Many of the largest entertainment studios in Hollywood take an exhaustive approach to the marketing of their properties – they will create anything and everything that relates to a television show or film and wait and see what interests and resonates with fans. 

However, with the economy still entrenched in a recession, retailers and studios alike are less inclined to take risks like that. Sony Pictures Entertainment has adopted this less-is-more strategy for its merchandising, and Gregory Economos says Sony can better respond to consumer demands because it has a smaller, nimbler staff than some of the other major players. This requires it to work closely with retailers and other distributors of its merchandise to determine what their customers will buy. 

“I think because of our leanness, it gives us flexibility to only conduct programs we think will work,” says Economos, senior vice president of Global Consumer Products for Sony. “That makes things easier on us.”

Sony Pictures Entertainment owns some of the most recognizable and popular properties on the large and small screens. The production company’s portfolio includes blockbuster movie franchises like “Men in Black,” “Smurfs” and “Ghostbusters,” as well as television favorites including “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy,” “Community,” “Breaking Bad” and “Pan Am.” 

New Reality

With a weak global economy, Economos says Sony Pictures had to come up with a new strategy to alleviate the risk involved for Sony and its retailers alike. These efforts involve carefully monitoring purchasing patterns and partnering with retailers to determine what best suits the end-users’ demands. 

“What we’re trying to do now is look at each movie and television program that comes out and look at what kinds of programs work for that film,” Economos says. “You can’t do a huge program on every movie or show, or you’ll have products that go out and just don’t sell.”

Aside from considering what to include in a potential program, Sony must determine whether developing a program for a specific property will be of any value whatsoever. That is determined primarily by the target audience for a given property, as well as the subject matter of the film or show. 

“There is a direct correlation between the number of people who see a movie or TV show and the types of characters involved,” Economos says. “If a movie comes out with no real merchandising potential, we won’t pursue.”

There are plenty of properties that are no-brainers when it comes to merchandising opportunities, such as “The Amazing Spider-Man” whose merchandising is handled by Marvel and those properties such as “Total Recall,” which warrants a much more limited program. In the case of “Total Recall,” for instance, Economos says the company will focus on a limited merchandise program for the 2012 version that capitalizes on the equity of this original film that came out in 1990. 

One property that defies logic in this regard is the “Men In Black” franchise starring Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. Despite posting huge numbers at box offices for the first two installments, “Men In Black” merchandise has been less than stellar in merchandising. The studio aims to change that this year with the release of “Men In Black 3” this May. 

“Spider-Man-type movies are a slam dunk, as is something like ‘Men In Black,’” Economos says. “For ‘Men In Black,’ the merchandising part has not always been hugely successful, so we’re looking at different types of products based on what role they play in the film, so we’ll hook onto that vs. a simple  action figure line or just some t-shirts.

“It’s about what the children and adults want to take home from the film to play with and use to recreate their positive experience.”

Technological Advances

These days, merchandising has expanded from toys, gadgets and clothing into cyberspace. Interactive promotions such as online games and websites keep consumers engaged in properties before and after they visit the movie theaters. 

The “Smurfs” fran­chise most recently has benefited from the proliferation of interactive promotions. 

Sony launched “Smurfs’ Village” in late 2010, eight months prior to the film launch, a game that allows players to immerse themselves in the rich universe of the classic Smurfs characters leading up to the film release. This became one of the most popular apps of 2011 with more than 25 million downloads. DVD and Blu-ray sales of “The Smurfs” film made it one of the most popular-selling family titles in the past year, according to Economos, and an all new film, “Smurfs 2,” is set to be released in the summer of 2013 with a brand new merchandising program extending the success of the first film. 

“That was a huge marketing tool that expanded the relationship a person would have with the characters and the film,” Economos says. “There’s a halo effect you have when using a product in the technology world. There is a deeper interaction with the characters, which is really important.”

Numerous Variables

Since there is no formula that guarantees a property’s merchandising program will prove successful in the marketplace, Economos believes it is vital that Sony listens closely to its employees who work directly with licensees and retailers. Each salesperson within the 15-person staff under Economos works within their own category, such as softlines or hardlines. 

“We allow those particular salespeople or category managers to own it, so they tell us, ‘This is what I think a particular property should have in this category,’” Economos says. “We then collectively create an overall strategy including that category with others to show how it should happen at retail.”

Giving these employees an opportunity to take ownership of their respective category, Economos says, makes them engaged in their clients’ needs. This is the basis of Sony’s merchandising success.

“If you look at companies that are most successful, they allow employees to take an ownership stake in performing their duties,” he says. “You must allow the employee the opportunity to be heard.”