ITV’s Trudi Hayward on the cross-generational appeal of Thunderbirds Are Go

Can you give us a history of the Thunderbirds brand and its successes?

The original Thunderbirds show, created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, was truly ground-breaking for its time when it first hit TV screens in 1965. With intricate puppetry, model backdrops and action-packed stories, it was an instant hit with families.

During the subsequent five decades, very few brands have retained such enduring universal appeal and along the way the show has influenced generations of renowned artists and filmmakers including Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings, King Kong) and Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit).

Now, in the classic TV series’ 50th anniversary year, launching Thunderbirds Are Go seemed a very fitting way to pay homage to the original. It’s been thrilling to introduce the franchise to a new generation of fans and see audiences thrilled, just as they were fifty years ago.

The property has got off to a fantastic start with strong broadcast ratings and a robust line-up of consumer products. Now, we’re gearing up to the TV premiere and licensing programme launch in the Middle East, Israel and Europe as well as the UK launch of the second series in 2016.

What is the demographic for the Thunderbirds Are Go property and who are you targeting with its licensing programme?

Our core target audience for Thunderbirds Are Go is boys’ aged five to 11 years, however the show also has a much wider appeal. For example, those loyal fans who grew up with the show have been keen to see how the show has been updated for a modern audience.

As well as introducing a new generation of kids to the franchise, we wanted to entice international audiences who would be experiencing the brand for the first time. There’s been a long-standing affection in the UK, Australia and Japan for the brand but with the universal themes and family appeal, we knew that we had a winning property that could appeal to audiences across the globe.

For the licensing programme, again products will primarily target boys aged five to 11 with a secondary appeal to girls, adult fans and dads. The retail roll-out of the first products has been met with great enthusiasm with initial sales are looking strong – we’re confident that this Christmas, Thunderbirds Are Go merchandise will be the top of every boy’s list.

How many licensees do you have on board for Thunderbirds Are Go, and in what categories?

We currently have over 35 UK licensees across all key categories. Given the show’s key themes of adventure and action, toys are the driving category. This is closely supported by apparel and accessories, publishing, homewares, stationery and digital. We’ve also recently announced the brand’s first FMCG partners (Princes Limited, Just Love Food and Symingtons) who will enable us to broaden the brand’s retail reach in supermarkets and grocers. We have over 20 international licensees signed, and this will grow dramatically as more markets launch the series.

What do you look for in a licensing partner for the Thunderbirds Are Go brand? How do you pick your licensees?

We take a very careful and considered approach to building a licensing programme, ensuring that each new partner adds something new and interesting. 

When looking for licensing partners, firstly it’s hugely important we seek licensees who share our passion and commitment for the Thunderbirds Are Go brand. We’re also looking for partners who echo our ethos of driving innovation and pushing boundaries and develop high quality products that will engage retailers and consumers alike.

How does the licensing programme differ to that with the classic series?

The heritage of the classic Thunderbirds brand lends itself well to high end collectible and gifting products targeting adult collectors and nostalgia fans. As such, product lines range from pinball machines to licensed (legal) collector coins from New Zealand Mint in addition to traditional categories like apparel.

With Thunderbirds Are Go, our focus is on working with partners to develop innovative and engaging product lines primarily for kids. Developments in technology and the expectation for toys to incorporate smart technology has seen new toy lines for the series become more sophisticated, which chimes with the show’s extraordinary technology and production values.

What are the main challenges with managing the Thunderbirds property? How does approach differ between managing the classic brand and the new Thunderbirds Are Go brand?

When we first decided to create a new version of Thunderbirds, we had no intention of messing with what had already worked. It’s an iconic show for a reason, a show that inspired a whole generation of people. Our intentions were to celebrate it and pay tribute to a classic in its 50th year, so the decisions and changes we made were not entered into lightly. And whilst retaining its originality was key, one of the challenges was to find the right balance between old and new.

It’s therefore important that we have clarity between the classic and the new Thunderbirds Are Go series and their associated products so retailers and fans can enjoy both to the full. With the 50th anniversary of the classic Thunderbirds this September we celebrate a unique piece of entertainment history and salute the many fans that have been inspired by it and remained true to it during the last 50 years.

With the new series, Thunderbirds Are Go, we pay homage to the brand’s outstanding values and introduce its characters, gadgets, craft and sense of adventure to a new generation of fans.

What is the secret to keeping the brand fresh and relevant for new audiences? 

For Thunderbirds Are Go, while we wanted to pay homage to the original show, it was important for us to update the brand to entice a modern audience. We talked with kids all the way through development to create a fresh look, style and for both the action and characters; ensuring its appeal extended beyond nostalgic fans and reached modern day children across the globe.

When looking at products, it’s important to include innovation and interactivity. There’s been some fantastic developments in technology over recent years, and with that, comes the expectation from both retailers and consumers for products to incorporate smart technology and innovative components.

For Thunderbirds Are Go, it was therefore crucial that we acknowledged this and worked with partners to create sophisticated and engaging merchandise that would entice modern day audiences. 

How have you seen the licensing industry evolve since the launch of the classic series, and how does the new series reflect this?

Since ITV acquired the Thunderbirds IP, the licensing industry has rapidly evolved. Across the board, companies have significantly increased their investment in licensed products to both meet the accelerating consumer demand for official merchandise from their favourite brands and to increase revenue streams for their business. As a result of this, the calibre and variety of licensees has also accelerated. 

There’s also been a proliferation in the number of media touch points for consumers. With an increased number of cable channels and the rapid rise of paid for subscription services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime there’s so many ways for content to be accessed and in more convenient ways. Alongside this, with the rise of digital and social media, there’s also an increased number channels for content to be marketed to consumers.

The industry has also seen great developments in technology and manufacturing which has resulted in products becoming more innovative and interactive. As technology is such a core theme to Thunderbirds Are Go, these developments have enabled us to work with partners and produce some fantastic product lines that are fresh and engaging. For example, Vivid’s new Tracy Island playset preserves all the iconic elements of the phenomenally successfully original toy but has been updated with new technology and components to appeal to fans in the 21st century. 

How will you curate the licensing programme to carry across international borders?

The brand has strong universal appeal. Thunderbirds Are Go’s message of helping to rescue people became an inspiration and the show’s key values of selfless heroism, bravery and ingenuity are qualities relevant to children all around the globe. We’re working with top class licensing agents and distributors across the world to ensure we can reach as many international fans as possible.

The full-scale global consumer products programme in place to support the property has begun hitting shelves across the world. The roll out is being led by our master toy partner Vivid Imaginations, who have world rights excluding US and Asia. We’re already seeing phenomenal levels of success in markets such as Australia and New Zealand. Both markets have been reporting exceptional sales figures so far at leading toy retailers and independents. In New Zealand, Vivid’s toy distributor Planet Fun has sold out of their initial shipment. To ensure this international success is sustained, it’s important that we adapt to regional differences. The product lines we launch should reflect trends and themes that chime with that territory and their audiences.

What’s next for the Thunderbirds brand?

It’s been a fantastic year for the Thunderbirds franchise so far and we want to ensure this success continues into 2016 and beyond. As we gear up to the launch of the second series of Thunderbirds Are Go next year, we’re committed to supporting the roll-out of the licensing programme and ensuring success for each and every product line.

Another key step for us is to expand the brand’s international footprint. There’s been fantastic interest in the brand across the globe and we’re in talks with a number of new international partners. For starters the Thunderbirds Are Go TV premiere and licensing programme will also soon launch in the Middle East, Israel and Europe.

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