Brand masters general: Bulldog's Rob Corney talks franchise building from the collectable toys space

When the man who had brand managed Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh and GoGos each to their respective runaway successes got his hands on the Shopkins licence, there really could have been only one outcome. Robert Hutchins talks to Rob Corney, founder and MD of Bulldog Licensing about the ever-growing collectables space
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Six years ago, if you’d told a retail buyer that by 2018 they’d be swimming in girls’ collectables brands, you’d have been laughed out of what- ever building you were in.

You’d be wiping their warm tea out of your eyes and told that such a thing could never happen. That’s because six years ago, the majority of buyers out there were guilty of subscribing to the perceived wisdom that girls don’t collect.

Looking at the landscape today it really is representative of a true transformation for an industry that, when the NPD figures rolled in at London Toy Fair 2018 to reveal that sales had been buoyed once again by collectables across both boys’ and girls’ markets, could have found themselves feasting on their own words for a matter of weeks.

While nothing is certain, the market today tells us one thing surely is evident: girls do collect. It’s not to say that people hadn’t tried to tell this story before, it’s just that until 2012, for a long time, all attempts had simply failed.

“People were taking a boys’ collectables play pattern and colouring it pink – calling it a girls’ collectable,” says Rob Corney, founder and managing director of Bulldog Licensing. “It just wasn’t working, there was nothing available that filled the market and recognised the need.”

Corney, it goes without saying, is one of the best positioned across the toy and licensing markets to comment on the evolution of the girls’ collectables space, having been instrumental in the phenomenal rise and continued success of the wildly popular Shopkins franchise.

If you’ve seen a young fan wearing a Shopkins dress, collecting Shopkins stickers, carrying a Shopkins bag or reading a Shopkins book, you can bet your last penny that that’s all the work of Corney (the multiple part- ners involved in making it all happen too, of course) and the Bulldog Licensing team; a band of licensing loving executives bent on helping to fuel fan engage- ment and the demand for the continued toy line upon toy line under the Shopkins brand.

“It’s actually all down to Moose Toys who really did break that mould when they created and launched Shopkins. This was a genuinely designed girls’ property with a collecting play pattern and there just wasn’t anything else like it,” Corney tells ToyNews. “I knew that girls were collectors, there just wasn’t the property for them at the time. When they delivered Shopkins, Moose changed all of that.”

Resultantly, Shopkins has just come off the back of its third consecutive year as
the number one girls’ property, and with further developments for the brand still to come, including more product lines from the likes of Top Fliers, more books and new plush from Posh Paws this autumn, Moose has “taken it to another level again.”

“It’s a collectable brand, but it’s a lot more than that: it’s plush, it’s a collectable doll brand, it’s a collectable play-set and a whole universe of content from digital me- dia to movies and everything in between,” says Corney. “And as Moose continues to keep it fresh, it brings in a new generation of kids, four years down the line.”

Compared to the ghost town that the girls’ collectables market once was, today’s
issue couldn’t be more of a contrast and one of the biggest challenges facing buyers today is the “huge amount of background noise being made” in that very same space. The market, suggests Corney, is largely playing catch up, chasing the opportunity that Shopkins carved those few years ago.

“The issue is that many of them don’t understand the metrics, the data, or quite how cerebrally driven these things are in support of the creative process. There has to be an amazing creative, that’s what a lot of collect- able brands suffer with,” says Corney, whose history with the likes Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh and GoGos has him well placed as somewhat of a specialist in the field. 

“To succeed in this market, it’s got to be amazing, have the weight of a strong company behind it and have the ability to reinvent itself, just as Moose has done.”

pikmi

It may come as no surprise in that case that one of the latest brands to be brought into the Bulldog Licensing fold is Pikmi Pops, once again courtesy of the market’s dear friend, Moose Toys. This, as we all know, is a range of scented plush housed in lollipop casing with three skus across series one and two to get your hands on.

What all of us may not know is that Pikmi Pops are selling incredibly well. In fact, they are outselling where Shopkins was at the very same point in its own lifecycle. The Moose Toys line is already in the top ten new products in total in the UK and has recently been crowned the number one new brand, which means it’s all looking very strong indeed.

With proposals for books, magazines, softlines as well as stationery and puzzles all awaiting their final signatures, Pikmi Pops is “echoing every success seen with Shopkins; with the creative and strength of team behind it that will bring repeat calls to action,” says Corney. “It ticks every box.”

So could it be the next Shop- kins? Absolutely not, says the licensing expert. Nothing can be. And it’s just not responsible licensing to say so.

Corney explains: “A lot of people are launching into the market saying ‘we’re going to do what Shopkins did.’ We won’t do that and I don’t think it is ever responsible licensing to come in and say ‘we have the next Pokémon.’ Nobody has the next Pokémon, there’s never going to be the next Pokémon and it just isn’t responsible to persuade people to part with cash on the back of something you can never be.”

Instead, Corney lays out, Pikmi Pops is a different property entirely. A very strong one in its own right with a cross-over in the targeted consumer, but one that will “actually sit comfortably alongside Shopkins.”

“It’s got a huge amount of potential and we are very excited about it.” 

Just where they are going to sit side by side, is another matter. It’s no secret that over the last decade or so, the retail mix has changed dramatically.

Over the last seven months, it’s gone up another notch.

We won’t recount the number of Toys R Us stores now finding themselves being churned through the recycling plant; it’s a heart-breaking reality to continually
drag up. However, what does need to be said is echoed in Corney’s own sentiment, and that is, it’s no more dramatic than the activities of 2007 with the loss of Woolworths and Past-Times.

Maybe it’s a cyclical path that retail follows? At least today, enthuses Corney, conversations with and access to buyers is a lot more open. And what that means, he continues, is that retail is better placed to react to the ever-shifting consumer habits.

“12 to 15 years ago, it was impossible [for licensing agents] to see a retail buyer,” he says.

“These days, we spend most of our time with them. I think they have come to recognise that before it was seen as ‘you’re not trying to sell me some- thing, so what’s the point of meeting?’ Now it is recognised that we, as a licensing agency working with some of the biggest brands in children’s entertainment industries, bring information about these brands to the table. We bring the chance to facilitate in- store theatre and funding to put in place to help drive their footfall and sales.”

Corney and the Bulldog Team implemented this model with The Entertainer
around the Angry Birds Movie the first time around to huge success.

“The conversations we had with them was back and forth, they relayed sales figure increases around key in store activity implemented by us, and it worked phenomenally well. This is the next stage of evo- lution for retail.”

This time around, with Angry Birds Movie 2 on the horizon, the plan is to repeat this method of working again. It’s the next step in evolution for the retail space, says Corney, after all.

“The Entertainer is already there, and a number of retailers are moving in that same direction with teams in place to engage with the licensing people, meaning we can build well in advance, the opportunity to engage with the consumer base.” 

Those of you reading this understand The Entertainer well enough to know that it will succeed. It’s a retailer that, when it comes to consumer engagement, rarely falters. But will this be enough to pull all retail from its current slump of despair?

 Take it from the man who foresaw the return of the girls’ collectable market and we could all be laughing together. 

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