Because of a forward-thinking, partnership-driven approach to licensing, this high-profile TV network is bringing its programming to life on and off the screen. When it comes to kid’s programming that features a mix of animation, live action, and scripted and unscripted shows, Cartoon Network Enterprises is the unquestioned standard bearer. Five years ago, Cartoon Network Enterprises made the decision to bring all of its licensing activities inhouse to ensure its projects and products lived up to that same high standard.
Prior to 2005, its Time Warner sister company was acting as it licensing agent. But now, all properties related to Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, which are each their own Nielsen-rated networks that share channel space, are managed according to the networks’ own consumer products vision. Led by Christina Miller, senior VP, the company has seen great success since setting up an internal organizational structure and getting the division off the ground.
Cartoon Network’s licensing programs have several key differences from those of other entertainment industry giants. First, its target demographic is highly dependent on the property. Its youth brand has a core target audience of ages six to 14 that leans toward boys but doesn’t exclude girls. The sweet spot is the six-to-11 age group with dominant boy brands like “Ben 10,” “Bakugan,” “Generator Rex,” “Dude, What Would Happen,” “Destroy Build Destroy,” “Adventure Time,” and the new “Ben 10 Ultimate Alien.”
“On the kids side, we have an audience that is attracted to video games, toys, apparel, and footwear with a large emphasis on boys action brands,” said Miller. “We also had a successful juniors program with ‘Chowder,’ ‘Flapjack,’ ‘Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends,’ and ‘Adventure Time,’ and we have some strong retro brands like ‘Powerpuff Girls,’ ‘Johnny Bravo,’ and ‘Cow & Chicken.’ We are fortunate to have a wide range of properties that meet the needs of different consumer
Nighttime brings out a whole new face for the channel, as Adult Swim programming takes center stage. Adult Swim targets the 18-to-34 (and beyond) demographic, and from a consumer product standpoint, the home video market is the dominant category, followed by experiential events.
For instance, the “Metalocalypse” animated TV series, which centers on the death metal band Dethklok, has come to life in the real world with chart-topping CD releases and two concert tours with the band led by show co-creator Brendon Small. Overall, licensing and promotional efforts for Adult Swim properties focus on content and apparel that have a wide appeal to the core 18-to-34 audience.
The lifeline of Cartoon Network’s licensing activities is the programming content. Miller and her team spend a lot of time working to understand what content and series are in development, what is happening with character development, and when programs will launch on air. From there, the licensing team examines each show’s attributes to determine what kind of program will be most effective, starting early to get into the right product category, find the best timing for retail launch, and assess the competition.
“We talk to retailers early on to gauge their interest and get their feedback, and we bring in our product development partners early as well,” Miller said. “For example, Mattel came on early with Generator Rex because we new we’d launch with toys, and now we’re in the midst of signing an interactive deal.”
Generator Rex is new brand that Cartoon Network is excited about: products in the publishing space with DC Comics will launch this summer, as will home entertainment through Warner Home Video. Miller expects the partnership in the interactive space to be announced soon with an interactive game launching in 2011.
Other important partnerships include Bandai America as the global toy partner for the Ben 10 franchise. In fact, it’s is Cartoon Network’s biggest consumer products program by far, and D3Publisher is a key partner with Ben 10 as well. Nelvana and Spin Master play an important role with the Bakugan brand, and The PGA of America is another brand Cartoon Network Enterprises represents in the youth marketplace.
Miller said Cartoon Network sees partnerships as key to project success, and the company talks with retailers about product development partners they think would be a good fit for a certain project. At every step, vendor partners and retailers are involved in product development, so all parties are aware of everyone’s needs.
Each brand has a personality of its own, and because many Cartoon Networks properties sit well in the boys’ action genre, creating products like action figures and video games that appeal to a child’s affinity for the character is important because it gives a child the tools to be that character. For affinity brands like The Powerpuff Girls that are quirky and emotional, apparel, accessories, and novelty items allow fans to wear their favorite brands and have a piece of the property with them. Adult Swim properties are a combination of apparel, accessories, music and video, and live events, but in the end, everything goes back to coming up with programs that fit with a brand’s personality and not just sticking to a standardized formula.
“We try to find the intrinsic qualities of each property so we know what makes the brand work and what makes fans out of viewers. We look for those attributes in all of our brands so we can activate them, see what categories we should be in, and figure out what distribution channel should be part of that plan,” said Miller. “Unlike other brands that are built on a single event basis, our programming is on year-round, so we aim to create programs that will be successful and grow over multiple years.”
Although we still live with an uncertain economy, Miller is cautiously optimistic that consumer confidence is on the rise while aware of the fact that there are still high levels of unemployment and other factors that affect spending. That means providing value to fans is the best way to ensure the network and its properties can succeed in the licensing space. Miller also knows competition among brands in the space is robust, so the ability to support properties often hinges on the ability to be flexible and fast to market.
“It is critical to keep an open mind and find the right plan for the brand because there are retail exclusives, direct-to-retail partnerships, first-to-market opportunities, and wide roll-outs to consider,” Miller said. “Different programs work for different brands, and we must understand what we have to offer to capitalize on the strength of our properties and the products we put in the marketplace. We’ve been dominant in a busy space, and building true global brands will deepen that position and be a point of difference for us in a crowded marketplace.”