Location-based brand extensions are taking center stage and earning rave reviews. These interactive and immersive brand extensions—including theme park rides, pop-up shops and live shows—are proving to be engagement powerhouses, and brand owners are paying attention.
While emerging technologies like augmented and virtual reality are expected to play a part in this return to the spotlight, it seems that live and location-based experiences are capturing kids’ attention because they are largely screen-free. In a world where the exact content you want is constantly at your fingertips, it seems young audiences are now discovering the magic of a fleeting and shared experience.
“Experiences are becoming just as, if not more, important than products,” says Jo Broadfield, VP of Cartoon Network Enterprises at Turner EMEA. This summer, the licensor opened an immersive pop-up experience in London to fuel growth for its Powerpuff Girls brand in the UK. The shop produced significant social media buzz, she says, and the excitement she saw surrounding that temporary experience is not often associated with something like a new product. CN has also launched a multi-brand live show, which is currently touring the Middle East, Asia and Europe.
“Whatever the category, whether it’s a permanent large-scale theme park attraction or a smaller-scale pop-up experience in a shopping mall, the live experience really allows fans to experience a brand in a way that’s so much richer than just watching it on a screen,” says Broadfield.
Thomas Merrington, creative director at Penguin Random House UK’s Penguin Ventures, says location-based extensions are a unique opportunity to create genuine engagement with the entire family, rather than focusing solely on children.
“We’re quite lucky that a lot of the brands we look after are classics, and as such we’re in a unique position when it comes to our engagement base because it spans the whole family,” he says.
Last year, Penguin Ventures launched a brand-new Peter Rabbit Adventure Playground with Willows Activity Farm in Hertfordshire, England. In designing the facility, the team played with scale so that its huge sheds, fences and vegetables make kids and adults alike feel rabbit-sized.
“For us,” Merrington says, “it’s really important to create spaces and experiential or immersive events, where not only can they share their existing memories, but they can also make new memories of the brand.”
Entertainment One’s VP of licensing for North America, Joan Grasso, agrees that location-based extensions are becoming an invaluable part of the company’s licensing programs. eOne recently partnered with Round Room Presents to launch a live stage show based on its preschool property PJ Masks to tour North America. Time to Be a Hero! is a fully immersive live production featuring music and acrobatics. (PJ Masks was a key driver of growth for eOne’s business in 2017, with the property’s revenue increasing more than 500% year-on-year from US$2.9 million to US$17.5 million.)
“Live shows are where we’re focused right now, and these events really help us to extend the engagement of the property with our fans beyond the traditional TV shows that we have. It’s still content and entertainment, but in a completely different format,” says Grasso. “The key thing here is that they’re very interactive. During the show, there’s audience participation and the characters ask the audience to get involved. And although that happens sometimes on TV shows as well, I don’t think it’s quite as exciting as when kids are doing that in person and getting a reaction from the entertainment they’re seeing on stage.”
And these location-based extensions aren’t just improving the quality of engagement—they’re also increasing the quantity and frequency of it. Warner Bros. Consumer Products, for one, has developed strong partnerships with theme parks around the world, including Universal Parks & Resorts and Six Flags Entertainment. Additionally, a number of traveling exhibits based on brands like Harry Potter are currently touring.
“We think about these touch points, and we think about fans who can’t necessarily travel to Orlando or L.A.,” says Peter Van Roden, SVP of themed entertainment at WBCP. “How can we get to their town, and get to them, because not everybody is going to have that big theme park experience.”
According to Van Roden, location-based extensions are judged by revenue, reach and relevance. A traveling live show doesn’t generate the revenue of a theme park deal with Universal, he says, but the appeal of a live show can outweigh pure dollars and cents. It can reach fans who otherwise might not have the chance to connect with the brand on an experiential level. “Reach is really important,” he adds.
It’s possible to weigh the merits of these different extensions, Van Roden says, because Warner Bros. has committed to a stable of franchise films.
“The studio’s commitment to maintaining franchises lets the themed entertainment division’s partners know that we are going to be supporting those franchises moving forward. It means that we can commit, then, to big projects.”
One of those sizeable undertakings is Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, expected to open in 2018. The indoor facility—owned and being developed by Miral Asset Management—will feature 18 rides, interactive attractions and live entertainment. And as excited as Warner Bros. is for the park, Van Roden says the company will continue to explore other location-based extensions.
“We don’t want to be wedded purely to destination theme parks,” he says. “We want to do the best we can around the world, and we’re always looking for ways to get into people’s towns and interact with them in interesting ways.”
Stan Meyers, senior research analyst for Piper Jaffray, says this type of long-term commitment will only become more common as studios continue to focus on tentpole properties.
“The studios made a strategic decision a few years back to really focus on franchise films and heavily invest in the content and also in marketing those films,” Meyers says. “They view location-based extensions as both a way to monetize those franchises and brands in which they’ve invested so heavily, and also as a way to extend the life of that content so that when a sequel comes out, that content and those characters have been front and center.”
With films being scheduled and announced years in advance, location-based extensions make it possible to build and maintain awareness and engagement. This summer, Disney Parks and Resorts announced more than a dozen new attractions and experiences for its global entities, including the first Mickey Mouse-themed ride-through attraction and the highly anticipated Star Wars lands. There are Star Wars films slated for release in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will open at Disneyland Park in Anaheim in 2019, with the second to follow at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando.
This type of integration isn’t new, Meyers says, but the pace of production is. “Today there’s more of it, and everything is introduced at an accelerated pace. As an example, you’d have a film release and that would be your initial introduction of a specific character. Then, five or six years down the line, you would maybe have a TV show. Then, you would have a live show or a pop-up event, and eventually it becomes a permanent theme park destination,” he says. “It used to be a sort of 10-year life cycle. Now, studios are moving a lot quicker. The time between all of these different initiatives has been compressed, so that we are maintaining that engagement and not leaving dollars on the table.”
The focus on franchises, then, is a safety net for partners. Signing on to create a location-based extension for a proven brand is significantly less risky than betting on the unknown.
“There’s a set of criteria that we look for,” says VStar Entertainment Group CEO Eric Grilly of his team’s process in creating live shows. The entertainment production company—currently partnering with Nickelodeon/Spin Master for its PAW Patrol live shows PAW Patrol Live! The Great Pirate Adventure and PAW Patrol Live! Race to the Rescue—examines a number of factors contributing to a brand’s strength like retail success, engagement across social media platforms, TV ratings and box office sales before it commits to taking on a license.
“Those are some of the indicators of cultural relevance that we look for in making the type of investment where it takes 12 or 18 months to create a live musical experience,” Grilly says.
It’s crucial to examine a property from these different perspectives, says Grilly, because so much can go wrong on the journey from screen to stage.
“The risk is that we’re changing the perception from what the audience sees on TV and translating it into a live character, story or setting,” he says. “Being able to translate the effects and then produce the same kind of storyline and characterization is key.”
These risks will only be amplified as the timeline between the property’s launch and the creation of extensions like consumer products and location-based experiences continues to shrink.
“If you rushed to satisfy demand, [the show] might be of lower quality,” says Piper Jaffray’s Meyers. “There is some risk to satisfying demand quickly, but with a lower-quality production. And in general, there’s a risk that the franchise is not quite fully baked. Is there enough demand? It can be a gamble to put on a production before there’s demand, and it takes time to build it up.”
Not every property lends itself to all location-based extensions. When eOne is examining potential ventures, Grasso says her team really considers the core of the brand, and the ways in which its characters and stories appeal to the audience.
“We look to ensure that whatever we do, whatever the production is, it’s organic to the brand as a whole and what we’ve done with the TV content,” she says. “Obviously, it will have to change a little bit because you’re dealing with a live audience. What we’re really looking to do is extend what we’re doing on TV into a live show format in a way that is engaging and keeps the audience’s attention for the full 60 minutes of the show.”
And while the Peppa Pig live shows are working to extend the content from a TV series into a longer live performance, a theme park ride might have to condense what fans love about a feature film into a minutes-long ride. The design of a roller coaster doesn’t leave as much room to play as a two-hour film script, Van Roden says, but rides must be a narrative experience for audiences just the same.
“You’re always trying to bring the audience through a story arc of some kind. We just opened a great attraction at Six Flags, The Justice League Dark Ride,” he says. “It’s not as complex in some ways as building a full feature film, but in others it’s just as complex, because you’re using physical space with limited screen time and a moving dark ride vehicle to tell a story.”
To translate these stories into brand extensions as varied as theme park rides, pop-up shops and live shows, it’s necessary to take advantage of different technologies. Warner Bros. has made use of robotic arms from the auto industry to move guests through and around rides, and incorporated laser technology—commonly used in the gaming industry—to create blaster effects in rides that require guest participation.
One technology currently making waves is the hologram. Toronto’s Neweb Labs has developed a technology pipeline that renders 3D animation in real time, enabling the creation of holographic stage shows. With a performer backstage wearing a motion-capture suit, the related holographic character is projected onstage and has the capability to interact with live performers and audience members.
“We are in talks with a production company to integrate a holographic experience into a kids production,” says Candace Steinberg, marketing and sales director for Neweb Labs. “It’s not live and interactive; it will be playback, but the magic is in the interactive technology. With kids, they’re young and they’re more accepting of these new types of technologies. With kids properties, you can have a lot more fun with technology.”
The most exciting new technologies likely to shape location-based brand extensions moving forward, according to Van Roden, are augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR).
“VR is really interesting in a fixed space when you can walk through rooms and interact with things, but it’s very difficult to put it into a mass, themed entertainment structure because you can’t put the same number of people through,” he says. “It’s called capacity through-point. You can’t put the same number of people through an experience when you’ve got to give them glasses and have them physically walk through, in comparison to putting people on a ride.”
Additionally, Meyers predicts filmmaking as a whole will need to evolve before VR can truly be taken advantage of in the live event/attraction space.
“The challenge with VR is that we need a new generation of filmmakers to make it compelling and interesting. With VR, the director loses control. The whole idea is that you can turn your head 360 degrees, you can move forward any way you want, as opposed to the way the director intended you to. So you could miss the whole plot because you walked through the wrong door in a VR world,” he says.
For L.A.-based media and entertainment company Technicolor, however, VR is the perfect next step. Technicolor has appointed Sim Ex-lwerks to create 4D short films based on its property The Deep. The 10- to 12-minute movies—3D films with additional effects including vibrating seats, water sprays and bubbles set to screen in venues like theme parks, zoos and aquariums—could become even more interactive and engaging through use of VR technology, says Pam Kunick-Cohen, head of global brand management, licensing and merchandising at Technicolor.
“We’re looking beyond 4D to create other experiences that allow consumers to really immerse themselves in this world,” says Kunick-Cohen. “The Deep is a perfect example, because we can create that experience of underwater exploration through VR. We want to reach the audience in every way possible; we’re always looking at different opportunities.”
But Van Roden notes the big theme parks are not chasing VR, at least not yet. Because VR requires total immersion, it takes away from the shared experience of location-based brand extensions.
“You’ve cut out the idea that you have physical space around you and other people around you; you might as well be in your living room,” he says. “AR is an enormously exciting technology. You can be in a physical space, you’re aware of your environment and people around you, and yet all of the animation and things that would be on a big screen can now be projected onto glasses. We’re chasing that technology more than anything. It’s very much in its infancy, though technology always catches up sooner than we’d think.”