Start Licensing's Ian Downes on the cult appeal of Bananaman

Robert Hutchins

By Robert Hutchins

September 7th 2015 at 3:03PM
UPDATED September 11th 2015 at 10:31AM
Start Licensing's Ian Downes on the cult appeal of Bananaman

Since 1980, Eric Wimp and his alter-ego Bananaman has been delighting kids and adults alike. Ian Downes talks through the long-term plans for this classic brand.

Can you give us a history of the Bananaman brand and its successes?

It was in1980 that Bananaman started life in Nutty comic and later appeared in The Dandy. Currently he appears weekly in The Beano.

The dim-witted hero has also featured in a very popular cartoon series which debuted in 1983. The series was voiced by the comedy stars The Goodies and proved very popular at the time - being repeated several times and also popping up again in the 1990s. 

The series then went onto great success on video and DVD via Delta. One of its great strengths is its popularity with children and students who watched it in the 1980s and 1990s.

This pedigree made Bananaman a natural for Truffleshuffle - whose ethos is to celebrate the very best of popular culture : Bananaman was a character and series at the very core of its philosophy and was one of the first licenses they signed.

Bananaman remains a cult classic to this day - a character that consumers talk about with fondness and a character that is often referred to in the press and feature on TV compilation shows.  A measure of the popularity of Bananaman is that Truffleshuffle ran a Bananaman programme for over ten years and have only recently rested it. 

A key to the success of Bananaman is its tongue in cheek approach to 'superheroes' that strikes a chord with consumers and is still relevant today.

What is the demographic for the property and who are you targeting with the licensing programme?

There are two main target markets: One that reflects the readership of The Beano (so five to ten-year-olds) and an adult market, for anyone aged 20 and above, based on consumers who read or watched Bananaman when they were younger.

We are looking to develop licensed products that reflect both of these areas.

However, we also have a third market emerging which is for babies and toddlers.

Recently Paul Dennicci Limited developed babygrows for Mothercare and we have had success with toddler apparel before. This seems to work on the basis of parents buying the products and also gifting among peer groups.

Of course, the banana theme and graphics work well for this age group as well. A lot of what we do on Bananaman is design and product driven.

How many licensees do you have on board for Bananaman and in what categories?

The current licensee programme is comprised of Smiffy's for Dress Up - a range featuring muscle suits, conventional dress up and second skin suits for men, women and children.

This dress up range is a perennial seller and we often see Bananaman at sports events - I spotted ten in a row at a cricket match a year or so go.

We have recently signed with Bravado as a 'master' apparel partner to create a full range of apparel and accessories. The company is finalising its design work and we are confident that it will create a range which will work well at retail.

Bravado has used the Bananaman style guide and fused this with its on-trend design insight to produce a really strong collection.

Elsewhere, Rose Marketing uses Bananaman for gift confectionery - yes you've guessed it, foam bananas, while Paul Dennicci has developed babywear including a fantastic sleepsuit set for Mothercare.

Bananaman also features in other Beano and Dandy deals including 151 Products who has developed Bananaman car air fresheners, Comic Art has used Bananaman for screenprints.

Hype has Bananaman greeting cards and Cracker Cards, a new Beano licensee, will introduce a Bananaman cracker card in its range.

Bananaman also features in the Brewer's Fayre partnership - a long running deal for family dining and was recently featured in The Beano 'takeover' promotion at Intu.

The TV programme is now available via You Tube -the thinking being that it is positive to allow consumer's easy access to the content.

What are some of the most popular licensing categories and what would you like to see the Bananaman brand move in to?

Dress up has been the best seller over the long-term but apparel is a strong category as well. We are keen to see Bananaman become more more prominent in gifting and are talking to potential partners about this. We are thinking about things like metal lunch boxes, glassware, ceramics and keyrings.

We are also hoping to develop more in the wall art and screenprint area.

In addition it would be great to see a retailer use Bananaman for a banana promotion, we are keen to see this happen.

What do you look for in a licensing partner and how do you pick your licensees?

I think a key factor is enthusiasm for the character and a vision of how they will use it. Bravado is a good example of this as it saw a real potential for Bananaman while offering fresh thinking on distribution and design.

Licensees have to add value to the partnership and proactivity is a big part of this. We look at licensees' track record, their distribution and their history with characters like Bananaman. It is important that they understand that classic characters need a different approach and they need to engage with retailers in a fresh way.

What are the main challenges with managing the Bananaman brand?

I think we are facing the same challenges most people are facing in licensing: intense competition, challenges at retail to gain traction and slow decision making. Bananaman is most often positioned as a classic retro character, so there is a challenge sometimes in engaging with people who may not immediately recognise him.

That said, the reverse of that coin is that we often meet people who are big Bananaman fans and then the challenge is getting down to talking about a deal rather than discussing their favourite episode.

Smiffy's Elliot Peckett was a Bananaman fan and that was the key to him signing the license. Interestingly in a business that is big on numbers, often a buying decision comes down to an emotional connection. The great thing about Bananaman is that he is a character that people love and have a great empathy with.

What is the secret to maintaining the success of Bananaman and its 30 year heritage?

Bananaman has had ongoing exposure in comics, this has allowed new fans to engage with the character and given him a constant media platform. The television series has really helped as well, it now has a great following. This has been a great reference point and it still views well today.

Social media such as You Tube and Delta's work on the video and DVD side really helped as well. Delta was able to get the series in people's hands with innovative packaging, keen pricing and clever distribution.

Another key factor has been DC Thomson's design development, it has updated style guides regularly and has succeeded in getting the humour into the design work. We have also chosen well with licensees like Smiffy's who has done a good job with the property.

We have also been careful in making sure we have developed licensed products in the right sectors and had a consistent approach with licensees.

How different is your approach to the Bananaman property compared to the likes of The Beano or Dennis and Gnasher?

Start Licensing takes a bespoke approach to each licensing campaign we are involved in and we try to focus on deals that are best matched with a property.

You have to play to your strengths and not force a property down a road it is not suited to. Each character has its own plan, style guide and a recognition of different consumers who might find them appealing.

There are common themes not least the fact that The Beano is 'the home of Jokes , Pranks and Laughs', so the characters do have similarities which means that the licensing programmes share some common ground. We also work with a number of licensees on a portfolio basis which allows them access to a range of characters.

How will the Bananaman movie change the demographic or shift the brand focus?

It is still early days on this. I suspect it will bring in new fans but would be part of an overall strategy and the planning would reflect the opportunity at the time. We would ideally look to integrate existing activity into a movie campaign and then build upon this. I am sure a movie would be a great boost for licensing but at the moment our campaign is built on the current platforms.

What has changed the most about the licensing industry over Bananaman’s 30 year history and how has this impacted the brand?

The level of competition has increased so there is more choice for licensees and retailers. This means that we all have to work harder to persuade partners.

That said there are more openings for licensing than there were 30 years ago. I know I am reaching veteran stage in my career but I wasn't in licensing 30 years ago. However, I understand the industry was less developed and there were less licensed products in the market.

Now, licensing is better understood and there are accepted networks to sell to and operate in. I think there has also been an increasing awareness in the need to update and refresh design. Designs need to be on trend and reflect the wider market. There is also more of a pressure to deliver coordinated campaigns with support packages for advertising, PR and promotions.

Licensing used to be a more reactive business than it is today. It is more planned and proactive these days. However, a constant is that consumers, retailers and licensees are looking for good IP, well developed characters, clever storylines and originality. Characters like Bananaman have stood the test of time because essentially they are delivering on all these levels.

What’s next for the Bananaman property?

Hopefully we will  see a successful launch from Bravado which I think will help establish Bananaman in the apparel category and we will build momentum in that sector.

We look forward to working with Bravado on this and specifically looking at opportunities around events like Father's Day. We hope to add two or three more licensees and would welcome licensees to meet us at BLE - stand F040.

I hope in 2015 -2016 that we do actually get a fresh Banana promotion on board. We can't guarantee that consumers will transform from Wimp to Superhero, but we think it would be a fantastic PR coup and really drive sales.