Karen Raugust takes a look at the marketing machine behind everyone's favorite clay characters, Wallace & Gromit.
Wallace & Gromit, the stars of three short films directed by Nick Park of Bristol, U.K.-based Aardman Animations, have inspired a wide range of licensed merchandise both at home and abroad. This despite the fact that the stop-motion animated shorts in which they appear lack the extensive worldwide exposure that many traditional animation licensing programs receive.
For Aardman, licensing and ancillary rights activity, which includes everything from television and theatrical distribution to home video, publishing, new media and online, as well as merchandising, is important in that it financially and promotionally supports the company's primary business, the production of entertaining, high-quality animation.
"We don't select our properties on the basis of licensing potential," says Liz Keynes, Head of Rights and Licensing for Aardman Animations. On the other hand, as a creative studio that must internally finance product development before it is in a position to generate revenue from a film, Aardman views merchandising and other ancillary rights as effective methods to help fund new production. "The reality is that our form of filmmaking is quite expensive, so ancillary rights are very important," Keynes says.
Products of Quality
Aardman's merchandising philosophy, which it implements in partnership with its licensing agent, BBC Worldwide Licensing, is to authorize "products of a certain standard and quality that somehow embody the intrinsic brand characteristics," says Keynes. The company tries to create unique items, in addition to supplying conventional licensed merchandise categories. Aardman also wants to maintain a sense of fun and inventiveness in its licensing efforts. Whenever possible, Aardman and the BBC give the nod to three-dimensional products since, unlike most animation licensing programs, the Wallace & Gromit characters themselves are 3-D, made of plasticine. Aardman and the BBC also favor items that "Wallace & Gromit might use or find fun or amusing," says Keynes.
Approximately 70 licensees are signed for the British market, with about the same number on board for the rest of the world combined. Examples of licensed products and promotions for Wallace & Gromit include: Wensleydale cheese, which features prominently in the characters' life style; a Kellogg's corn flakes promotion, which reflects the importance of breakfast as portrayed in the films; a tie-in with a tea company; a 3-D talking alarm clock featuring Peter Sallis, who is the voice of Wallace; an intricately designed shaving mirror created by one of Aardman's modelmakers, which looks as if it could have been a prop; and a concept-based plush toy range where the items represent scenes, such as Gromit sitting in a chair reading the newspaper.
Products are primarily targeted at adults, which is unusual for animation licensing programs. "That's worked really well for us," says Keynes. "It's a relatively unexploited market, especially in the U.K." Merchandise is sold through upscale retailers such as gift shops and department stores, rather than through mass merchants. Because just three short Wallace & Gromit films exist, A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, and each takes a long time to produce, the property lacks the exposure that characterizes most animation licensing programs. "We produce very few films and work very slowly, so what we can do with those films [in terms of ancillary rights] is very important" as far as creating awareness, Keynes says. "We never produce the sort of volume of material that is expected, especially in the American market and the Japanese market."
"It's without ongoing, constant media," agrees Kathie Fording, executive director, new business development, at United Media Enterprises, the licensing sub-agent for Wallace & Gromit in the United States and Canada. "That's why we're not going for the children's market. Without that [media support] we can't sustain either a kids or a mass market program." The films are aired periodically in the U.S. on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
Fording notes, however, that the lack of awareness is not as much of a drawback as might be expected in the North American market. "The videos have tremendously helped exposure," she says. In addition, the property's uniqueness appeals to potential licensees. Fording points out that while Wallace and Gromit does not generate the huge licensed merchandise sales that some other animation licensing programs do, it is also not limited by a short window of opportunity. "It's got classic written all over it," she says.
Abroad in the Territories
To expand the program outside Britain, Aardman and the BBC have appointed sub-agents in each territory. "We work with them to finesse the strategy and make sure it's appropriate," says Keynes. The overall licensing program is similar across territories in terms of strategy, products and distribution, but there are some differences from country to country depending on the local customs, but "always keeping the overall strategy in view." For example, in Japan, where the core audience for licensed products in general is 16- to 30-year-old females, Wallace & Gromit merchandise is re-styled somewhat to appeal to this demographic. For example, the plush line features a younger, cuter-looking Gromit.
Similarly, Keynes notes that Fox Home Video's marketing effort surrounding the home video in the U.S., which has sold more than 2 million units, was targeted somewhat more toward children than the video campaign by BBC Video in the U.K. In addition, certain products that are viewed as too specific to the British market are not included in the U.S. effort. These include the Wensleydale cheese, which is not a food widely eaten (or even recognized) by Americans.
Otherwise though, licensed merchandise in the U.S. remains primarily adult-targeted, as it is in Britain. Products largely fall into the realm of gifts, stationery and collectibles, such as calendars, mousepads, board games, plush, social expressions products (including greeting cards) and neckwear. In some cases, U.S. companies distribute British products within North America; for example, Polygram sells t-shirts produced by a British company, Deluxe, in the U.S. and Canada, while Andrews & McMeel distributes The Cheese Lover's Diary, a British licensed product, in the U.S.
Retail distribution in North America is similar to Britain as well. The top- ranked Wallace & Gromit merchandise outlets in the U.S. are Learningsmith, Store of Knowledge, Musicland and the catalog Signals, all specialty retailers. They have boutiqued the licensed merchandise with the videos to make a bigger impression on customers, and some, such as Store of Knowledge, occasionally hire walkaround Wallace & Gromit characters to increase visibility. Signals has featured the property on the cover of two different catalogs.
A U.K. Base
The fact that Wallace & Gromit is a quintessentially British property does not seem to affect licensing abroad. Fording believes that adults find the British humor quirky and fun, and enjoy the films' attention to detail and the intricate story lines. Children, meanwhile, like the physical humor and the man-and-dog relationship, while the British humor goes over their heads.
The main difference between the licensing program in the U.K. and those throughout the rest of the world is the fact that the property has been around longer in Britain than elsewhere. "Wallace & Gromit are almost an institution in the U.K. People know Nick Park and he's a celebrity," says Fording. "I'm not so sure his name is as well known [in the U.S.] as in the U.K. The fact that the property is just emerging in many territories means that the licensing is in its earlier stages there than it is in mature territories such as Britain."
Although Aardman Animations has retained the BBC as its worldwide licensing agent and maintains a network of sub-agents around the world, the company remains very involved in the licensing and merchandising effort surrounding Wallace & Gromit. Aardman staff determine the strategy for the program, in conjunction with the BBC, and sign off on every licensing deal. They create the style guides, produce the original 3-D models used for product molds and contract all illustrated work used on products and packaging.
In addition, the studio oversees photo shoots to supply new artwork to authorized manufacturers for use in licensed products. Since only a limited amount of film materials exist, creating new design themes in the style guide and providing additional transparencies featuring the characters are critical aspects of keeping the property fresh over time.
In addition to continuing its licensing and merchandising efforts for Wallace and Gromit, Aardman is looking ahead to its first full-length feature film, Chicken Run, which is scheduled to be released in 2000. DreamWorks SKG, which will distribute the film in the U.S. and in most other territories outside Europe, was recently named the exclusive worldwide licensing and merchandising rights holder for the film. Aardman's Keynes predicts that the strategy for Chicken Run will be much different from Wallace & Gromit. The movie will have a far greater level of global exposure than the three Wallace & Gromit films, but will also offer a shorter window of opportunity for licensing and other ancillary rights.
Karen Raugust is the author of several books and reports on licensing and entertainment, including The Licensing Business Handbook, International Licensing: A Status Report (both available from EPM Communications, New York) and Merchandise Licensing for the Television Industry (available from Focal Press, Newton, Mass.). She also writes about licensing, animation and other topics for publications including The Hollywood Reporter, Publishers Weekly and Animation Magazine, and acts as a consultant to the licensing and entertainment industries. She is the former Executive Editor of The Licensing Letter.