The Licensing Shop and Bulldog Licensing play it smart with Shopkins to ensure the collectible toy brand continues to be a sensation.
By Janice Hoppe
Shopkins fans’ excitement rises with each crinkle of the blind bag until they have finally ripped it open to reveal a common, limited-edition or ultra-rare character. “The fan base loves doing the unboxing ceremonies on YouTube and social media,” The Licensing Shop President Steve Fowler says. “It’s kids talking to other kids through these sites, not suits creating a marketing program. It’s truly organic growth.”
Developed by Australian-based Moose Toys, Shopkins are grocery store-themed collectible characters that children collect, share and trade. Each rubber character has its own unique name and face, turning everyday items into cute and colorful figurines. “It’s a brand that translates so well and is built around pocket money,” Fowler explains. “Fans can buy a two-pack for $2.99, so it’s not a huge commitment. Kids and their parents buy a lot of two packs because they want to complete their collection.”
Shopkins launched Season 1 in summer 2014 and every six months since then has debuted a new season. Season 6 will hit stores in October along with the release of a first-ever DVD. A second DVD is scheduled for September 2017. Each season has at least 140 characters and fans want to collect them all. “The two-packs are in blind packaging, so you don’t know what you are getting,” Fowler says. “Moose Toys has created characters that are common, limited edition and ultra-rare. When you open it up and get No. 149, you are shrieking in delight and the fans want to capture that moment on camera because they don’t want to miss replaying that excitement.”
As soon as Fowler saw Shopkins in Moose Toys’ showroom three years ago, he says he instantly got it. “It’s fun, quirky, magical and I thought, ‘We can really do something with this.’ There’s so much cleverness about the brand and it’s cute, fun and colorful. Moose is a great company to work with because they are strategic, full of surprises and definitely push the creative boundaries.”
The Licensing Shop oversees licensees in the United States and Canada while Bulldog Licensing focuses on the U.K. Both licensing agents had worked with Moose Toys and found a way to rekindle that partnership with Shopkins because it was the collectible toy brand they both wanted to be part of. “Moose came to us and we saw amazing characterization, a market, repeat cause to action and media,” Bulldog Licensing Managing Director Rob Corney says. “Moose is a long way ahead of the competition. It’s not a bunch of plastic collectibles; this is a massive toy concept with characterization and social media following that sets itself apart from anything else out there.”
Both boutique-style licensing agents have put communication with licensees among their top priorities. Corney founded Bulldog Licensing a decade ago because he saw the need for more direct communication that resulted in retailers making informed buying decisions, which is exactly the model he continues to deliver today. “We take a retail-first approach and the licensees benefit,” he adds. “We have close relationships with licensees and retailers. Moose and our company share similar brand values when it comes to business, and it’s nice they have maintained that warmness you feel from a privately owned brand.”
“When I first saw Shopkins, I told my wife and business partner, Nancy, that I found the property we have been looking for for 10 years,” Fowler remembers. “I had a gut instinct on it and I’ve turned down a lot of different brands, but fortunately never turned down the next big thing. We saw the potential and at the time there was less competition in the girls’ space – there was a window for it.”
The Licensing Shop let Shopkins speak for itself among licensees. The brand established itself as a collectible toy that could support a long-term licensing program. “We didn’t pitch Shopkins at Licensing Expo in 2014 because the toys just launched and we didn’t want to explain what the brand is or sell an unproven license,” Fowler explains. “We really built the brand around the toys and in late fall 2014 we went out after our launch categories. We planned our rollout over a matter of years and because it is a toy-driven brand we started in the publishing category with books, magazines, board games and puzzles.”
The Licensing Shop and Bulldog Licensing experienced different responses from licensees when it came to licensing the brand. “It’s been a dream brand,” Corney says. “It hit the market and took off really quickly. Buying teams were very receptive and we communicated the strength of the property to the relevant buyers in the categories.”
The Licensing Shop’s biggest challenge in the beginning was getting buyers to believe a collectible toy brand would succeed. “Not everyone accepted us and we struggled in the apparel category,” Fowler admits. “We chased the best-of-breed licensees, but a lot of people didn’t believe a collectible toy brand could translate and have longevity. Our success today really has proven it’s a lifestyle brand. We have been quite pleased with the results of the licensing program.”
Today, The Licensing Shop has 75 licensees covering a wide range of products and next year plans to grow even more by reaching 80 different categories. Bulldog Licensing has 40 licensees, which Corney says is a very substantial program when you consider the size of the U.K. “The key thing is to not over-proliferate or take it into irrelevant categories. You need to consider: Does the licensed product help maintain your brand?” he asks. “Or does makes the consumer think you are trying to fleece them for every penny.”
Girls ages six to eight years old are the brand’s target demographic, and both licensing agents have held firm on that when it comes to adding licensees. “We could have been really greedy and blown this out very quickly to 200 licensees in the U.S. and Canada,” Fowler admits. “But there are a lot of categories we haven’t licensed out and are sticking to that demographic.”
Of course, Shopkins has fans of all ages, but the licensing agents found this age range to be the most beneficial to its licensing program. “Six to eight year olds have a very different play pattern compared to a four-year-old,” Fowler explains. “They understand the collectible part, know what the number 148 means, understand the quirkiness of the character names and can appreciate the humor. And they know what limited edition and rare means. We know further down the track it will eventually age down and there will be a plan to help support that when it does transition.”
Bulldog Licensing and The Licensing Shop are seeing tremendous growth with Shopkins. Bulldog has licensees launching at the end of this year and expects growth to continue as Shopkins is the No. 1 girls brand in the U.K., Corney says. “We expect significant growth for years to come,” he adds. “We have to make sure it’s going out to the right age consumer with the right designs. Most licensees are taking their products to market expecting it to be No. 1 because they have seen the evidence.”
The Licensing Shop in 2017 will launch consumables and has partnered with major household name brands that Fowler could not share at this time. The company says the brand will get into live theater events and a number of new categories soon. “This year has been a big growth year, but 2017 will be our biggest growth year,” Fowler believes. “We did just win in June the 2016 LIMA Award for the top character toy brand, which is industry recognition that this is a global brand that has done well.”
“Shopkins certainly has been a global success story,” Moose Toys Head of Licensing Dianne Bellchambers says. “The girls’ space was driven by fashion dolls or standard small dolls and Shopkins are totally different characters. Parents responded because they are affordable, cute and something their kids can collect.”
Shopkins launched first in the United States, Canada, Australia and the U.K., so the brand is more established in those countries, but Bellchambers says the company is seeing more growth in Southeast Asia, Brazil, Turkey, the Middle East and Russia. “Globally, children have related to it,” she adds. “Every kid loves a surprise and our price points work in all markets. We have gotten great results and it’s a format that works.”
Since it’s inception, Moose Toys has produced more than 600 million Shopkins characters and it has become the fastest-growing girls’ brand, as well as the No. 1 toy in the United States last year. Its Shoppies dolls are outselling Barbie, Bellchambers notes. “We have been committed to the development of Shopkins and keeping the brand fresh and relevant,” she adds. “We haven’t been resting on our laurels. The fans expect new characters, so we continue to invest to stay ahead of the game.”
For example, Shopkins developed 2,000 limited edition Jessicake dolls exclusively for Comic-Con International in San Diego this year and it was sold out on the first day in four years. The dolls are selling for $400 on eBay and fans’ only chance of getting one.
Shopkins is such a success story in part because of the licensing agreements. “Bulldog Licensing and The Licensing Shop knew it wasn’t an 18-month sensation and go-for-broke,” Bellchambers explains. “They were supportive in not going too wide. It’s all about the chase and which characters you have, and we wanted licensing to represent that. We didn’t want to be everywhere and in every category, but make it special and relevant to the toy line.”
In the U.S., Shopkins is the No. 1 girls’ license in apparel, bandages, bedding, swim goggles, party/celebrations, accessories and impulse. In the U.K., it’s magazines, stationery, cupcake sets and backpacks, and in Australia, apparel and trading cards are most popular. Shopkins was named “2016 Licensed Character of the Year,” and Moose Toys forecasts global licensed sales this year to reach over $500 million.
Shopkins is a brand built around the toys versus original content, Fowler says. “A lot of Shopkins success has to do with social media,” he adds. “The social media bloggers picked up on it and they speak about the brand to their massive number of followers. It’s truly organic growth. I think we have proven that you can build a successful brand without TV and movies, which doesn’t happen often.”
“We didn’t have a TV series and this proves that you can create fabulous brands by doing it in a different approach,” Bellchambers adds. “We embraced digital and made sure the toy was the hero. Social media is an incredibly powerful tool and companies need to be smarter and savvy with how they use the information. Always listen to the customer or you won’t have long-term success.”
Because Shopkins fans have taken to YouTube to record their unboxing ceremonies, The Licensing Shop has found it and other social media channels to be the best sources for customer feedback. “We have learned so much from spending hours and hours reading Twitter, and watching Instagram and YouTube videos,” Fowler says. “Early on, fans were taking Barbie and Frozen’s Anna and Elsa dolls shopping to buy Shopkins. Do you think they were telling us they wanted a Shopkins doll?”
A six-inch Shopkins doll was created as a result, which stands perfectly next to the shopping cart that comes with the play set. Although The Licensing Shop still conducts focus groups and surveys for consumer feedback, the company believes that for Shopkins, watching social media channels every day is the best insight into its demographic. “With Shopkins, you can’t look at what is the popular character by sales because there are common, ultra-rare and limited-edition characters, as well as blind packaging,” Fowler explains. “There is so much more information you can get on social media than by doing a sales analysis.”
Fans use social media to get the latest information about the brand, including finding out when a new season has launched. “The new season is launching soon, but that doesn’t get published as to when it happens,” Fowler says. “A new series launches, the fans find out about it and blast it out on social media.”
To date, Shopkins has more than 200,000 likes on Facebook; 11,000 followers on Twitter; 180,000 followers on Instagram; three million videos featuring the collectible toys on YouTube and the top-five fan videos on YouTube have been viewed more than a billion times.
Moving forward, The Licensing Shop and Bulldog Licensing will continue to focus on delivering products its customers want and maintaining the global sensation that is Shopkins. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work on a brand that carries you along to manage that process and that’s one we have here,” Corney says. “It’s amazing and a privilege to work on a brand like this.”
Moose Toys says it is in the business of making children happy. Its products are sold in more than 80 countries and the global organization prides itself on innovation, design and quality. “The award-winning company is known for developing, designing and distributing toy and lifestyle products around the globe for children of all ages and the young at heart,” the company says.
Moose prides itself on taking its brands from product design and development to market. The company says that it enables it to create and launch innovative brands that reach its target audience in a fun and impactful way that gets results. Today, Moose is one of the top-five toy companies in the United States and in Australia.
What to Watch For
- October 2016: Season Six will launch along with a new app with toy integration, as well as the release of the first Shopkins DVD.
- 2017: Two new toy series launching, further apps and four new webisodes a month.