The 1980s gave birth to several billion-dollar licensed properties; each burned brightly for a few years before fading away. Now, two decades later, they are being relaunched for a new generation.
These retro properties fall into two groups, each with a distinct licensing and publishing strategy. One consists of cute and cuddly licensed characters for girls, such as Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears, My Little Pony, Cabbage Patch Kids, Muppet Babies and Rainbow Brite; the other features action-oriented boys' properties including Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and He-Man.
The relaunch of the girls' brands typically begins with retro licensed apparel, accessories and decor targeted at tweens, teens and young adults who remember the original. Products are sold through retailers that specialize in this market, especially Hot Topic. A year or so later, the program expands to the mass market, where it's introduced to children through dolls, books, videos and other licensed items. Several properties are poised to broaden their distribution this year.
The mass market phase usually involves a character redesign meant to help today's children relate to the characters while retaining the original's essence. Strawberry Shortcake, for example, had hair of yarn and wore striped tights, but now she sports blue jeans. "The redraw of Strawberry Shortcake was just right," said Chris Hilicki, vice chairman of licensee Dalmatian Press. "We've been pitched a lot of retro properties and many had gone much edgier, but that's not what we wanted. We loved how sweet and pink Strawberry Shortcake remained."
Not all properties opt to go modern. "We're staying true to the retro look of Rainbow Brite," said Lynn Wylie, v-p of Hallmark Licensing. "The story, look and visuals of Rainbow Brite still hold together 20 years later."
Entertainment support for girls' properties is usually limited to videos. Twentieth Century Fox released two video movies featuring Strawberry Shortcake this spring, which collectively sold over one million copies; a 3-D animated Care Bears video feature is planned for 2004; and Muppet Babies videos will be packaged as premiums.
Success for these soft licenses depends less on entertainment than on their inherent characteristics, which marketers believe are as appealing today as they did two decades ago. "Care Bears are pure and safe," said Andrew Steinberg, president of Modern Publishing, Care Bears licensee. "That's as true now as it was then."
In fact, licensors and publishers point out that many themes associated with these properties, such as Care Bears' caring and sharing message, My Little Pony's focus on friendship and group play or Cabbage Patch Kids' adoption theme, are perhaps even more relevant now than they were in the 1980s. They have play value in any decade. "Girls love ponies," said Emily Brenner, editorial director of My Little Pony licensee HarperFestival, "never mind the hairbrushing and everything else that goes along with it."
The relaunch strategies for the boys' properties, in contrast to the girls', avoid the nostalgia hook. Most are being reintroduced with an updated, new-look television show, a fresh toy line and licensed products sold through mass merchants.
"We went right into the mass market and right into the kids' psyche," said Al Kahn, CEO of 4Kids Entertainment, which licenses the Ninja Turtles. While plans are in place to introduce some adult-sized apparel with retro designs and bring back some of the original comic books, the bulk of these products aimed at boys are for today's young consumers.
Mary Rafferty, director of licensing for Mattel Brands Consumer Products, which is relaunching He-Man, said, "There's a collectible element, in that so many adults recognize it and think it's fun, but our program is definitely targeted toward children."
Toys and TV exposure drive the performance of these male-skewing properties. "It's the success of the [Transformers] toy line and the entertainment on Cartoon Network six days a week that has truly propelled the brand back into a position of prominence," said Tom Klusaritz, Hasbro's v-p, global publishing and new business development.
The Role of Books in the Relaunch
For most of the girls' licenses, books are one of the first categories introduced as the program transitions to children. Isabel Miller, the Jim Henson Company's executive v-p for worldwide consumer products, reported that publishing made sense for Muppet Babies; it was a successful category in the 1980s, with over three million books sold from 1984 to 1987. "Publishing complements the brand," Miller said. "Books become anchors of the whole program."
Aside from exposure and income, "publishing helps introduce the property to children, as well as teach," said Jane Kraemer, v-p, sales at the Joester-Loria Group, licensing agent for American Greetings' Care Bears. "It reinforces the story of the Bears."
Klusaritz said Hasbro decided to pitch publishers first on My Little Pony before branching out into other licensed categories. "We had decided that story and character would become a very strong component of the relaunch strategy of My Little Pony," he said. "The content, with the video and with the publishing, was really one of the central focal points of the relaunch."
Publishers tend to come on board later with boys' properties, with comic books taking a leading role. Dreamwave debuted its Transformers comic book line around the time the Transformers: Armada television show premiered in 2002, while MV Comics was the first publisher to release He-Man titles. "Dreamwave and their success in the comics market showed other publishers the potential of [Transformers]," Klusaritz said.
The 1980s retro programs in specialty stores have performed well over the last year or two, and early returns indicate that mass market merchandise—which, for some properties, is starting to arrive in stores now, is selling, including books in all channels of distribution. Consumers purchased $70 million worth of Care Bears merchandise in 2002, with sales expected to exceed $250 million this year; books by Scholastic and Modern are moving quickly. Penguin's Grosset & Dunlap imprint has over two million Strawberry Shortcake copies in print, while Dalmatian has shipped more than a million coloring and activity books. By the end of the year, Bendon will have more than one million in print each of its Cabbage Patch, Muppet Babies, Transformers and My Little Pony books.
When Strawberry Shortcake books debuted this spring, "retailers were telling us they hadn't seen P.O.S. numbers like that since Pokémon," said Hilicki of Dalmatian Press. "They've sold really well into Borders, which is unusual. They have such a small section for coloring and activity books, and they can't lower the price point much."
Borders confirmed that Strawberry Shortcake is doing well, particularly color/activity and 8 x 8 spinner books. "We are trying a few licenses—taking a bigger stand on Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake than some of the others," said Diane Mangan, category director for kids. "As usual, the more girl-focused lines seem to be working better." She pointed out that boys' properties can be a hard sell, noting that was true for the Turtles the first time around.
The early success stories have benefited those who follow. "I think because we're the third female-skewed retro property, after Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake, we've definitely benefited from their early success," said Joanna Marutollo, associate director of mass marketing for My Little Pony licensee HarperCollins.
Nostalgia as Sales Tool
Although ultimately the properties must appeal to children, they benefit from recognition by parents and grandparents who were or had children in the 1980s. Bendon president Benjamin Ferguson pointed out that awareness for most of these licenses is around 90%, significantly higher than for a new property. When American Greetings conducted market research to determine if it should bring back Care Bears, it found "there was a high intent to purchase by moms, and high recognition," said Kraemer.
In many cases, nostalgia raises the comfort level for retail buyers, too; they know the property worked once and figure it might work again. "We're able to get strong placement in a lot of places," Ferguson said.
"We've sold to a lot of independent booksellers, who don't usually take a licensed property," said Debra Dorfman, president and publisher of Strawberry Shortcake licensee Grosset & Dunlap. "But they remember Strawberry Shortcake."
Personal nostalgia can contribute to publishers' decision to sign a property. When Penguin was considering Strawberry Shortcake, "everyone on the editorial team brought in their Strawberry Shortcake memorabilia," Dorfman recalled. "I thought: this could live as a book property, regardless."
The strength of the old Transformers toys "certainly played a role" in Reader's Digest's choice of that property, according to Rosanne McManus, associate publisher, who explained that several editors have older sons. "We knew how great the toys were."
While nostalgia can help get books into stores and into homes, the ultimate decision-maker is today's child. "We're really launching a whole new girls' brand," said Nancy Bassett, senior v-p of consumer products at DIC Entertainment, which represents Strawberry Shortcake. "If the toys are fun and the books are interesting, then we made it. Now we have to focus on giving the girls something to come back for."
Kahn of 4Kids, which licenses Cabbage Patch Kids, was behind that property the first time as well, when he was with toymaker Coleco. "The amount of competing products and licenses was less then. There were more retailers and more types of retailers willing to take more products," he said. "In order to get things into the stores now, you have to have a real good reason [such as sales or ratings] for them to carry it."
No matter how much nostalgic appeal, publishers take into account the licensor's short- and long-term promotional and entertainment strategies. "We don't advertise at our price point," said Hilicki. "Publishing can be one of the biggest components of a licensing program, but it's usually not the driver. We need media and promotional support."
Of course, regardless of the marketing plan, the property has to lend itself to books. Ellie Berger, v-p and publisher of licensed publishing at Scholastic, said it didn't matter that Care Bears had little entertainment support and few other licensees when Scholastic released its first titles. "[The property's] not dependent on media," she explained. "The books really stand on their own."
More 1980s relaunches are on the horizon. IMPS Licensing plans to reintroduce The Smurfs in the U.S. shortly; the Wildflower Group is reviving ALF, the wisecracking alien; and Henson intends to bring back Fraggle Rock. Yet how long the trend can last is open to debate.
Random House held the rights to many properties—Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake, Smurfs, Ninja Turtles, My Little Pony, Muppet Babies—during the 1980s but opted not to take any this time around. "You can understand why people are doing it," said Kate Klimo, v-p and publishing director, Random House/Golden Books for Young Readers. At the same time, she asked, "These burned hot, but can you reheat them? I think this retro redux is more to do with poverty of imagination than anything else."
"It's always a gamble," McManus said. "It'll be interesting to see in a year from now whether they're still selling."