Ten steps to pre-school success

Brand, licensing and marketing consultant, John Collins takes us through the Ten P Principle for pre-school success.
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Times are hard. Everyone is cutting back. The end of the world is nigh. Right? If we believed that as an industry then nothing would ever happen and progress would cease. It is with a dogged determination that the pre-school market manages to survive and continues to generate new and exciting properties to delight its audience.

But clearly not every new property will be or can be a success. There is simply not room in the market, especially at the moment. So to have any chance of cutting through, it’s vital that a brand owner gets the fundamentals right.

During the last decade of managing and marketing pre-school properties, I’ve seen many in the market that soar and many, many more that sink without trace. And I’ve noticed a string of constants that appear to run through each success story that ailing properties tend to be missing in part or in their entirety.

It’s what I call The Ten P Principle – a sort of checklist of factors that work together to influence the potential success of a pre-school property:

1) Property – seems obvious enough but have you chosen the right property to develop? Has anyone done something similar before? If so, did it work (why would yours)?

Are you developing it just because you own it or because you truly believe it can be a success?

Have you researched and now understand inside and out what elements appeal to young boys and/or girls? Will it delight pre-schoolers and are they really going to want to watch, wear or play with it? (There are already lots of cars, pigs, weirdly-named costumes, trains, saucer-eyed explorers, and occupation-based heroes, so avoid going there!)

2) Positioning – Take a good LONG look around the market. What makes your property so different to everything else that is currently out there or is being developed? Everyone will ask you so don’t overlook this research.

Make sure you have a definitive brand map that shows specifically where your brand fits in the market. Zero or six years? Live action or animated? Educational or just fun? Boy or girl? And remember, after the age of three, a property aimed at both sexes is unlikely to work in merchandising!

3) Production – perhaps the toughest decisions a brand owner will make is how the TV representation should look (CGI, 2D Flash, stop-frame, live action or a mix,...) and how it should be structured (narrative, repeatability, duration, character development, songs or not,...).

Each has its own merits but not all will be appropriate to the property. Most brand owners will have an idea of direction from the start but no-one should be too precious - remember that a property will live and die, and be swiftly judged, by the way it looks on screen and how quickly it can engage the audience, so taking time to get this exactly right (including putting tests in front of the end audience) will be time well spent.

And yes, it is cynical, but the properties with the greatest on-shelf appeal will have had merchandising ideas built into the development of the show. Can that vehicle easily be produced in plastic? Would that character be cute in plush? What accessories should that character have?

4) Platform – the Holy Grail. More important than anything. Specifically for the UK, look at NPD’s list of top TV-based pre-school licenses in the UK. Other than the gifting-evergreen Winnie the Pooh, they all have both a terrestrial AND cab/sat platform. Without fail. This is not a coincidence. And this is not to say that you cannot have success without both – it’s just that the chances improve wildly if you do. And fulfilling the first three P’s should help you achieve the fourth.

Internationally, there is not always the terrestrial/satellite option – however the importance of getting the right broadcast partner can never be underestimated. (If you have a broadcaster in mind for your show, find out if it’s something they are going to be looking for in 18/24 months before going too far down the development road. If so, great. If not, are you comfortable tailoring the property to suit, or will you be happy to stick to your guns, knowing you’ll more than likely have to tout the show elsewhere...?)

5)  Performance – an attribute that is pretty much out of a brand owner/producer’s hands. However the communication of performance is all down to them. Aside from when deals are secured before transmission (on leaps of faith), successfully pitching a property relies heavily on being armed with the relevant research tools to show why anyone should invest time, effort and money in your property.

The best brand owners ensure, before transmission, that they have in place means of measuring and evaluating audience figures by every relevant demographic. Subsequently, they will also plan for awareness tracking and desire to purchase. Essential ammunition when presenting to...

6) Partners – the licensing business is full to the brim with licensees. So which is right for your brand? The only one to put in an offer? Possibly/usually! But those properties that can tick off the above P’s usually find there is no shortage of interested parties.

And it’s not always the major licensees – it should be those who have the right gap in their portfolio, who believe in your property, are willing to invest in product development and marketing, who can work well with you and other licensees, and vitally who have good relationships at retail.

7) Product – the right product for a brand is one which exhibits the values of your property and no other. Contrary to popular thinking, I believe there is always room for some brand-slapping (kids will always want balls even if there is no ball in your show) – but there must be a core range, particularly in the toy category, that can only exist because your property does.

And don’t just leave it to the licensees to develop product – get your hands dirty and bring your brand knowledge to the product development process. It should be appreciated (and if not, you’re with the wrong guys!) Finally, make sure your brand manager and product approvals talk to each other!

8) Price – the foremost properties offer the best play/interaction value from their product lines. More so now than ever, it’s all about value to the consumer. Admittedly, the more global properties have a distinct price advantage by producing for many markets at once but there are still plenty of local properties finding ways to offer quality product at reasonable prices.

To avoid getting stuck at first base with retail buyers, always ensure your licensees have a workable price in mind at the drawing board, and that they know the price points retailers are looking for. And try not to simply remove a product’s USP to bring down the unit cost – in the same way that removing the pizza base will make the pizza cheaper, it will just leave an undesirable mess.

9) Presence – the most successful pre-school brand owners understand the value of investment at retail and will work closely with their licensees to ensure promotional space is secured at key sales periods. The top performers also appreciate the value of buyer relationships – they will help to pave the way for the brand by keeping key buyers updated on planned activity way in advance of their licensees going in. And they know the individual retailers’ calendars to ensure they speak to them far enough in advance to negotiate cross-category promotional space.

But it’s not simply relationships and financial contributions that will secure in-store presence – buyers also want to know what brand marketing will be taking place to drive consumers in. Which brings us to...

10) Promotion – in whatever form it takes, consumer brand promotion co-ordinated with key partners is vital in ensuring the ongoing success of the property. There are limitless methods employed to get the brand out to consumers – mall tours, live shows, magazine and on-air competitions, theme park rides, TV advertising, nursery packs, celebrity endorsements – but the major players always lead from the front in directing efforts at the crucial sales periods of Easter and in Q4, when retailers need to see consumer activity to provide them with assurance that the public will be seeking out the brand in-store.

And if there could be an eleventh – Profit. This will come as a result of the above ten.

Of course, this is a slightly simplistic version of a far bigger model than can be demonstrated here. And the most experienced execs in the pre-school business knows there are many variables that can impact the success or otherwise of each point above.

However, The Ten P Principle can at least provide food-for-thought for those with a stake in brand planning for this age group, and may be particularly useful to those just setting off into the exciting but nonetheless competitive world or pre-school.

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