Building a strong character

Character merchandising appeals directly to children to promote the sale of goods. Their pester power has built a sector worth £4bn.

Products based on characters from films, TV series and books make up a £76bn global market, with the UK comprising £4bn of that figure. In this sector, says a new Mintel report called Character Merchandising, the character, rather than the manufacturer, becomes the brand.

But the sector balances on a tense play-off between parents, who feel children are being exploited, and five- to nine-year-olds, who aspire to the characters their elder siblings choose to associate with.

In the mid to late Eighties, the child population decreased. But the baby-boomer parents born in the Sixties have subsequently compensated for this, making the Nineties a fertile time for marketing to primary schoolchildren – the core market for character merchandising.

Mintel defines character merchandising as the use of popular children’s characters, which have been established as media properties, to promote the sale of consumer goods. It includes merchandise which has been specifically created to bear the name and image of the character.

The report estimates that the merchandise market can be broken down as follows: grocery products account for 30 per cent; clothing, footwear and textiles 20 per cent; toys and games 15 per cent; soft drinks, confectionery fast food promotions and giftwear ten per cent each; and toiletries five per cent.

Mintel research shows the role of character merchandising to be unique in product marketing because the character takes precedence over the manufacturer. Licensed characters aimed at children often function as brands in their own right.

The balance between the brands of product manufacturer and character is dependent on the target audience and the extent to which parental approval is sought.

The pack branding on HJ Heinz’s Star Wars Pasta Shapes, for example, features joint billing between Star Wars and HJ Heinz. Children are attracted to the Star Wars graphics while parents approve of the Heinz brand. In contrast, Eden Vale’s Munch Bunch yogurts accentuate the character rather than the manufacturer’s name, thus establishing the range as a food brand only among children.

Mintel’s research of penetration of licensed characters shows high purchasing levels of media-led character merchandise. Three quarters of the 1,500 adults questioned bought character merchandise in the form of books, magazines, videos, computer games and cassettes. Non-media character merchandise – such as toys, yogurts, tinned food, clothing, bedding and mugs – has a far lower penetration.

The study finds that children are growing older younger, tending to eschew childish things at an earlier age than ever before. Mintel found they reject characters associated with products positioned for children, for example McDonald’s Happy Meals, which they feel they have outgrown.

Mintel claims that the cult following of The Simpsons and South Park bears testament to this, as children aspire to the media consumed by elder siblings.

Forty-four per cent of adults questioned see a definite link between character-led products and children pestering for purchase. This finding indicates a sophisticated buying public, keenly aware of commercial realities and the power of their purse.

The Simpsons appealed most to adults, 17 per cent of whom chose it as a “personal favourite”.

Winnie The Pooh was chosen by 33 per cent as the character most likely to be purchased in book, magazine, video, computer game or cassette format, closely followed by Mickey Mouse at 31 per cent.

Mintel’s research underlines the market leadership of Disney, which enjoys a unique position as a brand in its own right and as individual characters.

Half the sample of adults questioned see character merchandising in relation to the peer pressure children encounter at school. A further key perception, expressed by over four out of ten adults, is that character goods are over-priced. More insidious is a feeling – held by one third of the sample – that manufacturers are deliberately exploiting children.

Although many adults have negative perceptions of character merchandising, their approval can determine the character licensing cycle.

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