English channelled: How British icons Mr Men & Little Miss are taking it global

Sanrio’s Alastair McHarrie couldn’t possibly tell us what the next collaboration will be for the iconic Mr Men Little Miss brand. Off the record, he is all winks and nods, but with the dictaphone on, it’s yet another licensing secret only to be revealed once all those pesky i’s have been dotted.

Actually, the UK team is far too busy rubbing shoulders with British pop royalty and rolling out this quarter’s biggest brand collaboration to be thinking too profoundly on the question of ‘what’s next?’ There’s plenty that it wants to do right now, not just while the metaphorical iron is hot, but while the whole thing is next level face-melting.

We’re talking, of course, about the headline grabbing collaboration with the Spice Girls; a deal that has immortalised the icons of the British pop scene within the pages of one of Britain’s best-loved institutions, Roger Hargreaves’  world of Little Miss. It’s the deal that brought the whole team closer to the edge than any before, so excuse them a while as they enjoy this moment.

“It was a real slog,” McHarrie exhales, eyes closed in a moment of reflection on the partnership he and the Sanrio team around him triumphantly dragged across the finishing line just a matter of weeks ago.

“I am so glad we managed to close it, it has been such a tremendous effort from all of us. We’re going to enjoy this,” he continues. “This is a collaboration that is going to run for a while, we see this running for a few years.”

When it comes to licensing, rarely is it that stars simply align. More often than not they are tracked down, hunted and then heaved into place by gargantuan mental agility, negotiation and a lot of paper work. McHarrie is certainly one to know, it was he, after all, that put the miles in by bike to courier all the paper work around. And now, with mission accomplished, and the Spice Girls collaboration finally in print, this is where the hard work begins.

“This is not an in and out job for us,” he explains. “Especially in the book sector, this will be a five year deal in books, with more titles in discussion – we’ve got plenty of ideas knocking around; something for Christmas, we’re talking about adult parody books that tap into that demand for nostalgia…”

Then, of course, Sanrio will be looking at the gift and merchandise lines, for which, conversations are already taking place; think apparel, gifting, health and beauty.

“We have a list of what we think can work well with this partnership, and from the conversations we are having, there seems to be a real appetite from the retailers,” says McHarrie. “And we are regularly sitting with the Spice Girls’ team to talk this over.”

You’ll remember that this isn’t the first brand collaboration that Mr Men Little Miss has seen success with. It was only a couple of years ago that Sanrio partnered with BBC Studios to deliver a series of parody Mr Men Doctor Who titles, a collaborative effort that celebrated the iconic sci-fi series in what can only be described as a truly British manner.

Early readings suggest that Sanrio’s latest celebration of the staples of British culture – its tongue-in-cheek pop scene and its literary heritage, of course – is resonating just as much with audiences, not just in the UK, but worldwide.

“Every territory in the world has seen a sale, which shows just how global we are. That’s from the traffic and sales we can track online, and from what we have seen so far – we have great expectations for book sales, product sales and for this collaboration in general.”

While Mr Men Little Miss is a quintessentially British brand, McHarrie and the Sanrio team talk a lot in terms of the international market. The reason being is that there’s very much a global vision for the brand from this UK-based team. The Mr Men Little Miss book publishing roll-out isn’t a small operation, after all. There are currently 180 Mr Men Little Miss titles in print, and last year saw 1.9 million books sold across a spread of markets. On top of this, the team is very good at developing titles specific to each territory it serves.

“We have the heritage markets, such as the UK, France and Australia, where we have been around for a long time,” explains McHarrie. “Then we have major growth markets such as Asia and the US, and lesser growth markets across Europe. And it is the publishing success that leads the brand across each of them.”

In Greece, for example, the brand’s best-selling title is Mr Men and Ancient Greece, a book that pits the iconic cast against the legends and myths of the Ancient Greek stories, facing off monsters such as The Minotaur. It’s just one example of how well Mr Men Little Miss translates across regions and cultures, given the simplicity of its context, illustrations and reliability of each of its cast of 90 characters.

But not only this, it’s an example of the level of freedom the brand enjoys to quickly adapt to regional tastes. Mr Men Little Miss, as we know, is a brand free of the constraints and red tape of a film franchise or an animated TV series, so when it targets a region, there’s no call for regional adaptations, moreover Sanrio can deliver culture-specific content through its direct publishing medium.

“And I think that is one of our biggest strengths,” says McHarrie. “We are not beholden to a movie time frame and all of the corporate stuff that comes with it, which means we can act quickly and retailers like that. It also challenges us to be creative and fosters a creativity from the team.

“We are extremely creative as a team, and up against competition where we don’t have movies or animation. Retail today, we all know is tough. The problem with being attached to a movie, or being ‘the next big thing’ is that as quick as a retailer is to pick you up, it will drop you twice as fast.

“With a 50 year heritage, Mr Men Little Miss is a brand that stays. And when retail is tough, they are going to want a brand that has that strength behind it.”

It’s this heritage that gives the brand such credence in the collaboration space, and perhaps why, when Sanrio comes knocking on the door with the germ of a collaboration idea for the Mr Men Little Miss brand, more often than not, brands are going to want to listen.

Even without film or TV, Mr Men Little Miss still more than holds its own across a number of markets, be it via a Transport for London partnership that put the brand in front of the millions of commuters and tourists that use the tube each year, the health and beauty market in which Creme de la Mer launched a Selfridges exclusive £150 face cream called Little Miss Miracle, or the pre-school market where the brand is about to relaunch into the live shows space for the first time in ten years.

Responsibility for this venture, by the way, has fallen to the live stag show specialists Rockefeller who is planning to launch the new show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, before heading off on a UK tour with the US and Australia to follow thereafter.

Among all the chatter, the US market remains a permanent pivot point around which much of Sanrio’s international plans for the Mr Men Little Miss brand hinges. With more than a hint of excitement, McHarrie is quick to note just how important cracking the market will be.

“The US market was pretty big for us a while ago, and now we are looking to reinvigorate that,” he says. “We are now managing that from here in the UK with a new agent in BAC who is very familiar with the brand. We are looking for a bit of a relaunch after Vegas this year, and working with BAC – who has worked with Roald Dahl and has had a keen eye for publishing in the past – it is in a safe pair of hands.

“Hitting that market again will make a big difference for us. An order out there can make a big difference. We have got big plans for publishing in the US, including the Spice Girls collaboration, which we know will resonate really well with that US audience.”

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