THE BIG INTERVIEW: James Walker, VP Brand Licensing, EMEAP, Hasbro

We talk branded play, Transformers and climbing the NPD rankings.
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Two years ago, if you asked most people what kind of company Hasbro was, the resounding answer would most probably have been ‘toy’. But, the firm’s presence at Licensing Expo back in June 2011 changed all that. It came out with an ambitious plan to become what it calls a ‘branded play’ company, incorporating toys and other consumer products, theatrical and TV – and it hasn’t looked back since.

“Globally, we made a really big public statement two years ago,” James Walker, Hasbro's VP of brand licensing, EMEAP, tells Licensing.biz. “The UK team have made the biggest leaps and bounds for us; when you look back they were the first team we put in place and integrated into branded play. We have real confidence now that the strategy is working and delivering in what is a really tough market for everybody.”

The EMEAP licensing team are now embedded in nine key locations within Hasbro offices. As well as the UK (and Ireland), these include Australia, France, Spain, Germany, Russia, Poland, Turkey (and the Middle East) and Italy, which was the last office to be opened back in May.

“Our brands are building,” Walker continues. “If you look at the NPD Licence Tracker, Hasbro has jumped from number 12 to number four [in a year], which is really exciting. And we’re going to keep going in a positive direction.”

Key brands such as Transformers, My Little Pony, Littlest Pet Shop, Monopoly and Furby have helped to propel the firm up the listings. And not just through consumer products, but also through theatrical, TV, digital and publishing.

The Transformers and My Little Pony properties in particular will be the focus of a large portion of the firm’s booth at Licensing Expo this month. Transformers Prime has been performing well on Cartoon Network, while MLP is being further developed with the launch of Equestria Girl.

On top of this, the hype is already starting to build for Transformers 4, which begins shooting this summer and is due to hit cinemas in June 2014 in the UK. Starring Mark Wahlberg and once again directed by Michael Bay, Walker says that the fourth installment is the beginning of a new trilogy. “The first three films are still the third biggest trilogy of all time, so we’re really excited that we’re going into a new look for Transformers,” he says. “There are new characters and new twists in the film that are going to be very exciting, and we have been out actively pitching to retailers and licensees.”

Another brand performing just as well on screen as on shelf is Littlest Pet Shop. It has just launched on TV on Gulli in France, the first market to launch LPS in Europe, in a special three-episode ‘viewing event’. Audience market share increased from 18.2 per cent in the first episode to 29 per cent during the third episode. The show has more than one million viewers aged four plus, and 700,000 viewers aged from four to ten.

Hasbro is also looking at other properties outside of the core ones already mentioned. It relaunched Tonka at Brand Licensing Europe last year – with HTI on board as the master toy partner – with product just about to hit retail across the UK. Again, more will be shown at Licensing Expo, alongside Play-Doh, Nerf and Magic The Gathering.

“One of the things we are lucky to have is a wide portfolio of brands, but this means we do have to keep ourselves in check,” Walker explains. “We always look at what the toy product is and the strategy around that, and then how licensing can complement the success of the toy line. We don’t want to over licence anything and we need to make sure that the brand is still going to be relevant in decades to come. Everything we do has got to complement the core line and when we do that well it brings critical mass at retail for the brand; we can, in effect, have more shelf space.”

The task for Walker and his team now is to ensure that Hasbro keeps the momentum going and continues to move up the rankings.

“Licensing is a very competitive industry, there are a lot of great players and you have to have strong brands that are well supported, heavily invested and understand what your positioning is for those brands. What Hasbro has been able to really leverage is the fact that it is such a big toy supplier into retail, and we’ve been able to grow the brand into licensing and into digital.”

Walker concludes: “The investment in the Hasbro Studio that was made several years back now was significant, and the amount of content that the studio has created in such a short space of time has been phenomenal. It’s great that we’ve had that support and we can now cover all bases.”

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