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Toy Story Woody

This past weekend, I reached a parenting milestone that most moms and dads would nod their heads to: realizing you’re that parent that you never thought you’d be!

Our son has many unbranded wooden toys, books written for Waldorf classrooms and will be starting at a Montessori school in the fall. But on a trip to Chicago with my husband and son, we found ourselves at the Disney store. All three of us “oohhed” and “aahed” as we eyed the ceiling-high shelf of Toy Story products. And needless to say, we left with Woody and Buzz. On Sunday, we returned because we “forgot” Jessie

So while all this is new to me, fortunately, my short stint as a parent was preceded by years of listening to moms (and the occasional dad) across the country talk about their feelings on licensed products (products that borrow equity from characters) or property-based products (e.g., a Woody or Buzz doll).

While critics of commercialism like Susan Linn of CCFC see no gray areas when it comes to these kinds of products (which Linn is referring to when she writes about “unfettered commercialism actually prevent[ing] [children] from playing”), even the most anti-corporate, anti-media parent will usually admit that denying your kids the characters they love is not as easy as it seems. For other parents, it’s a no-brainer. For them, childhood is as much about the joy of having a doll, action figure or other toy that takes on the likeness of their most fantastic friends – just as it did for many of us, pre-Nickelodeon’s hay day.

But back to that first group of parents…in talking to them about licensed products, they often make some good points. Most child development experts would agree that the best objects of play allow kids to create their own narratives – not simply imitate the storylines they see on screen. And many worry about setting an expectation that enjoying a story is about owning an object versus possessing an idea in your mind.

On the flipside, there’s the smile on your child’s face when they see a character whose gentle nature or clever mind or self-deprecating silliness has captured their hearts. And it’s pretty hard to resist.

But as many marketers have learned, the power of characters is actually quite fleeting. While tweens and teens will happily tune-in to SpongeBob, they’re unlikely to wear him on a t-shirt – or even on their PJs. And kids as young as 7 years old will let a researcher accompanying them to the grocery store know that products with characters on them are really meant for their little brothers and sisters. So for most parents, the licensed product “dilemma” is one solved by time…Just in time for more tricky challenges to take their place.

For years, youth marketers have debated whether borrowing or “buying” a halo from an established kids property or creating your own equity characters (think the Trix Rabbit or the Rice Krispies guys) is the easy-street to success. But either way, we think the decision requires serious contemplation. So, how can marketers meet the needs of parents when it comes to the character connection?

  • First, honor the characters you choose to align your brand with or you choose to promote through products. Be authentic to their essence – and that means knowing what their essence is according to kids. A character’s actual bio doesn’t always reflect the story that kids tell about the character – and knowing and creating to that narrative is the first step to getting your property-driven products right.
  • Second, make sure your products keep in mind their true purpose: play. Many licensed products go beyond pure character appeal to meet parents’ needs for age-appropriate play for their kids. For marketers to leverage these properties with integrity, it can’t just be about getting the branding right, but should also pay homage to the real star, your consumer.
  • And finally, when creating your own characters, know that kids love the rich stories behind their favorite characters. Woody isn’t simply a cowboy. He doesn’t just have a look that kids love. He has a heart, a soul and a strong script that allow kids to go beyond observing him to bringing him into their own stories. And it’s just this kind of complexity that makes these characters as much fun to “play” with, as they are to watch.