Animators pitching toons for ad work

The use of spokestoons in marketing is attracting more interest lately, as marketers find it an effective way to cut through the clutter of increasing media options and product competition by quickly grabbing attention and connecting with the various closely-targetted kids demos.
Last week, Kellogg and The Walt Disney Co. inked a deal giving exclusive Disney character rights to the cereal producer in the breakfast foods category.

The use of spokestoons in marketing is attracting more interest lately, as marketers find it an effective way to cut through the clutter of increasing media options and product competition by quickly grabbing attention and connecting with the various closely-targetted kids demos.

Last week, Kellogg and The Walt Disney Co. inked a deal giving exclusive Disney character rights to the cereal producer in the breakfast foods category.

The cobranded fare will span cereal, Pop-Tarts, and Eggos, slated for global delivery in 2002. The deal also entails wide-ranging promotional programs across Disney’s entertainment properties.

Tina Imig, co-founder of kidleo, Leo Burnett’s Chicago-based youth marketing consultancy, says many marketers’ interest in using existing kids series characters is on the rise, as are the ways in which they are used. kidleo focuses on innovation, research and runs character camp, which is about understanding kids’ relationships with characters and helping marketers use the characters to best advantage to build brands.

Overall, Imig says toon crew activity is up in marketing circles. ‘There’s a lot more enthusiasm and more conversations around tapping into licensed characters and a lot of interest in tapping into unique and innovative ways to strengthen their brands. Marketers are looking at using existing characters as an interesting way to deepen relationships kids have with their brands.’

One of the property owners responding to the trend is Vancouver animation house Studio B Productions, creator of several kids cartoon series currently airing in Canada. The shop has just opened a commercial animation division, and in addition to drawing on the talents of several renowned animators for original spokestoon stylings, Studio B is pitching characters from its series What About Mimi?, D’Myna Leagues and Yvon of the Yukon for ad work.

Yvon, an underpants-clad Frenchman from the 17th century (he’s an explorer who was frozen in the Arctic) who airs on YTV, Mimi, a young female protagonist found on Teletoon and D’Myna Leagues’ baseball bird team roosting on CTV are available on the spot shop’s takeout menu to star in commercials.

The humorous character of Yvon, who is infamous for his odor, might be ripe for a Glade spot, but taken out of context, would some in Quebec consider his costume and acent unfunny? Feedback is pending, as Studio B commercials push has just started with reels slated to hit advertisers’ desks across North America this week.

According to Chris Bartleman, Studio B partner/co-founder, the impetus behind offering up the characters came from seeing a lot of commercials with toon folk in them lately, such as the Simpsons and Butterfingers union. Bartleman says now that the studio finally has its own characters, and controls the rights, they thought it might be an added bonus for advertisers and would help give the shop a different spin. He adds that it would also be a win-win for Studio B, as any additional air time or wider exposure for the characters would help build awareness for its shows and ancillary products.

Will the toon tide

come in?

More and more producers are throwing their characters in the spot ring. In L.A., venerable and once-again-indie animation studio DIC (recently owned by Disney) announced last month that its numerous established properties, such as Madeline, Sailor Moon and Inspector Gadget, were available for marketing tie-ins.

It is, however, like most marketing-to-kids ventures, an area where advertisers need to tread carefully.

Beyond the considerations associated with using any celebrity, the use of pre-existing cartoon characters in commercials is regulated by Advertising Standards Canada’s rules regarding the endorsement of product by program characters.

The Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children says there can’t be a link between kids series animated characters and product, in that the toon can’t play with, mention or eat the product, but it can be used as stage setting.

For instance, a scene from a movie and characters can appear in the background, but Spidey had better not reach out and gulp down the QSR fare.

This does not apply to characters created by the advertiser.

Basically, beyond stage-setting, Standards decrees ‘characters well-known to children can present factual and relevant generic statements about nutrition, safety, education, etc. in children’s advertising’.

Despite the limitations, Studio B commercials head Michael van den Bos, who spent 16 years producing in this market with Vancouver’s International Rocketship, hopes that advertisers will see value in the built-in character recognition his company can offer in Canada’s junior demos. Studio B also has experience in how to tread in kids advertising circles. The company’s 1988 start-up began with spot work as a central part of the mix and later segued into its series-driven business model. Plus, spot vets/International Rocketship alums Marv Newland and Dieter Mueller will be working with Studio B’s staff animators on a freelance basis.

As to safeguarding against sparking concern from parents, Bartleman says only appropriate products would be considered, and if the advertiser wanted the spot to air on the same network as the program, they would first discuss it with the broadcaster.

Over at YTV, Susan Ross, VP & GM of children’s television for Corus Entertainment, wishes ‘good luck to Yvon and his future relationships.’ She says it’s a good business idea as far as generating revenue, given the financial challenge indie producers face, adding that she trusts the usage would be appropriate.

As to assessing potential advertiser interest, Ross notes that the QSR category is one that is always looking to kids entertainment properties to draw in families, citing hookups such as Dennis the Menace and Dairy Queen.

Calculating the Q-Score

As there are few characters out there on the Bugs Bunny/Mickey Mouse scale of universal acceptance, a big consideration for a marketer assessing outside entertainment properties is the recognition (Q-score) of the characters.

Given the creative limitations and additional financial obligations inherent in using an existing kids character over an original ad character, the property needs to be well enough known to generate a worthwhile degree of awareness.

With an existing character the marketer is also likely locking into a more precise demo (given the age-focused content of kids shows) than necessitated by a Chester Cheetah-type creation.

Carolyn Mitchell, account manager of Vancouver agency DDB Kid Think, says a reason that packaged goods clients often opt for their own spokestoon in commercials is that they want to make sure they can use it whenever they want, and that they have proprietary rights to the character so kids don’t see the same character promoting a competitor’s product in the future.

Mitchell, who works on the McDonald’s account, and is therefore familiar with the impact of Ronald, says, ‘Kids often identify products through a character; there’s a relationship there.’

Niche evolution

However, with greater fragmentation, the status quo on assessing promotional partners is part of the same niche evolution facing media buying. As the weighting system contends with less mass and more concentrated audiences, and below-the-line gains ascendancy, traditional wisdom is being re-evaluated across the board. In the kids genre, the popularity of branded ad games on kid sites is just one newer area where licensed characters can add value.

While Leo Burnett has worked with characters for the past 60-plus years – the agency helped invent the Pillsbury Doughboy and Tony the Tiger – the kidleo camp was added as a specialty in the last couple of years to help clients with building existing character equity and working with licensed properties, reflecting the momentum in the use of characters.

But should marketers exploit the pre-fab loyalty of licensed characters or build their own?

When deciding to tap into the power of existing characters, Imig strongly encourages marketers to look at awareness/likeability levels, but to also look beyond Q-Scores and think about synergy.

She says a marketer should ask, ”does this character strengthen the equity of our brand or are we just borrowing strength from the character’s equity?” adding that with pure awareness assessment, if the character falls out of favor, it can have a negative impact on the brand. Whereas if you have tapped into a property for the right reasons, she says, such as products with an education component using Blue’s Clues, there’s more longevity inherent.

‘The challenge for marketers is whether to go for short term buzz around the product or look at it from the long term – build a more enduring story about the brand,’ she says.

Keying into the essence of the character works best for long-term brand equity when the stories match.

‘If the brand story is about adventure and fun, you might want to tap into Rugrats or Scooby Doo.’

Imig cites the U.S. Milk campaign as an example of doing it right. The campaign uses a variety of characters, and uses each character’s true story to get kids excited about drinking milk.

The blur factor

Another factor affecting the way marketers look at picking characters – and the usage – is the blurring between entertainment properties, toys, games and books.

‘Characters don’t just exist in TV for kids anymore,’ says Imig, ‘They exist in games, food, apparel, accessories and room decor. Characters are moving everywhere and kids have relationships with more characters than ever before – deeper relationships, more age-appropriate.

‘Marketers want to tap into the power of that relationship.

‘Fragmentation, from a marketer’s perspective, means that there are so many kids products on the market that they they need to stand out – and tapping into characters is one way to stand out. It creates excitement for kids and simplicity for moms. It makes mom’s choice easier – she knows that if a kid’s favourite character is on a product, it will put a smile on their face and they’re going to use it.’

Imig also finds more marketers are going beyond the way they typically think about using characters. ‘It used to be just putting a face on a box – now it’s looking at special flavors and integrating the character into product. We’re seeing more innovative products coming out.’

Perhaps indicative of changing attitudes, some of DIC’s new properties, such as Super Duper Sumos and Liberty’s Kids, are attracting interest from corporate America much earlier in their life cyle than is the norm.

Kathi Sharpe, senior VP of marketing and promotion, joined DIC to leverage its 3,000 half-hour episodes – the second largest animation library in America of animated children’s shows – in new ways. ‘We have both been approached and are approaching hundreds of companies about different outreach, promotional and marketing initiatives. And that applies to Internet companies, consumer products companies, athletic footwear companies, QSRs, chain stores, chain retailers, specialty retailers – there’s really a very, very eclectic group of people we are pursuing.’

When asked about the impetus to make this push, Sharpe replies, ‘Retail as a whole is pretty challenging. Consumers out there are very sophisticated. It makes the job more challenging for the marketers, be it an insurance company, a financial institution, a packaged good company. Each of these marketers is trying to reach an audience in a very fragmented environment.

‘Marketers have more ways to reach consumers than ever before, but they’ve got a very uncaptive audience with a very short attention span, not only because of what consumers are juggling in their lives but because of the ways they get their information. The problem is becoming more and more compounded.

‘But when you can make the connection and there’s an allegiance to a property or an emotional reaction to a character you like, you’re more likely to engage in that service, use that product. And I think that’s why for the right companies creating that association is a very valuable marketing tool and the cost is not that expensive.’

As to how the characters would come into play, Sharpe says, ‘it’s not only about tying into a property but in some cases it may be about licensing characters as their partners.

‘Right now we are pitching Inspector Gadget as a very strong spokescharacter for the electronic gadget product companies like the Palm Pilots, the Casios, the Hand Springs and the retailers like Radio Shack, Circuit City, Best Buy, Sharper Image and all the gadget-type companies. For Sailor Moon, because it really skews from kids to young teens, we’re looking for a major toy retail partner that is predominantly based in malls. We would generate our activity at the mall tour, then drive people back to the retailer who would perhaps redeem part of a prize, [or offer] a discounted product.

‘We’re looking at hotel properties and how we can connect with them through family packages, making it a better experience for the kids. Internet and interactive companies, making it a better online experience. Whether it’s the online, shopping or consuming experience you just want a bit better way to engage someone and create that emotional connection.’

And for DIC, Sharpe says it will generate greater awareness for the brand and create a greater leveraged marketing opportunity for the different departments – home entertainment, television and consumer products. ‘We’re talking about several million dollars in additional revenues to the company.’

With files from Cynthia Aristizabal.