How Merchandising Will Make or Break Animated Hits

Clothes-Fred Flintstone

Over on the Kidscreen blog, Scott Shahmanesh has a great post on the topic of licensing, merchandising and making the most of it when it comes to content directed at kids. While his three steps are a superb guide to the rough waters of licensing and so forth, this part is what stuck out to me:

This is a perfect example of how next to no singular form of entertainment has the impact on kids that it had less than a decade ago. New entertainment properties come and go so quickly, it can be impossible to capitalize on them by getting products on the shelves, before the craze is over. If you start while a property is hot, it’s usually dropped from the radar before products have a chance to follow. Just five years ago, a singer/dancer like Psy with the music video Gangnam Style (which had more than a billion views on YouTube) would have generated enough momentum to justify a huge merchandising program. Yet we saw only a handful of products on the shelves before Psy’s moment came and went. Kids quickly moved onto the Harlem Shake. And somewhere in between the two,we were all singing “Call Me Maybe.”

Therein lies the challenge to content creators and producers.

How Merchandising Will Make Animated Hits

Of course, we’ve already seen the beginning of what will eventually become the de facto merchandise and licensing model. For the most part, this will be the ‘on demand’ model that many online clothing outfits (no pun intended) already utilise. They focus on the intricate part of the process, namely putting the image on the cloth and by doing it locally instead of in bulk offshore, they can react much more quickly to shifts in consumer demand. End result? All the Adventure Time and Bravest Warriors T-shirts you can handle.

With the rise of 3D printing and the like, it should become possible to manufacture things like toys locally too, or at least move the easier or more time-consuming parts abroad, thus allowing companies to react in similar ways to the clothing firms mentioned above.

Another option will be to simply re-engineer toys entirely and either make them more modular, or alter how licensed characters and shows are portrayed on them. It may be a matter of going about it the Lego way; making standard pieces that are interchangeable between sets and unique character minifigs that can be made quickly.

All told, merchandising, and the ability to design, make and sell it as a show’s popularity rises and falls will be one key to success. The other will be doing it on a constantly repeating basis.

How Merchandising Will Break Animated Hits

If merchandise can make an animated hit, you’d better believe it can break them too. Besides the obvious goofs (like the infamous Little Mermaid VHS cover), there are other factors and traits of the on-demand model that could prove detrimental.

The first is quality. People don’t mind paying a bit more to have things done quicker, but all too often, quick = cheap and nobody likes to think they’ve been ripped off somewhere along the line. On-demand merchandise will necessitate a lot of people working very quickly and efficiently; all of which will cost money. Unfortunately, the temptation to skimp costs or cut corners throughout the process will be too much for some to take. One weak link is all it takes, and once word gets out, you may not have time to recover.

The second is timing. If success is determinant on your merchandise being available, anyone who misses or screws that up will be doomed. How can you mitigate for this? Well, having a plan always helps but having flexibility in the supply chain will be of enormous benefit too. One supplier already maxed out? There should be a spare with capacity ready to go. The gist of this point is, say a show gets super popular super quick, by the time merchandise is designed, tested, manufactured and ready to be sold, the moment may have already passed. It’ll be too late to fix things unless you can get a recurring property going.

Lastly, the very type of merchandise will be a critical factor. Nobody would create adult-sized T-shirts for a kids show, but what if you made the wrong kind of merchandise that fans were looking for? What then? If fans can’t get the merchandise they want, if they’re not offered it, guess what, they’ll go somewhere else, or make up their own; illegal or not. Again, a bit of planning can go a long way, and if anything, listening to and sussing out from fans beforehand can save your bacon in such a situation.

Either Way, Merchandising WILL Have An Effect

No matter how many ways you look at it, the traditional model of extracting things like licensing fees from networks, DVD makers, distributors and even merchandise manufacturers are all disappearing. In the not-too-distant future, there will also be no middlemen either. Studios will have a direct connection to their fans (or through online retailers) and they will have to be on the ball if they want to make any money. The upshot is that they can reap massive rewards if they get it right. The downside is that there is everything to lose if they get it wrong.