Moomin Character's Sophia Jansson on the unconventional success of The Moomins

Robert Hutchins

By Robert Hutchins

November 2nd 2015 at 4:13PM
UPDATED November 3rd 2015 at 10:55AM
Moomin Character's Sophia Jansson on the unconventional success of The Moomins

The Moomins may be 70 years old, but with a new TV series and film in the works and a renewed focus on the UK, it's feeling as fresh as ever. We talk to Moomins Characters and Bulls Licensing about the ever growing world of The Moomins.

There’s very little about the popular Scandinavian property, the Moomins that conforms to the traditional, particularly when it comes to licensing.

In fact, a stint of Moomin mania overkill in Japan throughout the 90s aside, Moomin Characters admits that it actively avoids the usual trajectories taken by many of the other popular entertainment properties.

But then again, Moomins Characters does not consider its cast of iconic, friendly troll-like figures as a typical entertainment property at all.

Instead, and in what it believes to be to the chagrin of much of the industry, it markets The Moomins as art, targeting primarily the design sector.

However, for the brand that now boasts growth of 135 per cent in the same year that sees it celebrate its 70th anniversary and its tenth year of steady incline in the UK, it’s an approach that clearly works.

“There’s a population of people in the licensing industry who turn pale when we tell them that the Moomins is art,” says Roleff Kråkstrom, managing director of Moomin Characters.

“But that’s because as such, we don’t follow the conventional routes. There is super interest in the licensing industry in Bilund at the moment, and at the heart of it all is a load of businessmen thinking about how something can work as a licence. An artist doesn’t do this, and to many, this is a strange concept.”

Opening his keynote speech at this year’s Brand Licensing Europe as he did by declaring that ‘there is a certain amount of shame attached to the licensing industry,’ and that his role at Moomins Characters is to ‘rid the firm of that shame,’ it’s clear that Kråkstrom isn’t afraid of upsetting a few apple carts.

And it’s an ethos that seems to be echoed across the close-knit company as well as its global licensing agent, Bulls Licensing.

“We have never been bothered about cashing in fast with the Moomins,” adds Gustav Melin, global licensing director at Bulls Licensing.

“The UK has been growing steadily over the last ten years. It’s been no explosion, but that is exactly our strategy. We are here to build a steady base for the property.”

Created by Finnish novelist, painter and illustrator Tove Jansson in 1954, the Moomins started life as a humble comic strip in a British newspaper.

Since then, the property has grown to global fame, particularly in the East where the Japanese market accounts for 45 per cent of the firm’s annual takings.

Meanwhile, Scandinavia accounts for 44 per cent.

Today, it is Jansson’s niece, Sophia Jansson who assumes the role of creative director over the Moomins estate, and with final say over all licensing opportunities, she is the self-proclaimed protector of the property’s rich heritage.

“I can be a force to be reckoned with,” she tells Licensing.biz. “Not in terms of business perhaps, but certainly in how I feel about the original Moomin artwork. Together we made the conscious decision to stick with the original artwork, and not be tempted to give it a ‘revamp’, like so many others do.

“But that said, I try not to stick my heels in too much, after all you have to realise that Moomins is living in another world now than that of 70 years ago. That puts certain demands on the brand. The important thing is keeping it in tact, while making it part of today.”

That world of today sees Moomins span audiences, from pre-school and early years, to high-end fashion and design followers.

Perhaps the biggest revelation for the brand is that it is currently in discussion to finalise a new Moomins TV series and has already detailed plans for a new Moomins film, following the success of its recent theatrical launch, Moomins on the Riviera.

“There is an older generation that actually knows the Moomins quite well, so it is really nice that the licensing programme has started to grow here in the UK, where the Moomins originated in a comic strip back in 1954,” says Jansson.

“The challenge is of course now to open it up to a generation that hasn’t read the books. This is where our plans for a new TV series and film comes in.”

With such a wide scope of play, it is typical that brands in similar positions would expect to see its messaging somewhat diluted.

However, for the Moomins this simply isn’t the case and as well as a team of dedicated players who themselves have grown up with the brand, Moomins Characters believes that its greatest asset in the conservation of its heritage is in the brand itself.

“It is in the DNA of the project,” says Kråkstrom. “With art, mankind collects it and validates art. Once you have become art, you never lose that status. People commit to the values, the love, family and friendship as well as the stories themselves.

“We don’t have to invest in creating values for the brand, the values are in the stories that already exist.”

It’s clear that Kråkstrom harbours both a philosophical and sentimental view of the Moomins, but certainly not to the detriment of progress and with such values worked into the fabric of the brand, he believes that Moomins’ ability to tackle both the kids’ and adult markets is made all the easier.

“There is a theory that targeting both adults and kids is supposed to be impossible,” he says. “And marketing something as both high-end and mass market, forget it. But, we have both working for us. We can do things for kids or we can make a dress for €200.”

But what is the secret to being successful across the board in this way? Well, according to Kråkstrom it lies in the ability to defy type cast for a brand.

“Pre-school sucks, for instance,” he says when asked about the typical Moomins fan. “Pre-school gets smaller and smaller every year and that’s when you see ‘pre-school properties’ starting to panic and make hurried partnerships, into fashion for example.”

“We often think that the graphics attract people even if they are not perhaps a Moomin fan,” interjects Bulls Licensing’s Melin. “They will still buy a Moomin product, you just need to have a basic platform of a trade licensing programme.”

While Kråkstrom and Jansson work together to apply the philosophies of modern art in a consumerist society to the Moomin estate, Melin’s thoughts clearly remain cemented within licensing.

“Moomins is one of our best and perhaps most successful licenses in the world,” he beams. “To have annual growth with this company is amazing. Moomins Characters don’t consider it to be a license, to them it’s a design.

“So the combination of the great minds, the great design and this great company has been going on since the 50s. Today we see an annual turnover of €30m.”

It was during his keynote speech at this year’s BLE that Kråkstrom held up a Moomins pencil to a crowd of fresh-faced licensing executives and proclaimed that ‘it is not news to tell the world that we have a new pencil.’

Now, and with the same amiable and self-referential humour, he concludes his statement.

“Licensing is about trying to find the best imaginable way to do something with your property. That is its definition. Moomins news would be that we have curated a series of fantastic Moomins exhibitions to tell the rich story of the brand. That way, we attract more news without investing in it.

“With design, we want to work with the most talented illustrators, artists, writers and film makers. That is our ambition,” he smiles while holding a mint tin bearing a Moomin character in his hand. “Of course, we don’t succeed everytime.”

Having taken both the Japanese and Scandinavian markets by storm throughout its 70 year history, Moomins Characters has detailed its plans to take on the UK with renewed focus.

“Our strategy in the UK now will be like a pyramid,” continues Jansson. “We will start with an exclusive, small family of licensees and then gradually build down until you get to the mass market range.

“We are no there yet, we don’t want to be there yet really, but that would eventually mean an increased presence in the toy market.

“But actually where we would like to be is having plush like Steiff and the high-end partners. For us, it is all about balancing between being high-end and low-end.

“This is why we look for long-term commitment from a licensing partner, because we are about taking our time with Moomins. It is after all the only property we have.

“We find that those that work the best are those that are passionate about the brand. The Moomins stir people’s feelings, so if we have someone on board  - regardless of the business side of it – who loves the Moomins they tend to stay.”

So, thanks to news of a planned TV series and new film earmarked for UK release in the next few years, it appears that 2017 will be a big year for the Moomins on British soil. And as the centenary celebrations of Tove Jansson's birth roll around to the UK in the same year with exhibitions coming to both London and Scotland, it is Jansson' niece and successor who looks forward to seeing the Moomins return to the country that first helped bring them to life in a big way.