Posts tagged “catz”

FreshMeat #22: License To Shill

FreshMeat #22 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh
                \\/  Meat

Can’t have any pudding if you don’t read FreshMeat!
We make no mention of the huge bottle of Yoo-hoo beverage
Last month I flew to New York to attend the Licensing
International tradeshow
. If SpongeBob is going to end up
on a box of cereal in the next two years, this is where
that deal is likely to go down.

I had been interested in attending this tradeshow simply
because I saw it on a morning news program (Today, Good
Morning America, etc.) a few years back. I don’t think I
even caught the name of the show, I just remember being
awestruck by the visual impact of the show itself. It was
a colorful chaotic jungle of familiar brands promoting
themselves, with guys in KISS costumes and Strawberry
Shortcake outfits wandering around. I decided to someday
attend this magical event. Eventually I figured out what
the show (and the business itself) was called – licensing!
Expecting a new and fascinating facet of culture, product
development, business, and marketing, I arranged to attend
as a speaker, organizing and moderating a panel on
consumer trends

With a bit of ethnographic curiosity, I set out to learn
more of what this community/practice/business is all
about. Typically, my work starts with products, with the
cultural aspects moving to encompass issues of brand. I
was prepared for a shift in focus, with this show starting
with the brand, but I was surprised to discover that in
licensing one doesn’t even deal with “brands,” but rather
“properties.” I’m sure some brand theorist could explain
the difference and we’d be enlightened, but let’s just
marvel for a moment at the lingo. I think culturally we’ve
internalized the distance between the marketing word
“brand” and the cowboy word “brand” because it is a bit of
an uncomfortable connection. But now the entities in
question are actual things that can be exchanged (or
licensed) rather than simply labels that are burned into
flesh to signify ownership. Fair enough.

The tradeshow was interesting, to put it mildly.
Immediately you see that everything imaginable is
available for licensing. I thought I was prepared for
this, I mean if one more person tells me that Martha
Stewart and Ralph Lauren are brands, I’m going to shriek.
Okay, got it. But the licensing business takes it further.
Did you know that John Wayne and Andrew Weil (the bearded
purveyor of wellness) are both brands, er, properties? I’m
not talking about a conceptual sense of property-ness, I
mean they are owned, managed, marketed and ready for
licensing. Other brands/people/products that are also
properties include: Andy Warhol, Antiques Roadshow, Buzz
Aldrin, Chicken Soup for the Soul, CSI: Miami, Dairy
Queen, National Enquirer, NYPD, Siegfried and Roy, Bozo
the Clown, Village People, Terminator 2, Rocky, and
Shrek 3 (yeah, 3).

And so the tradeshow is overflowing with displays that
showcase known and unknown properties. In some cases the
company themselves will be in attendance (i.e., Nickelodeon
with SpongeBob) and in other cases there are holding
companies and agents with boring neutral names (i.e.,
Equity Management Inc. or IMC Licensing) some of whom have
an amusing combination of properties making up their palette
(Zippo, Mr. Clean, Crayola, Andrew Weil, and Pennzoil in
one case; Midway Games, Terminator 2, Village People,
Musicland Band and U.S. Secret Service in another) and
others with quite obvious specialties (IMC had a booth
touting Jello-O, Kool-Aid, Planters, Oscar Mayer, Kraft,
Tabasco, Manischewitz and others – although it appears
they also manage other licenses, such as the science-
fiction show “Red Dwarf”). And in other cases there are
up-and-coming (hopefully) properties that most of us
haven’t heard of.

It gets more complicated. For example, American Greetings
(the card company) hired the consumer products division of
Nickelodeon (the TV channel) to handle Holly Hobbie for
them. Nick is part of Viacom, a huge conglomerate, and
they have enough horsepower that they can take on business
handling other properties for other groups. It seems like
there was business going in every direction. Property
owners looking to sign up a licensor, agents repping their
portfolios, licensees with products looking for
distributors, and every possible permutation.

But it’s hard to see the dealflow – mostly you just see
people in suits and costumes, and a countless number of
booths. Check out my photos from the show (including scans
of some of the artifacts I picked up) here.
I spent several hours walking the floors with my
colleagues, looking at as much as we could, until we
reached total property burnout. Although this was an
industry show, the tactic was to seduce us as consumers. I
posed for pictures with SpongeBob and Patrick, and Mr.
Peanut, and the Care Bears, and more. I sampled the Krispy
Kremes covered in candy fish-shaped sprinkles (for some
to-be-released film). I grabbed free manga, stickers,
postcards, and peered at the current Lassie. After all
that, here are some of my observations.

It seems that many previously dormant properties are back!
Or at least, that’s a common phrase. Holly Hobbie is back!
Trollz are back! Although, in fact, Trollz are an update
of Troll dolls (small toys with long stiff brightly
colored hair), so strictly speaking they may not really be
back. Fido Dido (mostly known for 7-Up ads in the 90s)
appears to be back, and so are Davey and Goliath, those
earnest clay purveyors of biblical insight.

One surprising pattern was a variety of properties or
artifacts that showed a large number of different
feelings, moods, or attitudes. Sesame Street had a single-
sheet magnet featuring 12 different Muppets with
associated moods – Oscar as “crabby”, Elmo as “ticklish”,
Cookie Monster as “hungry”, Guy Smiley as “smiley”, etc.
and a separate magnet, reading “I’m feeling” that can be
used as a frame to be placed on top of the characters to
display your mood to the world. This was very similar to
the “feelings poster” sometimes used in therapy.

Anther example was Mood Frog who appears without labels,
but has a range of facial expressions suggesting anger,
boredom, nausea, confusion, etc. The Fear’s are, as you
might imagine, afraid of very specific things: dirt,
germs, cooking, flat hair, and veggies. Another line of
products featured a grid of baby faces with a variety of
moods: cranky, quiet, sleepy, happy, poopy, and so on. One
property featured cartoon girls with different attitudes
(I don’t have the specifics, but something like “The Shy
Thinker” “The Clever Go-getter” etc.) that presumably
tapped into something that the target audience could
identify with. I guess “The Breakfast Club” (a film that
segmented high school kinds into tidy parcels like The
Jock, The Nerd, The Criminal, The Princess, and The
Basketcase) lives on in one form or another.

Choosing a mood is already a mode in current products and
features, especially online. For example, Moods on (a blogging site popular with the younger
crowd) offers the following default set of choices
(inviting you to add more as needed): accomplished,
aggravated, amused, angry, annoyed, anxious, apathetic,
artistic, awake, bitchy, blah, blank, bored, bouncy, busy,
calm, cheerful, chipper, cold, complacent, confused,
contemplative, content, cranky, crappy, crazy, creative,
crushed, curious, cynical, depressed, determined, devious,
dirty, disappointed, discontent, distressed, ditzy, dorky,
drained, drunk, ecstatic, embarrassed, energetic, enraged,
enthralled, envious, excited, exhausted,
flirty, frustrated, full, geeky, giddy, giggly, gloomy,
good, grateful, groggy, grumpy, guilty, happy, high,
hopeful, horny, hot, hungry, hyper, impressed,
indescribable, indifferent, infuriated, intimidated,
irate, irritated, jealous, jubilant, lazy, lethargic,
listless, lonely, loved, melancholy, mellow, mischievous,
moody, morose, naughty, nauseated, nerdy, nervous,
nostalgic, numb, okay, optimistic, peaceful, pensive,
pessimistic, pissed off, pleased, predatory, productive,
quixotic, recumbent, refreshed, rejected, rejuvenated,
relaxed, relieved, restless, rushed, sad, satisfied,
scared, shocked, sick, silly, sleepy, sore, stressed,
surprised, sympathetic, thankful, thirsty, thoughtful,
tired, touched, uncomfortable, weird, working, and

Similarly, IM (instant messenger) and web forums both
offer a huge set of smileys (or emoticons) as this
screenshot from the IM program Trillian suggests:

The thrust of this multiple-mood approach seems to be two-
fold: first, just like a line of toothpaste with multiple
flavors and features, we can find the one that suits us
best, and second, the display of so many different
feelings at once appeals to a certain vain sense of our
own emotional complexity.

Elsewhere at the show, girls with attitude were prominent.
This movement got a lot of press earlier this year when
David & Goliath (not the churchgoing boy and dog, but a
clothing company) caused controversy with a clothing
displaying slogans such as “Boys are Stupid – Throw
Rocks At Them” (read more here)

We saw attitude (the very cute Dog of Glee encouraging
you to “have a nice day buttface”) and mean girls galore.
“Angry Little Asian Girl” and “Emily the Strange” were two of
my favorites (probably because I had the opportunity to talk with the
artists and creators of the property, get a sense of who
they were and what their characters were about for them).

A lot of characters involved cats. Some were swanky
princess type cats, skinny, with a Parisian posture,
perhaps with a tiara. Some were emotional (“Sad Kitty
speaks for everyone who has ever experienced heartbreak,
disappointment, and the general hardships of life. Sad
Kitty cries the tears of all mankind!”) while some
companies offered a huge range of cat properties to suit a
variety of moods and attitudes (The Grinning Cat, Blue
Mood Cats, Tribal Cat, Three Hip Kittens, Flower Cat, Rain
Poodle, Art Cat, The Guitar Cat, Tropical Kitty, Dead
Kitty, and Lucky Cat all come from a San Francisco company
called Tokyo Bay).

The aesthetic of Japanese anime is a powerful influence,
with many different animated characters that typically
have flared legs, short bodies, big heads, big eyes, and
sometimes rather adult physical development. Homies and
Mijos come from da ‘hood. Previously infantile Troll dolls
are now sexed-up Trollz. Petz includes Catz and Dogz. And
there’s something called “Rock Hard Fairies” which claims
that “Fairies Just Got Cool!!”

Another tactic was to anthropomorphize whatever hadn’t
previously been given the breath of life (or big cartoony
eyes). We saw an elevator car and Doggy Poo, to name but

And finally, some properties were cool and funny simply
because they were foreign and literally didn’t quite
translate. A whole segment of the floor was operated by
the Korean Culture and Content Agency featuring Big Ear
Rabbit (“The Fundamental Concepts is the adventurous
travel by the boys with complex in their individual
surrounding with Big Ear Rabbit, Roy who is centered with
them and the boys are finding out their good point rather
than their own demerit. This is the story telling method
to be estimated by the boys themselves in the process of
hearing the story clearly, but is different from the
direct story telling method that the esteemed fathers told
their children the instructions.”), Ayap (“Dews in the
cave gathered into the magic bead for a thousand years,
and he was born there…He is good and pure. When he drinks
dews collected in the magic bead, his power rises a lot so
that he can help other people who are at a crisis. He
likes diverse kinds of sports. His is a sport-mania.”) and
JaJa (“She is the girl who always goes on a diet. We’re
trying to develop ‘A diet characters’ mainly for the ages
between 17 to 30, young females who strongly want to be
healthy and beauty. Providing a pleasant infotainment
contents throughout funny diet stories.”).

It’s not clear what lessons there are to be learned here –
no matter how many interesting, creative, and resonant
properties I encountered, I left the tradeshow muttering
about “too much crap.” It was overwhelming. Perhaps the
lessons could be found by looking at patterns over time:
what properties survive, what clever licensing deals get
struck (will there be John Wayne pet food? Or Homies
tampons?), and how do the established brands like Sesame
Street and SpongeBob evolve over time to stay current. In
order to assess those types of things, I may have to go
back next year!

My photos (including scans of handouts) from the Licensing
show are here.


About Steve