Back in the day when kids first found their way to Sesame Street, a 360-degree approach to consumer products meant simply offering show-related products. “Our brand and our characters began on television, but shortly thereafter we started introducing other content experiences,” says Scott Chambers, SVP & GM for North American media and licensing at Sesame Workshop.
“Books were the first thing we ever licensed,” he says. “We’ve always believed that children would really and truly benefit from a multifaceted experience—what’s now become known as a 360-degree experience. I don’t know if we were the first, but it feels like we were.”
In those days, Chambers says, consumer products programs grew to include categories like publishing, toys and apparel. But the idea of 360-degree licensing has had to evolve to reflect the changing needs of the industry and its consumers.
“It’s not only media consumption habits, but also demand for character interaction that has grown and pushed across the boundaries of media and other experiences,” says Chambers. He says Sesame has learned that it must offer experiences across these different platforms, including interactive apps and live performances, in order to fully engage the audience.
And while everyone is in agreement that the consumer products landscape has changed dramatically since Sesame Street debuted in 1969, it seems there are myriad opinions on what 360-degree licensing means, now that even the Count can’t keep track of the number of categories.
For Hasbro, 360-degree licensing, or what they call “share of life” strategy, is about making brands more accessible and engaging consumers in every part of their day.
“The idea that you may be able to rely on a single product or a single category has changed dramatically,” says Simon Waters, SVP & GM of entertainment and licensing for Hasbro. Instead, he says, brands must find expression across a number of platforms or landscapes, so that in a single day a consumer can experience a brand in a number of different ways and with varying degrees of engagement.
2016 was a significant year for Hasbro’s share of life strategy. The toyco formed partnerships across a number of platforms (digital and real-world), including the new Transformers: Combiner Wars digital series with Machinima, the new Transformers: Forged to Fight immersive mobile game with Kabam, and an agreement with Marriott in China to create Transformers-themed hotels.
These different expressions of an IP provide variety for its fans. The Transformers: Combiner Wars digital series, for example, tells a story that is distinct from the master Transformers universe and appeals to the brand’s older gaming audience.
However, Waters warns that variety must be balanced with a thread of consistency. This approach to 360-degree licensing is what has allowed Hasbro to successfully expand brands like Transformers and My Little Pony, he says.
“We put our brand at the center of our wheel. If you imagine that the hub is the brand and all of the spokes are the different sorts of expressions, the continuity comes from the fact that everything we do leads back to the same thing,” contends Waters. “We’ve expressed the Transformers visually in a number of different ways, from a graphic novel to the television execution to a feature film, but at the end of the day it all relates back to the core DNA of the franchise.”
However, California-based Genius Brands International, which recently launched new tween brand SpacePOP, has taken an
altogether different approach to 360-degree licensing in recent months.
“There’s an approach to 360 that is head-to-toe, every aspect of a kid’s bedroom totally outfitted in your brand. You see that quite often with things like film franchises, but we wanted to look at 360 and fan engagement in a different way,” says Stone Newman, Genius Brands’ president of global consumer products, worldwide sales and marketing.
SpacePOP shorts launched on YouTube in June 2016, and Genius Brands decided to court YouTube’s creator culture and encourage viewers to actively participate with the IP.
“Kids really embrace the idea of wanting to have input and have influence and participate in a brand if they love it, in all aspects of their life,” Newman says.
This focus led Genius Brands to partner with Musical.ly, the video-based social network that allows users to create and share short self-made clips featuring singing, dancing and lip-syncing. When a new music video is uploaded to SpacePOP‘s YouTube channel, it is simultaneously available to Musical.ly users. More than 10,000 of them regularly create videos featuring songs from SpacePOP, Newman says.
Similarly, the company created a promotion with the global publishing platform Storybird that allows users to write their own stories based on SpacePOP storylines and characters.
“You’re trained as an IP owner to protect the IP at all costs and put it in a box,” says Newman. And while GBI does indeed have style guides and monitor for inappropriate uses of its IPs, the focus on 360-degree licensing for SpacePOP remains on giving consumers the ability to interact with the brand in a personal way.
“We want active participation. We want to be very present for our fans, and we wanted them to engage with and experience SpacePOP every day of their lives without actually having to make a purchase. That was key,” he says.
“The plan was to spend the first six months getting our fans to engage with this brand in so many exciting and different ways that are relevant to their world without having to spend a penny. We then hoped they would want to opt in even deeper by buying the book, the fashion dolls and the beauty products.”
The strategy seems to be panning out. Genius Brands’ focus on creator culture and fan immersion in the SpacePOP brand has, in fact, created a demand for a more traditional consumer products program, notes Newman.
Nearly 200 items are launching in support of the brand, and he says it’s possible that the image of a room outfitted head-to-toe in SpacePOP products—traditionally associated with big franchise films—could soon be a reality.
“We hope to be, someday, looking at a shot of a kid’s room decorated floor-to-ceiling in SpacePOP,” says Newman. “But I think what’s allowing an independent studio with a new IP, delivered via a new platform, to succeed in getting kids to want those products is that we’ve really opened up the access points for them to engage in and actively participate with the brand.”
And while the specifics of a 360-degree licensing strategy may differ from company to company, Frank Falcone—president and executive creative director of Toronto-based Guru Studios—believes the premise may lead down a slippery slope.
“360 is a dangerous idea. Nothing should be 360; you don’t need it all. You need to look at it all, but you’re not going to have it all. You’re not going to have 360.”
The danger in an all-encompassing consumer products program is oversaturation, he contends.
“Kids know. They can sniff it out. They’re not stupid, and they know exactly when they’re being sold to. If you’ve just got a lot of stuff and are launching with volume, they will leave you in the dirt. And that’s probably where you deserve to be if you haven’t thought of the intent of why you’re doing what you do. I’m a big believer of intent, and the intent should be to bring something meaningful to children through entertainment and play.”
At Guru, each series has a specific voice. Falcone says that it should dictate what specific consumer product categories are used to express that show outside of the television space and to help viewers connect in a more meaningful way.
And while Falcone admits new consumer product categories seem to crop up each day, he believes each new expression is simply a retread of a few classic play patterns.
“As much as things change, certain basic things remain the same. Something like Candy Crush is just popping bubble wrap,” he says. “The collectibles craze is just kids on a beach picking up interesting shells and rocks.”
Accordingly, Guru prefers to focus on a few, tried-and-true categories including collectibles, plush and role-play. “Not everything needs to be reflected in every aspect of the marketplace,” Falcone says.
“In our creative work with Spin Master on PAW Patrol, our director suggested creating a character called Chikaletta. She’s sort of like a little purse dog, but she’s a chicken the Major carries in her purse. Chikaletta became a consumer product, and no one expected that. It wasn’t a mandate, it just grew organically from the show. Things like that can happen if you allow them to.”
Creating countless products simply to tick a box and fill shelf space will lead to shoe-horning ideas, he says, leading to lower-quality products and, ultimately, a disconnect with the audience. Focusing on a few, carefully considered categories, however, can strengthen the relationship between a brand and consumers.
“I think kids genuinely do want to have a piece of the show. There’s something satisfying in having a tangible object, because watching TV just on its own can be a little frustrating for kids—they have to wait between viewings. Now, if kids can have something with them all the time, they can feel a like they’re a greater part of the show.”
This is especially crucial, according to Falcone, as the distribution of series continues to fragment with quick full-season releases on a variety of different platforms. Rather than building long-term relationships with shows over time, audiences are now being exposed to a large number of limited engagements, making it more difficult for an entertainment property to become pervasive in the marketplace.
Guru is addressing this issue in its collaboration with Netflix for upcoming preschool series True and the Rainbow Kingdom. Magic is featured prominently in the story, and the world depicted in the show has a whimsical feel in that everything is alive with its own personality. Because every tree and cloud is a character contributing to the story, Falcone says True features an underlying message that encourages kids to take care of their communities and the environment at large.
That message, as a large part of the show’s specific voice, is intended to be at the heart of any and all consumer products. With this mantra in mind, Guru hopes to create a deeper and more meaningful connection with viewers in an effort to persevere through the dangers of fragmented distribution and the abundance of consumer product categories.
“If your kid has so many presents that they’re not opening them all, there’s something wrong with Christmas,” he says. Rather than launching immediately with hundreds of products across every imaginable category, Falcone hopes to focus instead on creating products in a few key categories that truly represent the voice of the series.
In many ways for Chambers and Sesame Workshop, this sentiment rings true. Sesame Street‘s mission to help kids grow stronger, smarter and kinder acts as the engine that drives decision-making when it comes to licensing.
“We have chosen to do some things, but we’ve probably chosen not to do more things,” Chambers says. In the past, he says, Sesame has ultimately chosen not pursue products like dried fruits (high sugar content) or performance foods for adults (not on-brand) because they didn’t serve the mission.
Ultimately, Chambers says, it’s about finding balance in creating a consumer products program that is true to the brand while also allowing consumers to access 360-degree programs and be completely immersed in their favorite characters and stories.
“We believe in 360-degree, immersive character and brand experiences—if we’re not there when kids turn to look for us, that’s not a good thing,” contends Chambers. It’s competitive, and if we want to accomplish our mission, we need to make sure that our characters, our brand and our content are there when kids are looking for us.”