When should licensees activate their public relations campaign?

By Julie Livingston, director, business development and accounts, Child’s Play Communications, New York City

With the advent of the annual Licensing Expo on June 12-14 in Las Vegas, licensors, licensees, companies, and brands will take steps to contemplate their marketing and communications plans for forthcoming product lines. In my work over the past decade with toy and youth entertainment companies, the oft-asked question inevitably comes back to timing, as in “when is the best time to activate my PR program?”

First and foremost, the licensee must consider the obligatory marketing activities detailed in the licensing contract, including advertising and promotion, public relations, and/or trade-show presence. Once established, a marketing and promotion plan (based on the general strategic marketing plan) can be devised to dovetail with the licensor’s objectives.

In addition to following the licensor’s brand-specific style guide, knowing their history of communicating and working with licensing partners can be helpful and provide tremendous insight. For example, gain insight on the licensors’ internal approval process, including key decision makers, to whom things must be submitted, and how long approval typically takes. This information will help to clarify key processes and assist the licensee to plan accordingly. Although some of the following items may seem intuitive, the PR planning process and execution must be meticulously timed to coincide with in-store or on-screen dates.

Outline Communications Objectives

Is the objective of your PR campaign to drive tune-ins for a television movie, gain approval from moms for a youth entertainment brand, generate toy sales, or increase brand awareness and buzz? Chances are that the licensed brand or property already has some brand equity, but what actions are needed to move the needle forward via PR and how long might that take? What kind of results—number of media mentions, increase in ratings or sales, perhaps via coupon redemption—can be expected within a given time frame? Reaching consensus between licensor and licensee is pivotal.

Social Media Management

We were somewhat surprised during a recent client meeting after learning that prior discussions regarding social media management had not been worked out with the licensor. For example, has the licensor ever allowed an outside organization to launch and manage a related social media platform, such as a Facebook or Twitter account? What is the brand “voice,” and is there a glossary of terminology and phrases that are most commonly used? In one case, as the PR agency, we were brought in close to the campaign’s activation time; as a result, a good deal of momentum was lost due to our inability to maximize social media until later in the campaign. To put it mildly, this can be a highly politicized issue, so an early discussion and agreement cannot be underemphasized.

Target Audience: Are Moms Included?

When it comes to toys and youth entertainment, getting mom’s stamp of approval can be a critical factor in a product’s retail success. I can’t even count the number of times clients have remarked about the importance of getting mom’s “thumbs up.” If this is achieved, moms are literally your walking brand ambassadors, driving grassroots buzz and brand awareness through their various in-person and social networks. Simply put, the kids’ toys and TV shows that moms like have achieved blockbuster status. Take a look at this list of the most popular kid’s TV shows of the past generation compiled by the Today Show and you’ll notice leading licensed properties with global appeal, such as Nickelodeon’s Sponge Bob SquarePants, Disney Channel’s Phineas and Ferb, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and the classic Rocky and Bullwinkle.

Mom bloggers, especially those who write product reviews, are a force to be reckoned with. With an estimated 79 percent of U.S. moms engaged in one or more social media platforms (2010 NPD Group/Child’s Play Communications study), a nod from these primary influencers can quickly place your licensed product above the fray. Developing relationships with leading mom bloggers takes time, effort, and resources, and this should be accounted for in the PR plan. Be sure to provide information, photos, or multimedia materials that underscore the products most characteristic features, and don’t forget to include directions on trademark or copyright usage.

Depending on the longevity and depth of the blogger/brand relationship, a typical product review can occur immediately or take several weeks depending on the editorial calendar. Creating special opportunities such as contests and giveaways, previews or red carpet screenings, Twitter, Pinterest, in-home parties, exclusive celebrity appearances, discount offers, and product sampling programs where moms and their kids can have a unique brand experience require advance scheduling, but establish an important personal connection to your licensed product.

Timing: Big or Small Screen, or In-Store

Although many still think that PR is generated by some magical force, like any marketing component, it takes strategic thinking, careful planning and time. If your licensed product is hitting the screen in September, allow from six to 12 weeks to get all program components in place. Approvals on written materials from the licensor can take several weeks and may go through several rounds of revisions. Importantly, if traditional media placements on broadcast, newspapers, and long-lead magazines are among your communications objectives, estimate that you must initiate contact from three to six months in advance at which time you will need to have product samples or approved art work to distribute. Although many clients will say they want immediate results, traditional media placement does not always happen immediately. Also, over the years, I have worked with companies that insist on the “big idea” or a PR stunt. Depending on the product, these can be effective, but also require significant financial resources with potentially fleeting results.

What are your experiences in promoting licensed products? Share your tips by writing to me at jl@childsplaypr.com.

About the author

A strategic communications expert, Julie Livingston has spent the past decade immersed in the toy and youth entertainment sectors. Before joining Child’s Play Communications, specialists in reaching moms, she was senior director of public relations for the Toy Industry Association, and earlier served as director, corporate communications, for Scholastic, Inc, the global children’s publishing, education, and media company.