Toy Stories: Merchandising Success Without TV or Movie Exposure

by Michael Hurwicz

Toy Story 2 -- another example of Disney's merchandising success. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. and Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved.

When Disney starts developing a new feature, toy manufacturers and other merchandisers line up and lay down big bucks for licensing rights. A popular kids' TV program generates the same kind of interest. Media success breeds success in licensing and merchandising -- this is not a secret.

And while this is great news for all those properties going into development at Disney, what if you have a property that has licensing potential, but you don't happen to have a deal with Disney or a top-rated show on Nickelodeon? Potential licensees don't want to talk to you, because they know that kids buy what they see on TV and in the movies. As a result, independents shopping a property often don't think much about licensing until they've landed a media deal.

That could be a mistake. There are strategies that can lead to success in licensing that don't depend on already having a media hit. In fact, these strategies can lead to success in the media, too.

In the driver's seat, Michael Paraskevas, illustrator of The Tangerine Bear. Photos © Michael Paraskevas.

Plush is a Plus
One basic idea, when it comes to toys, is "think plush." While a typical molded plastic figure takes eighteen months to get from conception to toy store shelves, a plush toy can make the journey in six months or less. Plush toys don't require huge, expensive molds. They are unlikely to cause injuries. And there are certain types of plush toys, such as teddy bears, that are perennially in demand, with no TV shows or movies to back them up. In every way, they're low-risk.

Plush potential is no guarantee of success. But if plush does fit your project, it's definitely an advantage as you pursue other strategies.

The Tangerine Bear, a special being aired this Christmas season on ABC, has demonstrated this advantage twice.

Another fun Paraskevas creation, Maggie and the Ferocious Beast. © Nelvana.

Tangie-ble Results
"Tangie," as some of his friends call him, started life in 1997, in a children's book. Tangie's creators already had a track record in print media. In addition, mother and son team Betty and Michael Paraskevas, author and illustrator, were talking to Nelvana about another book-based property, Maggie and the Ferocious Beast, which has since gone on to top the charts on Nick Jr., after its debut in the summer of 2000.

Tangie, however, was a new character, with nothing but his touching story and sad expression to recommend him. Being a teddy bear, however, has its advantages, and a plush Tangie was able to make an appearance in bookstores alongside the HarperCollins hardbacks that told his tale.

"It was a great bear, and it sold out," says Michael Paraskevas.

Wait, there's more: He'll be on hand at mall events across the country, which will include special screenings for kids, as well as photo ops of kids donating money to the Starlight Children's Foundation, a non-profit that provides entertainment for hospitalized kids. Tangie will also be the star player in "bear drops" that Starlight will do in hospitals. Artisan is donating fifty cents to Starlight for every video sold. The deal is similar to one that brought in over a million dollars for the Make A Wish Foundation and helped make Annabelle's Wish the number three selling video in 1997, under Ross' guidance at Hallmark.

Success can start with a storybook. The Tangerine Bear by Betty Paraskevas and illustrated by Michael Paraskevas. © Storyopolis.

The Power of Print
In addition to demonstrating the pluses of plush, The Tangerine Bear illustrates the power of print -- it's a lot easier to get a start in bookstores than in movies or TV.

Print media other than books can also serve as a base for media and licensing success. And you don't have to have a once-in-a-century juggernaut like Peanuts to make this strategy work for you.

For instance, Martha Montoya, creator of the Latin-flavored Los Kitos comic strip, started building a base in newspapers in 1995. Today, the strip appears in 305 publications in the U.S., Mexico and 15 other countries. From comics, she went into radio, where she became creator, producer and actor in "RadioKito" on the Hispanic Broadcast Corporation (HBC).

From this base, Montoya has snagged some licensing deals involving big names. For instance, Bank America Corp., State Farm Insurance and the Department of Agriculture have all used the Los Kitos characters when they wanted to reach a Hispanic market. Sears Roebuck & Co. features Los Kitos characters on a line of children's clothing. Wal-Mart started selling a line of Los Kitos shoes in 1999.


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