Special Report: Licensing International ’97: There is no license to license

We're all in the licensing game together. Many of us will be reading this magazine while attending the Licensing Show in New York. We are all here with the same mission: to sell, buy or promote licensed properties, many of which...
June 1, 1997

We’re all in the licensing game together. Many of us will be reading this magazine while attending the Licensing Show in New York. We are all here with the same mission: to sell, buy or promote licensed properties, many of which are targeted to children. And the stakes today are huge.

So much of what g’es on in the licensing business continues to be unpredictable and, to some extent, difficult to comprehend. Isn’t it interesting, for instance, that while most kindergarten kids will not see the Star Wars trilogy in theaters, they can identify Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and R2D2, and are collecting Star Wars toys? Even the R-rated Aliens films successfully tapped the kids market through toys. Obviously, there is great power in licensed characters that extends well beyond the entertainment properties from which they are derived.

The strength and appeal of licensing are not confined to any particular age group, making it all the more difficult to target marketing efforts. Star Wars products have been a major hit at retail within the children’s market today, even while massive promotional and advertising support has backed the release of the new films. This may be due in part to the fact that our generation grew up with the Star Wars experience, and we support it as a piece of our nostalgic past. This is one of the few times that a huge live-action blockbuster from our past has been re-released so that we can relive it and share the phenomenon with our children. I am confident that E.T. will have a similar cross-generational appeal when it relaunches.

But can we bring back and license all the children’s programming from our past, and have it translate well into television and film and retail and appeal to the ’90s kids? Parents may support the nostalgic properties by not vetoing the purchases, and by paying for the licensed products. But it is inevitably kids who are the key influencers in the buying decision and the ones who need to be directly targeted.

The consideration of future licensing properties must be more than a trip down memory lane. From sequels of sequels, to newfangled television series based on old programming, to beloved children’s books and popular television cartoons coming to the screen, the future is a throwback to our childhood. The question arises, are many of the upcoming children’s properties aimed at kids of the ’90s, or are they targeting and appealing primarily to parents?

Studios have increasingly been developing television programming and films that are created to be licensed, as well as developing films to become branded properties. The manufacturers of children’s products routinely take part in the creative process of the films, suggesting alterations to the design of gadgets and fashions to better suit their product at retail. While this may provide some comfort, it is by no means an answer to success.

A better bet is to become more selective when procuring properties and developing strategic alliances with other manufacturers. It may just be that a company and product don’t need to rely on the weight of a blockbuster feature film or to pay exorbitant licensing fees to have a successful licensing program. Smaller-scale, and often less expensive, licenses may prove to be just as powerful, as long as the property fits the product category and the licensee develops and executes a well-thought-out program. Oftentimes, obtaining big-budget licenses may actually inhibit a company’s creative goals, since many of the studios (and show creators) have strict parameters limiting the licensing efforts.

Let’s not just license for licensing’s sake! Not every property should be licensing-driven, nor is every property licensable. Licenses should not only match the product, but the product must also complement the license. It requires an almost organic approach, whereby the overall licensing program needs to enhance the license, as well as befit the marketplace.

There certainly is no magic formula, and at the end of the day, probably the best that any licensee can do is come to the program with a trained and flexible understanding of the enigmatic child consumer.

Debbie Weber is president of Multi-Media Promotions, Inc., which specializes in developing targeted marketing campaigns and creative programs that tap into entertainment licensing.

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