fashion. What’s in Dora’s new look book? Let’s explore.

Drilling down to Dora’s DNA
After taking Nick’s number-one icon SpongeBob SquarePants through a design transformation for his 10th anniversary in 2009, NVCP’s international creative team, led by Nickelodeon SVP of global creative strategy Gary Bonilla, turned its attentions to Dora. The team conducted consumer research – looking into how kids viewed the character and where there might be room to grow – over an 18-month period and spent the last eight months crafting the new designs and style guide.

But what really got the ball rolling, says Bonilla, was a re-examination of Dora’s DNA. The new designs needed to reflect the character’s drive to discover and explore the natural world. The resulting tagline ‘Explorers Wanted’ gets to the heart of the property. From there, the creative team derived three guiding principles that underpin all Dora designs and product applications moving forward. The first is to consider whether or not the new design/product leads to the discovery of something new. Secondly, any new application must give a nod to Dora’s culture and the fiesta-inspired colors of Latin America. And finally, designers and licensees should make sure the product helps teach the language specific to the market it’s addressing.

As for how the guiding principles work, let’s turn to the refresh of the design program that targets Dora’s core market, girls ages two to five. Dubbed Adventure Dora, this grouping uses a 3-D look for both Dora and her surroundings. Dora’s now more active, and her poses won’t appear static on product; she’ll be depicted making big movements, rather than just standing or pointing at a map. The 3-D feel will also manifest itself in the inclusion of things like appliqué lady bugs being placed on top of a 2-D design on a backpack. Discovery would be driven, for example, by the unexpected printing of the underside of a t-shirt with an extra pattern or design. The color palette, meanwhile, has been opened up to include vibrant aquas, teals and reds – hues outside of Dora’s traditional lilac, pink, orange and green theme. And, for the first time, geometric patterns are being used with Dora’s signature florals to provide more contrast on products, especially home décor lines.

Exploring new territory
Given the mandate to expand product and demographic reach, NVCP’s creative team also outlined four new directions for the property – Baby Dora (infants), Explorer Boots (older girls, tweens), Dora Chic (tweens) and Just Dora (tweens/teens). Still in the exploratory stage, the designs are really intended to give retailers and licensees something to think about.

Perhaps the closest to heading to market is Baby Dora. Bonilla contends that even though this generation of moms didn’t grow up with Dora, awareness of the character is very high. ‘Moms know their kids will be watching Dora,’ he says. ‘So why can’t we create something for moms to begin that experience?’ And Brodsky says specialty Dora Bébé infant products made a few years ago were well received and intends to ready a limited infant apparel line after the 2010 celebration.

These new Dora Baby designs are built around oversimplified (and very cute) 2-D interpretations of Dora, her sidekick Boots and their surrounding environment. Bonilla says they immediately lend themselves to softlines like apparel and footwear, but also notes early-learning video game apps are under consideration.

Explorer Boots puts that mischievous monkey in the spotlight for the first time. While playing to modern-day tweens’ sense of what’s stylish, these predominantly pink-and-purple girly graphics also function as an aspirational design space for the five to eight set. ‘Five-year-olds will look at these and think, ‘It’s my older-girl moment,” says Bonilla. He adds it’s also a comfortable design statement for moms who don’t think their girls are ready for older-skewing properties. The designs invoke the cute factor (or Kawaii) present in Japanese properties and could inspire stylish accessories to start. Additionally, Explorer Boots opens the doors to look at another character, says Bonilla. He’s got his eye on Swiper.

Moving into tween territory, there’s Dora Chic – a candy-colored interpretation of Dora’s world that suits apparel, accessories, stationery and video game applications. Bonilla feels the fun designs would work particularly well at specialty and high-end.

Finally, really stretching the boundaries is Just Dora. It’s a hip, edgy design statement, where predominant black and gray graphics are injected here and there with bright color. Targeting fashion-conscious teens, it still reflects the IP’s guiding principles, using little and unexpected floral details. What makes it work, says Bonilla, is the stylized interpretation of Dora – her enigmatic smile and posture, in which her belly sticks out, adds a lightness and playfulness to the design.

The question, of course, is whether or not tweens and teens, who are usually desperate to be perceived as older than they actually are, will want to embrace their former preschool heroine in such an open fashion. Is the market ready for older-skewing Dora CP programs?

On the international side, where Dora launched a few years after the US and first-time CP programs are just rolling out in territories such as Spain and Poland, SVP & MD of NVCP International Jean Philippe Randisi readily admits tween-targeted product won’t be in the offing for at least two years. State-side, however, Bonilla and Brodsky think it could be time as the first generation of Dora fans enters its teens.

‘Dora’s very appreciated for the role she played in their lives,’ says Bonilla, adding his team’s research further revealed Dora is a source of nostalgia and comfort for older girls, which could translate into a solid demand for product. For her part, Brodsky says Dora can stretch to appeal to the older demos, and NVCP is using the new looks as an inspirational roadmap. ‘We constantly have to challenge partners to grow, and this is another way we’re trying to take a leadership role – making sure we’re fashionable, on-trend and doing things that are unexpected.’

Product plans
NVCP and toy partner Fisher-Price started testing Dora’s demographic elasticity last year in the US with the launch of brand extension Explorer Girls. Led by a high-tech doll that targets girls five to eight, Explorer Girls depicts an older Dora who’s moved into the city and sets about discovering her new surroundings. While the doll met with some criticism before it was ever unveiled, according to Fisher-Price VP of marketing Gina Sirard, its initial fall 2009 release met sales expectations and new iterations of the doll will hit US retail later on in 2010. ‘The line will continue to grow with the release of new content from Nickelodeon,’ she says, adding Explorer Girls will be putting on a rock concert for charity, which Fisher-Price will support with more music and fashion. A more extensive publishing program based on the brand offshoot, says Brodsky, is also in the works.

Core Adventure Dora, however, is the primary focus of Dora’s 10th anniversary. Brodsky says consumers can expect Nickelodeon, NVCP and its partners to rally around the property with planned programming tentpoles, retail and marketing promotions similar in scope to the 2009 celebration of SpongeBob. Product in the US will sport new, unified packaging, and Fisher-Price is releasing a 10th anniversary version of its all-time bestselling Dora item, the We Did It doll. This redux has Dora teaching kids her iconic victory dance, among other features. The second toy driver, Dora’s All Seasons Dollhouse, Sirard promises, is the most realistic model to date.

International programs, meanwhile, hold the most growth potential for the established property. While the noise being generated in the US is bound to boost sales in that territory, plans are just getting underway to launch product for the first time in Spain, Poland and the Nordic region. In those countries, Randisi says, licensees will roll out product sporting the latest Adventure Dora designs. He’s also in the process of mapping out tentpole and retail campaigns for each Euro territory, along with those to expand retail channels. He’s particularly confident about the pan-national appeal of the reborn style guide, as his team worked closely with its US-based counterparts. ‘The creative process involved different markets and regions; the designs weren’t invented in Times Square,’ he says. ‘The assets created truly match the needs of our different markets.’

About The Author
Lana Castleman is the Editor & Content Director of Kidscreen and oversees all content for Kidscreen magazine, kidscreen.com and related kidscreen events. lcastleman@brunico.com

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