For a character who seems more interested in having fun than hard work, Purple Ronnie has been remarkably successful in the retail business. As you read this, in the UK alone the number of Purple Ronnie greetings cards has bypassed 60 million and book sales are well over 2.5 million.
The Ronnie message has been pretty straightforward since his inception: a smiling, simply-drawn young bloke dispensing a view of life that is cheery and cheeky but never rough and rude. The cards and books that are the core vehicles for getting the Ronnie message across encapsulate this perfectly. They discuss themes ranging from the charming - such as smashing mums and dads, love and friends - to the naughty - such as drinking, willies and, well, ‘doing it’. And this approach has been a massive success. Young teens and adults have been the core of his vast audience from the start and, as one generation replaces another, they still are after a remarkable 21 years.
Purple Ronnie began life as part of a stand-up act his creator, Giles Andreae, first tried out at University. Andreae soon realised he was onto something when he transferred the character to little postcards. Ronnie eventually became one of the UK’s most successful greeting cards brands.
Coolabi, a company that specialises in the ownership, development, creative management and exploitation of high quality children’s and family intellectual property assets, acquired Purple Ronnie from Giles in May 2007 having identified it as one of the most successful long-term prospects in the market place.
“You clearly mess with a firm favourite such as Purple Ronnie at your peril,” says Janet Woodward, Head of Licensing for the company. “So we didn’t. What we did do was to make the brand image and values more coherent and easier to manage.”
To start with two decades of poems and illustrations were catalogued and given databases. Then a style guide was created. And purple - not as commonly used as you might think - was given more prominence. The result was greater guidance for licensees and a clearer message at retail.
The figures have certainly been impressive. Existing licences such as Hallmark greetings cards and Macmillan gift books have enjoyed increasing sales since Coolabi acquired the brand. Both licences benefit enormously from the consumer connection between Ronnie and events. To take a simple example, Purple Ronnie's Little Book for a Smashing Dad was at Number One and Purple Ronnie's Little Book for a Smashing Grandad was at Number Two in the Sunday Times sales chart well before the end of the week leading up to Father’s Day. Greencore’s celebration cakes, meanwhile, are the third most popular licensed character cakes in the country.
Extending the licence range was another task Coolabi set itself. Early successes included Portico, which took on the licence for calendars, Paul Lamond Games for party games and Beacon Foods for confectionery.
Visibility is less of a challenge. Purple Ronnie products can be found in Clintons, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Tesco, Waterstone’s and WH Smith as well as independent gift stores all over the country. “It’s difficult to extend blanket coverage,” admits Woodward, “but we are working closely with the key retailers to maximise each occasion and build sales across the board.”
Not only that, but Ronnie may at last invade other English-speaking markets. “North America is our next target and we’re currently exploring options and approaches there,” Woodward says.
Back home Coolabi is planning targeted publicity initiatives, such as website redesign and a sponsored poetry tour around the universities with performance poets “so that we can bring on board a new generation of student Ronnie fans”. She continues: “We don’t target under 13s with Purple Ronnie. Young teens and adults are our focus. He’s a cheeky chap and has an adult approach to life.”
Which makes him pretty much perfect for getting across a very adult message. Last year Purple Ronnie teamed up with the Prostate Cancer Charity to raise awareness of a cancer that kills a staggering 10,000 men a year in the UK. There’s even been a special poem written for the licensing and retail trade, one which perfectly captures the generous spirit and gleeful naughtiness of his character. It goes like this: It's best to get your prostate checked/ So go on - don't be dumb/ Just let a friendly doctor/ Stick a finger up your ***!