It is a rare accomplishment to create a character that keeps connecting with audiences after many years, but this is a task that SEGA of America Inc. manages time and again, according to Chris Ironfield.
“[We] continue to generate innovative content that moves the industry forward,” he says.
Ironfield is the director of licensing for the San Francisco-based SEGA of America, the U.S. branch of SEGA Corp. Based in Tokyo, SEGA specializes in interactive entertainment and software products for multiple platforms, including computers, wireless devices and products from Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony Computer Entertainment.
SEGA’s well-known video games include “Altered Beast,” “Golden Axe,” “Shinobi” and “Jet Set Radio.” But its most popular property at the moment is “Sonic the Hedgehog,” the titular character of several games centered on the fastest blue hedgehog in the world. This year, Ironfield says, SEGA of America celebrates the character’s 21st anniversary.
“He was developed in the early 1990s, when SEGA realized they needed a new, edgy mascot to promote the company,” Ironfield explains, noting that both SEGA Corp. and the company’s U.S. operation collaborated on the character together. Since then, the Sonic character has starred in several games, and Sonic-related products are strong competitors to Nintendo, LEGO- or Disney-related items.
“There appears to be an upsurge of demand by retailers and consumers for Sonic in the market,” Ironfield says. “We continue the creation of new product categories that meet the demand.”
Ironfield says Sonic merchandise appeals to two very different groups of consumers. The first are four to 11 years old who are familiar with the Sonic character’s modern look, which is taller and more athletic than its original incarnation.
“He has really evolved through the years, but he has maintained his personality,” Ironfield says. “If you think about it, [many] global icons such as Mickey Mouse have evolved over the years, but have retained the true sense of the character.”
For children, SEGA of America “offers an extensive range of products including toys, games, apparel, comics, food, home and party goods so kids can connect with their favorite character,” he says.
The other is the retro program, which consists of adults, teens and gamers who are more familiar with the Sonic character’s original look. “We’re able to create unique apparel, accessories, collectables and toys for them,” Ironfield says. “With the 20-year-plus heritage, we feel there are opportunities to develop products for both customer segments.”
Ironfield says that he has witnessed this connection first hand. Recently, at his daughter’s school, Ironfield saw a high school student wearing a Sonic t-shirt. “It was hip and trendy,” he explains. “We’re creating products with the Sonic that people know, love and connect with.”
Other opportunities for Sonic include a theme park in Japan, another in Dubai where he is featured and a Sonic-themed rollercoaster at the Alton Towers Resort in Alton, United Kingdom. Additionally, four animated TV series have been centered on the character, including “Sonic X,” which now airs on the 4Kids network.
“We’re pleased by the results of its performance,” Ironfield says, adding that the show airs twice on Saturdays. “We’re currently working with our partners to expand distribution.”
SEGA of America also has developed merchandise that is based upon the supporting characters of the game: Knuckles, Tails and Amy Rose, who are Sonic’s friends. “Day in and day out, [Sonic is] all about speed and the commitment he makes to his friends,” Ironfield says. “And while these new home consoles continue to thrive, we now see the dawn of the digital age with its smartphones and touch screen technologies taking us into new directions yet again.
“With the Sonic series already achieving great success in this new space – whether it be classic games re-worked or new titles likes the Sonic 4 series – we strive to keep a pace with the ever changing industry trends,” he says. “Which, for a hedgehog as quick as Sonic, shouldn’t be a problem.
Following the Movement
A constant challenge for SEGA of America is to follow the shifts in how consumers get their entertainment, whether it is through a video game or other formats. Although the company “reinvented the industry with the SEGA Genesis console game system, [SEGA] is reaching consumers indifferent ways today,” Ironfield says.
Sonic is still going to be played on a video game console, Ironfield notes. However, “There are so many touch points with the consumer,” he says. The choices available to consumers today dwarf what was available two decades ago, but they also represent an opportunity for SEGA to branch out.
SEGA of America has found that kids are using more technologies at younger ages. “They’re gathering and using technology from [such means] as smart phones, iPads or online,” Ironfield says.
“We’re trying to connect with them across the mediums,” he explains. “We’re making sure we’re creating new games, content and allocating resources in [those areas].”
Working With Icons
A longtime veteran of licensing, Ironfield joined SEGA of America in January. “Prior to that, I was part of Disney Consumer Products as the director of licensing,” Ironfield explains, noting that he also previously worked for Disney Store and Reebok International Ltd.
With SEGA of America, “I saw an opportunity to work for a global organization with such a strong heritage in the industry and the opportunity to develop new programs with an iconic character such as Sonic the Hedgehog,” he says.
Ironfield has been a fan of SEGA’s games since he was a kid. “I had a SEGA Genesis [and] I loved it,” he recalls, adding that he has enjoyed coming to the company and putting a new spin on its concepts. “It’s great to be a part of those programs.” This includes apparel inspired by classic SEGA console concepts.
Ironfield calls the SEGA work environment very collaborative. “I was fortunate to join a team [with] leadership that not only sees licensing as an opportunity of growth for the organization, but a key touch point with consumers and a long-term segment of the business.”
Within his role as director, Ironfield says that he likes to be involved with all of the company’s business units. With this approach, licensing is integrated into content discussions and development across all SEGA businesses and together, the company as a whole can create great programs.
“We create the best products so we can reach consumers in new ways,” he says. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with our teams in Japan and Europe who collaboratively and creatively have opened up a lot of new opportunities for Sonic.”
He adds that SEGA of America wants to grow its role in the games industry. “I see SEGA becoming [even more of] a major leader,” he says. “It’s a long-term strategy to develop new content and develop fun entertainment.”