This summer, the last instalment of the UK-originated Harry Potter franchise hit theaters and proceeded to rake in approximately US$1.3 billion (and counting) at the worldwide box office. While its CP revenue wasn’t equivalent to the theater haul, the undeniable success of the IP has arguably re-opened US eyes to the potential of properties from the UK.
“When something is such a big success, I think everyone just forgets and assumes it’s American,” jokes Rob Corney, MD of London-based agency Bulldog Licensing. “We are used to American cultural imperialism, but I think there is an increasing perception that it’s coming back the other way.”
The divergence, says Corney, began in the early part of the 20th century when the UK invested in parochial TV programming and niche productions at the same time that the US, driven by entrepreneurs in Hollywood, invested in productions with mass-market appeal that established the country as a culturally dominant force for the next century.
Janet Woodward, co-director of agency JELC, who has previous experience bringing UK property Poppy Cat to the US, says the evolution of the global economy has helped bridge the gap for UK properties looking to carve out a slice of the American licensing pie.
“Both cultures are watching each other’s TV now,” Woodward says. “[US retailers] are just more open than they used to be to UK products. All the big retailers in both countries know each other now, so if you have a success in the UK, it is likely that it’s on a US retailer’s radar.”
A key driver in breaking down the barrier to non-US properties is the flattening out of content distribution, owing to the proliferation of internet use. The web has accelerated IP exploitation by side-stepping traditional broadcast platforms, making it possible for kids in the US to consume content and become enamored of properties from around the world. And this arguably borderless platform has already bred successful intercontinental IP, currently in the form of Mind Candy’s Moshi Monsters.
The social gaming site aimed primarily at seven- to 12-year-olds, launched in 2008 and has recently entered the consumer products world with a bang. Led by toys, trading cards and publishing, Moshi products had a soft launch in the UK last October. By January 2011, industry tracker NPD Group’s numbers indicated that Moshi Monsters products were second only to Lego in toy sales across the UK.
With 16 million registered US users on the site (compared to nine million in the UK), Mind Candy didn’t have to wait for the traditional gestation period to pass in order to launch consumer products Stateside.
“Our challenge in launching was explaining to retailers that you don’t have to spend much time on TV ads at all,” says Darran Garnham, head of global licensing at Mind Candy.
And this past summer, Moshi launched an exclusive line of plush (Spin Master is the brand’s US toy partner) exclusively at Toys ‘R’ Us locations in the US. While concrete sell-through numbers are not being released at this time, Garnham confirms that sales are “tracking significantly better than forecasted.”
The retail exclusive expires at the end of the year, and Moshi products, including books from Scholastic, toys from Spin Master and various other items from more than 20 US licensees, will hit US mass-market retailers like Target and Walmart in 2012.
“It’s a fascinating thing,” says Garnham. “Usually you are waiting two years from when you launch it in the UK to move to the US. But here, it was just a matter of months.”
UK-based Coolabi’s publishing-turned-TV-property Poppy Cat is also on the fast track in the US. First introduced at MIPCOM 2010, the 2D-animated series bowed on Nick Jr. UK in May. By then, it had already been picked up by PBS Kids Sprout and is slated to launch on the US net in November.
“I have never known a UK show to sell to US broadcasters before it started airing in the UK,” says Michael Dee, director of content at Coolabi. “It was extraordinary.”
Coolabi has recently signed a slew of UK licensing partners, including a master toy deal with Golden Bear, children’s publisher Alligator Books (art and activity books), Trade Mark Collections (children’s umbrellas and bags), and VMC Accessories (fashion accessories and dress up).
A major UK launch is slated for fall 2012 and the US launch will follow with a similar strategy. Coolabi now has The Joester Loria Group as its US agent and is looking to introduce publishing products into the market in spring 2012, followed by niche and specialty offerings deeper into the year.
Dee says that the property owes a debt of gratitude to its forbearers Bob the Builder, Teletubbies and Thomas the Tank Engine for establishing the UK’s preschool reputation in the US.
“I think the US has taken more of an interest in UK content over the last five years,” says Dee. “I think people connect the properties with the network they first air on in their territory, not necessarily from where they originated.”
A more traditional gestation period can be seen with the success of eOne Family’s preschool property Peppa Pig. The property doubled its UK sales last year, and ranked as the number-one preschool property in the UK toy market, according to the NPD Group.
Peppa grossed more than US$400 million in UK retail sales in 2010, while the TV series launched there in 2004. The IP is only now poised for US broadcast and consumer product success. (In 2005, Peppa’s US trip got sidetracked by landing a slot on Cartoon Network’s ill-fated morning preschool block Tickle-U. The block was so short-lived, in fact, that Peppa really didn’t get a chance to gain a foothold in the US market.)
But this time, Peppa Pig scored a prime berth on Nick Jr. US in a weekend slot and began airing in February. By mid-June it went on to strip on the preschool channel. It was this visibility that led to a US master toy deal with Fisher-Price, and the wheels are now in motion for a major US retail launch in Q3 2012.
Jennifer Bennett, VP of North American licensing and merchandising at eOne, says the difference in the retail landscapes will dictate rollout strategy in both markets. “In the UK, we launched with Mothercare and specialty shops,” she says. “But you can’t really make a business of that in the US.” That market, she contends, demands a mass-ready program in the traditional categories of toys, publishing, apparel and DVD. “We are handling it like it’s a new property in the US,” she says. “You can’t rest on the success we have had in another market.”
The UK success of the collectible Gogo’s Crazy Bones is also translating well in the US market. Gogo’s, an IP represented by Bulldog Licensing, re-launched in the UK in March 2008 after experiencing success the previous decade. It initially landed in the CTN (confectionary, tobacco and news agency) channel in the UK. And although there is no equivalent to CTN stores in the US, Bulldog, with the assistance of its US partner Jonic Distribution North America, was able to bring the product to the country’s mass-market merchants in March 2010.
“It can be a scary proposition to launch a specialty brand in the US,” says Corney. However, a campaign of promotional partnerships and marketing has landed the products in mass retail throughout the US, including end-caps at Walmart and plum positions at drugstore chain Walgreens.
Corney thinks that while the initial success in the UK might have helped, it most likely wasn’t solely responsible for its success. “If I go into a major UK retailer and say, ‘This is big in the US,’ they will say, ‘Yes!’ But that won’t likely work the same way in the US,” he admits. Corney says that owing to the IP’s success in the collectible and toy markets in the US, he is currently working to put together a licensing program that goes beyond those categories.
Don’t go changin’
Perhaps what links all of the properties that have had success crossing the ocean is the insistence of their brand owners in keeping the concepts (for the most part) in their original forms.
“We have had to do very little,” says Garnham of Moshi Monsters’ transatlantic travels. “We look at Facebook, and it uses the same model all over the globe.”
While Garnahm says some minor tweaks may be needed when Moshi enters Asian and African markets, the only significant change made so far is in how the name is pronounced. “In the UK it’s MAW-shi, in the US it’s MOO-shi,” he says. “That’s about it.”
Sticking to your original guns is also the strategy being employed by eOne for Peppa. Besides some minor vocal re-dubs to localize vocabulary—changing the word pounds to dollars, for example—the company was hesitant to alter anything. “We felt making adjustments could be detrimental,” says Bennett. “We thought there was a real possibility that changing something could lead to a lost-in-translation effect.”
The dialog for Coolabi’s Poppy Cat, however, will dubbed into an American dialect for all but one of its characters. But Dee says that the core of the series remains unaltered. “You don’t want to change the essence of it,” he says. “The US is picking up a show that it already loves, so we didn’t want to change anything beyond the superficial accents.”
On the consumer products side, meanwhile, the strategy is being dictated by the differences in the retail landscape in the two countries. The UK has a more robust specialty tier—one that really doesn’t exist in the US. So product offshoots made for the speciality tier in the UK might first launch at mass retailers in the US, like Gogo’s Crazy Bones. In the case of Gogo’s, this also had an effect on how the product was packaged. In the UK, the Bones were sold in foil packets. But in the US, retailers demanded their packaging resemble that of toys more closely and used see-through plastic bubble packs.
“There is a different way of selling it in the US,” says Corney. “But the product itself, what it looks and feels like, is exactly the same.”