Edward Burns, CEO of Advocate Art – Britain’s largest illustration agency talks through his experiences in creating successful licensed characters.
The artists we represent develop against a client’s brief perhaps as many as a 1000 characters every year for greetings cards, children’s books and even advertising campaigns. A client’s brief will typically relate the character to this single commercial application – in children’s publishing ‘to carry the narrative for 3 year old boys’, or ‘a message carrier for a valentine design for teens’ in the case of a greeting card publisher. No one is so bold as to say they want a “successful global licensed character’. After all, in a highly competitive market place, mastering your own product group is a huge success in itself.
So when from these 1000’s of characters one captures the imagination of many, like recently Alexander the Meerkat in Compare the Market or The Gruffalo, then it’s interesting to us from a creative stand-point to figure out why.
I was asked once by one of our more successful artists if I thought her group of characters would work for other products and my reply was…”well I like them, the guys round the office do, if the publisher does and then it sells really well I will come back to you”. A cop-out answer perhaps but really, who knows? Certainly licensors will not buy into a character until they have seen some sort of run of success.
I had dinner once with Akiko Tanaka of Determined, who is credited for introducing Snoopy to Japan and managing and developing the huge program there in the 90’s. I can only guess at the total retail value of the brand but I was told the stationery alone was worth $300 million at retail. She described Snoopy as having kawaii, there is no direct translation for this word in English, it means life, character, something special, lovability, magic. A successful character has kawaii. We discussed what was working in the licensing world, what is failing and why that was obvious. It became apparent to me that a vein of constancy runs through these successes and failures. By no means is this a recipe for creating a successful licensing character, but perhaps a good check list for considering one.
I believe characters that have the strength to work over a large number of licensed goods and mediums must have 3 key qualities – empathy, association and appeal:
Empathy – the viewer needs to have an emotional connection with the character, they are able to create a bond between themselves and the character. They perhaps understand what the character is going through. They feel it! A good example of this is Snoopy, people relate to his alter egos and hidden talents, or Homer Simpson and how he struggles with mid-male-life.
Association – the character shares an interest with the viewer; this could range from planes and trains to fashion and make-up. The character itself can even become the object of association – for example, people who like cute/whimsical may be drawn to licensed characters such as Miffy, or people who like trains in the case of Thomas, or Bart Simpson with skateboarding.
Appeal – it really helps if the character is loveable, nice and witty – all the same reasons why you may choose to be friends with a person. Beyond that successful characters such as Winnie the Pooh are crying out for the viewer to love them with perhaps arguably few other redeeming qualities. Lovability is their main appeal.
While you can empathise with a character that is not appealing, or find a character appealing without association, the most successful licensed characters need all three of these qualities.
Now the rub. To create a really successful character you need to ramp it up so it has the above 3 in spades but to the masses, and also dumb down what the character represents – in short, to be very popular the character must have broad appeal already before you even give it depth with empathy, association and appeal. For example, a bear will win over an alien monster, a fairy over a crocodile, a train over a carrot. Sometimes niche characters or animals (like a clown fish for example) can become popular if they are boosted by a big media release, but not for long and not on their own. Ok, so how does Sponge Bob work then? You can’t get more niche than a sponge in pants. Perhaps it is his originality that makes him work? Certainly Nick’s investment in great writing keeps my own kids interested, but I’m not sure Bob would stand alone without the series in the same way Snoopy works without a cartoon strip.
Our focus is always the first fence; make it work for the original brief, and watch it fly- hopefully.
Advocate artists have created a number of successful licensed characters over the years. The caliber of their designs have been recognized by the numerous industry awards (Henries, Louies and 6 children’s book awards this year alone) that we have achieved. Advocate also recently participated in the annual Brand Licensing show, displaying our artists’ designs alongside international branded characters. We don’t market brands beyond their original license, this we leave to the established licensing agent.
Marina Fedotova’s fairies are proving particularly popular over a range of products – from cards and crafting goods to picture books. These appeal to a large age-range, from children who can see themselves in the characters (who are quite modern and fashionable), to older generations who can associate the characters with their daughters or granddaughters.
Another artist with a talent at developing licensed characters is Kimberley Scott, who has seen her creations jump from greeting cards to children’s books and vice versa. Her anthropomorphic mice, cats and dogs are always full of character, charm and appeal. She often places them in situations that the viewer can associate with, and have an emotional resonance, such as a camping trip with your son, a day at the beach or a game of football.
First founded as an artists’ co-operative almost 20 years ago, Advocate Art is now the UK’s leading illustration agency, with the largest bespoke image library in the world. Now representing over 400 artists, Advocate supply illustration to book publishers, designs and advertising agencies, greeting card companies, wrapping paper and bag companies, ceramic manufacturers and editorial illustrations for newspaper and magazine.