If the parents know it and love it, if the grandparents know it and love it, there’s a great chance they’ll buy it for the kids. The trick is, the kids have to love it, too. To the younger generation, for kitschy to be cool, old has to seem new.
That’s the beauty – and challenge – of vintage brands.
Maximizing the captivating potential of retro is the task of Michael Connolly, head of global consumer products at DreamWorks Animation, the Hollywood studio that has produced such franchises as Shrek, Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda.
“Vintage is in – from Lucky Charms to Jack Daniels,” Connolly says. “But it’s been in for 20 years now. It’s not a trend anymore, it’s a market.”
Connolly predicts that three of the five biggest brands for DreamWorks Animation in the next five years will be vintage properties: Felix, Voltron and Trolls.
DreamWorks Animation produces CG-animated feature films, television series and live entertainment properties for audiences around the world. The company recently created an in-house publishing imprint, DreamWorks Press, and also announced DreamWorksTV, a YouTube channel created in conjunction with another recent acquisition, AwesomenessTV. It has theatrically released a total of 29 animated feature films, including the franchise properties of Shrek, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, Puss in Boots and The Croods.
DreamWorks Animation is hardly alone in popularizing vintage. For example, some of Disney’s top brands these days are Marvel and Star Wars, which have been around for 75 and 37 years, respectively.
“The kid today is the parent of tomorrow. Securing the parent buy-in isn’t as hard. But capturing the new generation doesn’t always work. So how do you keep a brand compelling? By reimagining the brand for today,” Connolly says. “If you look at these vintage brands over the years – the ones that have lasted for decades – you’ll see they didn’t the stay the same. They’ve constantly evolved.”
For example, Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer got a new, more mature look in 2009. She became a preteen – thinner, more girly, with longer hair – and moved to the big city.
Changing a beloved brand is challenging, and fashion is the most important and difficult category to get right where vintage brands are concerned, according to Connolly. “You have to be on-trend, with teenage girls especially,” he says. “If you have a great property and great fashion, it’s the best of both worlds on sales.”
These days, especially with boys, there’s a “treasure-hunt” aspect to apparel. “It used to be that everyone wanted to wear what everyone else had, but nowadays, kids want the shirt the guy next to him doesn’t have.” So that means coming up with more variety of apparel.
Connolly is in charge of all products related to DreamWorks Animation entertainment, but he doesn’t have an official title. “DreamWorks Animation is an amazing place to work, and an even better place to collaborate due to its title-less culture,” he says. “Everyone has a seat at the table.”
Consumer products are sometimes an afterthought at studios, Connolly explained. But “you can’t just slap a character on a t-shirt,” he says. And that’s where a flat corporate structure helps. “It allows us to sit down with the directors and producers of our films and TV shows and discuss the playability of a property without depleting the story. Everything starts with a great narrative and we have to make sure we enhance, not hurt, the story.”
Connolly is used to this kind of professional interaction – he experienced it at Wal-Mart, where he worked for four years in the company’s specialty division. “Positive friction produces the best results,” he says. “I want my colleagues to push back.”
At DreamWorks Animation, the collaboration between creative and consumer product groups works both ways. “When there’s a movie coming out 18 months from now, creative comes to us to learn about trends on the horizon. What will people be wearing? What will the hot colors be? What kind of look and feel should we go for?”
Many studios don’t do this, he explains, to their long-term detriment. “We want more than just a big screen hit. We want our hits to have a tail, by extending the characters and extending the story with merchandise,” he says. “And that requires interplay between teams to stay true to the story throughout.”
And how does the product team anticipate trends? “We rely heavily on apparel research, and we establish category expertise among individuals on our team,” Connolly says. Some focus on fashion, others on home, toys, food and health and beauty. He recruits from companies such as General Mills and Procter & Gamble and hires industry experts who have worked for decades in their categories. “Assembling this kind of depth of experience is an anomaly for a licensor,” he says.
For a studio doing so much in the vintage arena, DreamWorks Animation is not that old itself. In fact, it’s much younger than many of the retro properties it has recently acquired.
DreamWorks Animation was created in 2000 as a new business division of DreamWorks Studios to produce animated feature films. DreamWorks Animation was spun off as a separate company in 2004. DreamWorks Studios, a live-action Hollywood studio, was formed in 1994 by director and producer Steven Spielberg, music executive David Geffen and former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg.
In 2001, Shrek, a production by DreamWorks Animation, won the first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film. In 2005, it won the same award for Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of Were-Rabbit.
Since 2009, the company has been among Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” – the only entertainment company on the list. Last year, it ranked No. 12 on the list.
In 2012, DreamWorks Animation acquired Classic Media from Boomerang Media for $155 million, and with it, a portfolio of intellectual property libraries and character brands as well as licensing rights. Felix and Voltron were among them. Classic Media was renamed DreamWorks Classics.
Since his silent film debut in 1919, Felix has starred in more than 100 short films, three cartoon series, comics and his own feature film and was the first-ever balloon to appear in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
The goal of DreamWorks Animation is to make Felix one of the most desired tween/teen/adult fashion brands in the world, and license this international character across multiple categories. There will also be new content featuring Felix.
“There’s something about the historical symmetrical characters such as Felix,” Connolly says. “They’re classic yet there’s a real modern design aesthetic to it.”
For that reason, DreamWorks Animation is going to aim toward high fashion with Felix. The company has reached out to elite purse makers and luxury crystal brand Swarovski. It also plans to sell kitschy holiday tableware.
“This brand is really special, and we’re going to take our time developing it,” Connolly says. “No studio is patient enough to do this anymore. But if we watch over it carefully, instead worrying about short-term budgets, we can make this brand last for 20 years.”
DreamWorks Animation owns the licensing rights to Voltron – which was a hit animated TV series and favorite toy in the mid-1980s and has become a pop culture icon.
Voltron is a legendary super-sized, super-charged robot piloted by a team of space explorers, all with an epic mission – defending the universe.
The excitement begins again this fall for fans of the classic series with the upcoming 30th anniversary. There will be consumer products opportunities in all boys’ action categories especially toys, fashion apparel and accessories, back-to-school items and novelty/collector/gifts.
“The term ‘voltron’ has become a verb in pop culture,” Connolly says. “It means ‘teaming up’ and has been used by professional athletes and rappers.”
The Troll doll has been a brand for 50 years. Originally created by Danish woodcutter Thomas Dam, it is a plastic doll of a furry-haired troll. First popular in Europe, the toy doll became an enormous fad in the United States in the early 1960s. The toy made a comeback in the late 1980s. In 2003, the Toy Industry Association named the Troll doll to its list of the 100 most memorable and creative toys of the 20th century. Over the years many people have collected Troll dolls, which range from gumball machine sized prizes to pencil toppers to foot-tall figurines.
In 2013, DreamWorks Animation announced that it had acquired the intellectual property for the Trolls franchise from the Dam family. DreamWorks Animation is now the exclusive worldwide licensor of the merchandise rights (except in Scandinavia, where Dam remains the licensor).
A computer-animated musical comedy film based on the Troll dolls is being released by DreamWorks Animation in November 2016. The film, directed by Mike Mitchell, stars Anna Kendrick, and will reveal the story behind the beloved, colorful nature of the Trolls trademark gravity-defying hair.
“The Troll doll never really changed,” Connolly says. By creating a story for it – a musical comedy – the doll will come to life. “This is going to be the big movie of 2016.”
DreamWorks Trolls offers up licensing and promotional opportunities in every category and for every market around the world. Trolls will be an evergreen brand built around the themes of self-expression, self-confidence and self-discovery.
Major efforts will be led by:
Among DreamWorks Animation’s recent retail activations is an apparel collection dubbed “Saturday Morning TV.” The program features classic characters from TV’s past, including Voltron and Masters of the Universe with a core consumer target of juniors and young men ages 16 to 24. Recently launched at the specialty retail channel, the brand is proving popular with teens and young adults.
Saturday Morning TV features a wide array of humor, action and art styles, from the comedic duo of Rocky and Bullwinkle, to the world’s richest kid, Richie Rich, and DreamWorks Animation’s official Halloween Ambassador Casper the Friendly Ghost. These characters are featured on tees and fashion tops, as well as sleepwear, lounge and accessories, all of which roll into mainstream retail this fall and holiday season.
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