With an industry in flux, this licensing company is finding new media where its iconic character can shine. With all the coverage of how dramatic, and painful, the changes to the newspaper industry have been in the last few years, there hasn’t been much attention paid to industries that rely on newspapers—specifically, comic strips. After 40 years, the team behind the Ziggy and Friends comic panel are relaying on strength of character to navigate these challenging times.

“They say in the last six months, newspaper readership has dropped by almost 6%, so its not surprising, but it is saddening when a business like the Cincinnati Post, where Ziggy had been running as a comic for decades, folds,” said Tom Wilson, creator. “Of course, the other side of that sadness is the excitement at so many new opportunities for comics.”

He said people are still getting their news, just through different media, and that people still want light hearted, inspiring, and funny comics to balance the fear and negativity in the news. So comics simply have to adapt and reach the readers on their terms. And for a 40-year old character, Wilson said he is always impressed at how well Ziggy translates to new technology. That, he said, is due to his character.

New and old partners

Originally designed as a character for American Greeting cards, Wilson said Ziggy was drawn with teddy-bear proportions and non-specific physical features with the goal of creating an communicator who could convey highly personal messages.

Furthermore, the greeting card industry is far more cut-throat and competitive than the comic industry; in a sense, Ziggy was forged in the fire and proven as a bankable character before branching into comics and broader licensing opportunities.

“There is something universal about him that’s allowed him to survive and become the iconic character that he is today. People identify and empathize with him, and that’s why he continues to translate to a wide variety of media,” Wilson said.

Back in the 1980s, Ziggy debuted on TV in a Christmas animated special called “Ziggy’s Gift” that, after 15 years lost in Hollywood, was recently released on DVD. Wilson said he and his team are working with more people in Hollywood to see about making “Ziggy’s Gift” an annual tradition on TV and making feature-length movie for the little guy. 

Ziggy is also back with his first licensing partner, American Greetings, for a classic, retro line of greeting cards that Wilson said are testing very well. And the character remains a popular one in plush, ceramic, and vinyl product categories, where he’s succeeded for many years.

As for new technology, Wilson is planning to make the jump to online greeting cards and even smartphone applications in the coming months. Already, there are Ziggy parade balloons all over the country.

Wilson said the key to success in all licensing partnerships, regardless of how traditional, high-tech, or offbeat they might be, is to look for the right fit at the beginning of the relationship and treat all partners like family.

“When someone comes to us with a product, we look to the character to see if there’s a fit so we don’t cheapen the reputation Ziggy has earned. But at the same time, we are looking to be sure a partnership would do the product justice and make sense for both sides,” Wilson explained.

He added that, in licensing, a character with Ziggy’s longevity is becoming rare. Every year at the licensing show, he said, much younger characters are resigned in favor of something new and fresh. Although the challenges of the industry account for some of that turnover, Wilson also said truly successful characters last because the products they represent are a true extension of their personalities.

Character matters

It’s that conviction in the importance of character to branding that inspired Wilson to create a consulting company: Character Matters. He serves as an advisor to brands looking to create a character as part of a marketing strategy. This is becoming a more popular marketing strategy; he pointed to the M&M and Goldfish ensembles that have put new faces on familiar brands.

The goal is always to bring excitement and advanced engagement to the brands, but he said that in every instance, he, his team, and a client have known immediately when they’ve developed something that will work because a character that truly represents a brand has a sincerity that can’t be faked.

“We have a very cynical and savvy market out there, and if your character doesn’t represent the passion behind your work—the fire that inspired you to start your business in the first place—they’ll be able to tell,” he explained. “Nothing translates more clearly and is more powerful than a truly honest embodiment of that passion in the form of a loveable character.”