Character building

Selling cartoon characters and their merchandise overseas can be child’s play. But there’s no guarantee that what sells in the UK will be a success abroad. Helen Donald reports on how to avoid the pitfalls and achieve success

Bob the Builder has just announced dates for his first UK gigs. If they’re successful, a global tour is sure to follow soon after as licensees know that overseas markets are big business for UK characters – and making money from them is child’s play.

Of course countries vary, but fundamentally children are the same the world over, maintains Advanstar Communications director Diane Stone.The international licensing group manages the only global licensing event, the annual International Licensing Show in New York. Stone says: “The degree to which a character is engaging is unrelated to its national origin. Children the world over like bright colours, smiles and humour. Characters that fulfil these needs, such as the Teletubbies, translate very well from one country to another.”

Need for universal appeal

But success abroad is never guaranteed and Stone admits that even such children’s favourites as Enid Blyton’s Noddy and The Famous Five have had only limited success in the US. Gullane Entertainment president Charles Falzon believes that to succeed overseas characters need to have some universality. He cites the example of Captain Pugwash, a big hit on UK television. Gullane holds the international licence for the characters but has never attempted to market them seriously outside the UK.

“Pugwash is a bumbling pirate and his appeal is peculiarly British,” says Falzon. “In many countries such as Japan, children aren’t interested in pirates at all – they’re just not part of the heritage they grow up with. And in other countries, such as the US, children expect their pirates to be heroes, discovering hidden treasure – so they are unlikely to identify with Pugwash.”

By contrast, Gullane has achieved great success with Thomas the Tank Engine. Currently 300 licensees produce 2,000 different types of Thomas products in 135 countries. Falzon believes that Thomas is a good example of what makes a successful international property. “The stories are good and have universal appeal and children like the interaction between the different characters.

“The fact that they are trains is not immediately relevant although, of course, all children can relate to trains because they are present in every country and culture,” he says.

The important thing, Falzon believes, is that children can identify with the stories. “Children don’t care where the character’s from. They just want to feel that it represents their friend next door, or even themselves. It’s a balance between creating a fantasy world that will engage them while not making it too foreign for them,” he says.

In practice that means minor tweaks and adaptations, making stories and characters pertinent to the local market. In many instances, it involves nothing more than dubbing sound-tracks with local accents so that characters sound familiar. But the real challenge is knowing what to change and what to leave untouched in order to stay true to the essence of the character. A good local agent can mean success or failure.

Giles Andreae, creator of the British stick-figure cartoon Purple Ronnie, admits he made a few mistakes in the early years. Purple Ronnie started off illustrating poems on greeting cards and has now inspired its own range of products.

Mind your language

Andreae says: “We appointed a distributor in Finland that was very proud of its idiomatic translations of my poems and couldn’t understand why the cards weren’t going very well. I insisted that they give me literal translations and found that one called ‘Girls’ had been translated from ‘What is wrong with a jug of ale and a steaming plate of curry?’ to ‘What is wrong with a pot of Porter and a liver-paste flambé?'”

Nowadays, Purple Ronnie is a success in English-speaking countries thanks to Andreae’s close working relationship with his agent The Licensing Company (TLC). Obviously some words have to be changed, particularly for the US where people don’t understand peculiarly British expressions like “bum”and “doing it”, but Andreae is a firm believer in keeping as much quirky language as possible. “There is a fine balance between making the reader think ‘that’s a fun English word and I can guess what it means’ and ‘I haven’t a clue’, which is guaranteed to turn them off. That means taking out some of the more chewy Anglo-Saxon words but keeping those that can be understood in context.”

TLC group managing director Melvin Thomas sees eye to eye with Andreae. “Americans thought ‘shag’ was a type of carpet until Austin Powers. It’s important not to lose the quirky ‘Englishness’ of Purple Ronnie’s language,” he says.

Interestingly, Purple Ronnie’s sayings will not be translated when he is launched in Japan in the near future. “Purple Ronnie has a strong graphic look and,” says Andreae, “we believe that we can make him fashionable without people needing to understand what he is saying. It’s no different from people in this country who buy T-shirts with Chinese characters on them but haven’t a clue what they actually mean.”

Ensuring a character is accepted is as much about respecting cultural differences as linguistic ones and, again, a good local agent is invaluable. It’s all too easy for a seemingly innocent children’s story to be seen as highly offensive in other countries.

Adapting to local markets

Amelia Beddoe is the daughter of the late Roger Hargreaves who created the Mr Men and Little Miss characters. She runs the Hargreaves Organisation with brother Adam and has experienced many of the highs and lows of taking the characters overseas.

Beddoe is a firm believer in the importance of listening to your agent and being prepared to make small but crucial changes to stories. When they launched the Mr Men characters in China, their agent insisted that they change Mr Slow’s hat from its usual green to brown because green was associated with philandering – not something Mr Slow was typically known for. They were also advised to remove wizards and pigs from stories appearing in the Middle East as these could cause offence. The Mr Men celebrate their 30th anniversary this year and currently turn over &£130m worldwide in associated merchandise sales annually, so clearly the advice has been worthwhile.

But cultural differences can also have a major influence on what types of merchandising will work and which won’t. For example, in France there is virtually no tradition of sending greeting cards. Character clothing tends to sell well in Germany but in France and Italy fashion tends to be more sophisticated and there is less interest in it. In Japan, Thomas the Tank Engine toilet paper is all the rage: in the first three months following its launch over 165,000 rolls were sold – nearly 5 million metres of toilet paper.

If a character is not well known, parental endorsement is critical for boosting merchandise sales. Ironically, being perceived as British can be a surprising advantage.

“Until recently, a lot of children’s television came from the US and there was a sausage factory mentality to it,” claims Gullane’s Falzon. “Western baby-boomers can treat child-rearing as the ultimate career and tend to be obsessive about what will be valuable to their child’s development. Their view is that state-owned channels take a responsible attitude to children’s programming so consequently they think British TV is more sophisticated.

“Being British gives a programme a stamp of approval from an ‘edutainment’ point of view.”

The irony, however, according to Advanstar’s Stone is that the explosion in low-budget cable and satellite channels is fuelling the rapid international transfer of characters. “As the number of channels increase, there are more and more hours to fill. The stations all desperately need content, so there is increased traffic in all types of programming, particularly children’s,” she says. Invariably, merchandising follows close behind.

Katarina Dietrich, director of entertainment at Copyright Promotions Licensing Group (CPLG), which looks after many children’s properties including Mr Men and the Beano characters, believes that a TV presence is crucial to success in new markets. “When you launch merchandise, invariably the awareness needs to exist already. The success, or otherwise, of a character often has nothing to do with national appeal and everything to do with mass marketing. Is there widespread recognition of the character?” she says.

CPLG tried to launch Dennis the Menace merchandise in Germany, where Dennis was an extremely popular magazine character but it was not successful because, Dietrich claims, his appeal was still too niche.

The reason, Dietrich says, is that despite perceptions that we operate in a global market, or at the very least a pan-European one, retailing is still a national operation. Merchandising deals have to be negotiated with every market and, inevitably, there are minimum volume thresholds for products. This means that only those with mass-market appeal are commercially viable.

Purple Ronnie is one of the few exceptions to this rule. As TLC’s Thomas points out, much of Purple Ronnie’s appeal is the feeling that you have discovered the character for yourself and the most important thing is that he makes people laugh even if they have never heard of him before.

The biggest risk when marketing any character is that it becomes too popular too fast – if it does its success may be shortlived. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Japan, the classic fast-fuse/short-burn market. Thomas the Tank Engine is currently riding the wave of popularity, fuelled in part by its Britishness. Not so long ago, the Mr Men became a similar fad and for a brief period even had their own shops, all of which have now closed. But Beddoe is circumspect. “It never dies entirely,” she says. “If you’ve got a strong property in the first place, it’s just a question of waiting for a new generation.”

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