How Digital Media, IRL Experiences Keep Properties Evergreen

by TED MININNI, president and creative director, Design Force

There’s been a paradigm shift in the licensing world mirroring the fundamental transformation of consumers. It isn’t sufficient for licensors and their partners to co-brand consumer products across numerous categories and hope to collect significant revenue — all while trying to keep their properties relevant and evergreen. If marketers are focused on selling branded products and consumers are focused on collecting experiences rather than material possessions, then there is a major disconnect. And that goes beyond the shortened life cycles of licensed consumer products. So, how can we bridge the divide with new licensing program strategies?

Immersion Brings It to Life

Nothing brings brands to life more compellingly than strong content that evolves and keeps them fresh, current, and interesting. With all of the social media platforms at their disposal, the smallest properties — the tiniest upstarts — can gain audiences that literally explode into popularity almost overnight thanks to word of mouth. There are a number of properties that have achieved this by maximizing digital media, from Shopkins and Angry Birds to Pokémon Go.

By capitalizing on the popularity of its YouTube shorts, Shopkins became the hottest collectible toy line a couple of years ago. But merchandising wasn’t the end-all, be-all for the brand. In collaboration with Koba Entertainment, the property is staging live shows dubbed “Shopkins Live! Shop It Up!” across the U.S. A colorful explosion of kids’ favorite characters combined with a creative storyline, original urban style music, and dance routines add up to a highly interactive experience. VIP tickets include photo-ops backstage with characters after the show and bags of swag, among other goodies.

Likewise, smart, evergreen brands understand the value of creating compelling experiences for their fans. Hello Kitty initiated pop-up cafes and cafe food trucks to take its beloved property directly to the fans in a memorable manner. National Geographic, in collaboration with SPE Development Partners, created National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey in New York City’s Times Square, an immersive experience in which visitors find themselves at the bottom of the South Pacific. The exhibit will periodically change so that guests can explore other worlds.

Times Square Attractions Live LLC produced and developed National Geographic Encounter, along with Falcon’s Creative Group and Pixomondo. The immersive experience for kids ages 3 and up includes a light-up a coral reef, the chance to witness a deep-sea battle between two ferocious Humboldt squids or mischievous sea lions, a twisting kelp forest, 120,000 fish, and more.

What’s important is that merchandising tied to these kinds of immersive experiences becomes more irresistible to fans. There’s a sense of immediate desire because of the level of emotional connection that people experience at a live event. Disney has always understood this, hence the addition of hot new properties to its theme parks, with rides and live characters that interact directly with fans. There’s another important point, too: Merchandise tied to these kinds of immersive experiences continues to sell, whereas most licensed consumer products in retail stores have a limited shelf life.

Going Counterculture

There’s something about our culture that loves the underdog — the rugged individual who swims against the tide. Brands like these, designed to appeal to a limited audience, have had transcendent power when adopted by the mainstream. They’ve become cultural icons beloved by one generation after the other. From bad boys James Dean and Mick Jagger to Harley Davidson, Jack Daniels, and today’s Minions, countercultural properties can catch fire, and if they remain authentic and true to their roots, their mystique grows, enshrining them in our consciousness forever. Today’s living legends find ways to interact with their fans in a memorable manner. Harley Davidson, for example, packs its annual calendar with branded tours, rides, and rallies around the world. Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, an unpredictable 3D ride at Universal Studios Hollywood, brings fans into the zany world of the odd little yellow men with a passion for bananas.

Shopkins Live

“Shopkins Live! Shop It Up!” brings the brand to life with live music and dance from Shoppies Jessicake, Bubbleisha, Peppa-Mint, Rainbow Kate, Cocolette, and Polli Polish, accompanied by Shopkins Apple Blossom, Strawberry Kiss, Lippy Lips, Kooky Cookie, Poppy Corn, Slick Breadstick, and Shady Diva.

Collaboration Is the Key

You’re likely thinking that this is great for properties with the resources to experiment with immersive, live entertainment for their fans — properties who can scale these events; create pop-up cafes, retail shops, and food trucks; and develop interactive toys and consumer products.

But brand owners with modest resources can collaborate with design consultants with expertise in event creation who can leverage social media platforms in a highly effective manner — and who can develop a licensing program design that connects with a property’s fans. Vision and boldness are more important than financial resources. Small brands “that could” have proven that more than once.

The Bottom Line

All of these ideas catapult properties from having a passive presence in the marketplace to active engagement with their fans. How do they do it? By humanizing brands. As we all know, human-to-human connections are what form long-lasting relationships.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of the Toy Book.