Who calls the toon?

The rise in children responsible for their own spend is fuelling fears about their exploitation through heavy-handed use of character licensing. Are parents ceding control to marketers?

Children in the UK receive more pocket money than any other children in Europe. Spanish children receive the least. The unsubstantiated theory goes that the high divorce rates in this country, coupled with the high levels, particularly in the South-east, of families with two working parents has led to them handing out more cash to make up for their absence.

The Winter 2001 monitor report from Childwise shows that pocket money for teenagers now averages about &£12 per week. The average spending per month by 11to 16-year-olds is &£51.40.

Bearing this in mind, it becomes tricky talking about the issue of pester power. When you have your own money to spend, pestering is not necessary.

Senior consultant at The Value Engineers, Graham Singleton, has studies families at work at his local supermarket.

“What I saw was lots of little consumers exercising their buying muscle. The children were negotiating with their mothers or fathers – not necessarily pestering,” he says.

Singleton believes that because UK children receive so much pocket money, they are much more astute consumers than their European counterparts.

“I saw one family where the two young children picked up their own baskets and went off to choose things like cereal and then return to the main trolley with their goods.”

This could of course be pester power in another guise. The children may not be hanging off the trolley whining every time they pass something they want, but presumably the parents in this case had opted for a strategy that would make their own shopping trip more palatable.

Whichever way marketers choose to describe it, children have an increasing amount of influence over not only what they want for themselves, but also general family purchases, particularly holidays. The area, however, where parents’ influence is most tenuous is that of licensed characters and merchandising. Here it seems that no matter how much licence owners and marketers pay lip-service to striking the right balance between co-opting parents as well as children, the reality is very different. Katarina Dietrich, director of entertainment at Copyright Promotions Licensing Group (CPLG), says: “The market rules. If a company has a property it knows children will love but it won’t be able to bring the parents on board, it’ll do it anyway.”

This sentiment is supported by the remarkable success of the Pokémon characters. It is impossible to see what element of Pokémon can possibly appeal to parents or make them feel comforted by the fact that their children are obsessed by collecting either the cards or toys of the characters. Logistix Kids head of planning Dave Lawrence says: “With Pokémon, the frenzy of kids was so ferocious that parents had no choice but to tow the line.”

But Pokémon is an exception and licence owners cannot depend on children to buy in to a concept and drive up sales. If children are wielding more independent influence coupled with money in their pockets, they are at the same time becoming an audience increasingly difficult to please.

Dietrich says: “Marketers get into trouble when they rely too much on the character doing all the work for them. This won’t work in these competitive times. Children spend their lives on the Internet and text messaging each other. They have the information and the confidence to reject products quite easily. They just have too much to choose from. Ten years ago, there was perhaps one major character, event or movie per territory. Now everyone is doing it, so it is harder to get it right.

“Research shows that children as young as four have strong brand loyalty and children make an emotional investment in a character brand. The objective for licensors is to transfer that emotion to the licensed product. But children, even more so than parents are becoming increasingly sophisticated and discerning consumers. They will not tolerate an inferior product.”

Losing control?

So does this mean that parents are on the losing end of a relationship being developed between children and marketers? Not necessarily – mainly because many marketers, and indeed retailers, who have to be convinced to stock certain licensed products, are parents themselves. And that can have a major influence on their own commercial response to how licensing is used.

“The reaction of retailers is becoming a greater consideration,” says Lawrence. “If the parent or retailer has not heard of the character or property, even if the children love it, it’s going to be much harder to get them into the stores. Licence owners have had their fingers burnt with retailers becoming cynical about the numbers of available products, so they are being much more careful now.”

The resurgence of retro TV programmes such as Bill and Ben, Noddy and Thunderbirds means that not only do character owners realise the potential for longevity some of these products have, they appreciate these properties will benefit from the fact that parents know and love these characters. Parents who have grown up with a particular character will provide no resistance when that brand is extended through merchandising and licensing.

Lawrence says: “The fact that retro TV has taken off is not a coincidence. Character owners are looking into their backlog and understanding that they benefit from the triple effect of being familiar to both parents and grandparents.”

But there is an inherent danger lurking in the so-called evergreen characters. The fact that a character is well-known does not mean it will automatically be taken on board by a new generation of consumers, particularly if no effort has been made to find out how it will appeal to them. The worldwide characters owned by Disney and Warner Bros are said to be most vulnerable to this assumption.

Singleton says: “If you walk around the shops you will see characters such as Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry slapped on to products – especially toothbrushes and toothpaste. There is an assumption on the part of parents and the property owners that children are familiar with these characters. But why should five-year-olds know who Mickey Mouse is?”

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Promotional consultancy 141 has been appointed by Disney to broker and promote deals for its characters. Managing director Paul Seligman agrees that no matter how well a character is known, you cannot take it for granted.

“You have to be careful with the old favourites as they are often more meaningful to parents than they are to children. The other danger with using a very popular character is that the character can overtake the product. Clearly balance is needed and we spend a lot of time advising clients on the right character brand for them. A good example of a long-term relationship is Robinsons and Disney which appeals equally to children and adults,” he says.

There are some contemporary characters that find the cross-over between adults and children much easier. Production company Tiger Aspects is developing the Mr Bean Animation series, and despite the fact that the Mr Bean character is perceived to be for an older audience, the animation series and related merchandising will target fiveto ten-year-olds. The merchandising is being launched in September next year so it is impossible to know how children will respond to it, but senior brand manager for the show, Katherine Senior, believes that because the live action Mr Bean series achieved an 82 per cent audience share in the under-16 range, it will not be difficult to bring younger children on board.

Parental influence

Thankfully, because most in the character licensing market are also parents, the power the market has over children and how they spend their money is moderated. This should prevent the leveraging of characters becoming too cynical. Well, maybe. Makers of the South Park series boast that its characters will not be used on children’s products. However, go into any stationery store and you will see plenty of satchels and pencil boxes and other stationery products adorned with Kenny, Kyle and Cartman. These may not be classic children’s products but it’s unlikely that these are purchases made by adults.

Moral character

But Lawrence believes that the trend is for licensing to concentrate on more long-term partnerships. “I think the issues of moral marketing and needing to get the support of the retail trade will make a difference to how brands use characters and licensing.”

Lawrence uses the example of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films, which he says will provide major licensing opportunities not least because they are based on books “and the literary element makes them a lot more worthy”.

It is, he says, the long-term life cycle of brands themselves which will force brands and licensees into long-term relationships. And the very nature of long-term relationships will mean the concerns and opinions of parents will never be able to be completely ignored.

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