This September is the 50th anniversary of Thunderbirds, a series that broke new ground in animation and has lived on in our cultural consciousness long since it first aired on TV. ITVS GE's global head of merchandise, Trudi Hayward talks us through the cultural success of this classic brand.

ITV’s Trudi Hayward on the transgenerational success of classic Thunderbirds

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

This September is the 50th anniversary of Thunderbirds, a series that broke new ground in animation and has lived on in our cultural consciousness long since it first aired on TV.

The whole appreciation of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s series is generational – the children who watched the series in the sixties and seventies grew up and then their children saw the repeats and became fans in their turn. Half a century on, we felt the time was right to chronicle new adventures with Thunderbirds Are Go.

The success of the Thunderbirds brand is undeniable; throughout its five decade history the brand has continued to meet the diverse needs of its fans while pushing the boundaries to open up the property to a new audience. This sustained popularity is a result of having best in class licensees on board the property’s licensing programme who are committed to harnessing the heritage and affection for the brand whilst striving to attract new audiences with innovative product lines.

What is the demographic for the property and who are you targeting with the licensing programme?

With classic Thunderbirds, it’s important for us to make the property appeal directly to consumers for whom Thunderbirds formed a significant part of their childhood whilst also engaging new audiences with contemporary and modern product lines.

As such, our approach is two-fold. We have partners producing quality gifts and collectibles targeted at the nostalgia and retro market. To attract modern consumers, we’ve worked with partners on some really creative collaborations. For example, we have recently worked with British fashion designer Lou Dalton for a collection of Thunderbirds products, which featured in GQ Magazine, The Observer, Shortlist Magazine and Telegraph Magazine.

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

The Thunderbirds consumer products programme currently consists of over 35 UK partners and the brand retains strong retail confidence and high levels of consumer loyalty. The Thunderbirds franchise also boasts a broad global appeal with currently more than 20 licensing and promotional partners in Japan alone.

To commemorate the 50th anniversary, we’re working closely with our licensing partners to develop high quality limited edition and collectible lines using the anniversary logo. It was important for us to recognise five decades of Thunderbirds heritage and give loyal fans the opportunity to be part of the celebrations in the anniversary year and beyond.

New products we have launching throughout anniversary year include 3D Online Factory (3D printable figurines), Winning Moves (Monopoly Set), Planet Replica (TV show prop replicas), Hornby (die-cast vehicles) and Tinamps (portable speakers), Fashion Lab (apparel), Jumbo Games (puzzle), Forbidden Planet (DTR apparel and accessories line). There’s also Dreamtex (bedding) Smiffys (dress up costumes) and Misirli (socks). While in Australia a promotional deal with Leo Burnett Sydney will see the use of the Thunderbirds theme tune on TV, radio and online for Woolworths.

We’ve also got some fantastic books including Octopus Publishing (gift books), Panini (50th anniversary magazine), Random House (‘Thunderbirds: The Vault’ hardback book) and Haynes Publishing (re-release of the original manual). Additionally, there’s also some exciting high end fashion partnerships launching. Royal Warrant shirt maker Turnbull and Asser is unveiling a line of luxury men’s silk handkerchiefs and neck ties.

What are some of the most popular licensing categories and what would you like to see the Thunderbirds brand move in to?

The heritage and long-standing affection for Thunderbirds translates perfectly into key product categories such as gifting, homewares and publishing. Following the anniversary, we’re keen to add some additional fashion partners who will utilise the iconic imagery to create contemporary ranges. We’d also like to move the brand into novelty and seasonal ranges for key seasons including Father’s Day and Christmas.

What do you look for in a licensing partner and how do you pick your licensees?

We take a very careful and considered approach when assembling a licensing programme. First and foremost, we’re looking for partners who have genuine enthusiasm for the Thunderbirds brand and who will be committed to developing strong and engaging product lines. We’re also keen to work with partners who will both acknowledge the heritage of the brand while introducing innovation and new ideas to engage fans of all ages.

What are the main challenges with managing the Thunderbirds brand?

Thunderbirds has a very diverse fan base and it’s important we meet their demands effectively. To do so, we’ve created distinctive style guides for the brand: Iconic, Comic Strip, Haynes Manual, Retro and our most recent addition is the 50th anniversary style guide. Each one is carefully built upon the Thunderbirds heritage and offers licensees great creative versatility to meet varying consumer demands.

What is the secret to maintaining the success of Thunderbirds and its 50 year heritage?

That’s an interesting question! I think for us it’s been important to evolve with the fan-base. The first fans have now grown up and as such, they now have different demands as consumers. That’s why now, one of our primary target audiences for products is original fans and collectors.

Innovative marketing campaigns have also played a key role in sustaining the enduring appeal of the brand. Recent campaigns include an artwork exhibition at Selfridges in 2012, a LEGO Thunderbirds exhibition and a panel at San Diego’s Comic-Con in 2014. Also in 2014, the celebrations for the 50th anniversary were kicked off at Glastonbury. At the festival, Hazlewood’s All Star Collective performed a special set of work written by Barry Gray who was responsible for creating much of the music for the series including the iconic theme tune.

How different is your approach to the Classic Thunderbirds property compared to the likes of Thunderbirds Are Go?

With Thunderbirds, our approach has been to nurture the evergreen appeal of the brand and offer fans authentic quality product ranges. In the brand’s 50th anniversary year, we’ll be marking the occasion with collectible and limited edition products in specialist and higher end retail channels. From 2016, the strategy is to continue appealing to fans of the classic series through additional categories of gifting and contemporary fashion.

Our approach to Thunderbirds Are Go has been to attract new fans to the franchise. To do so, we’ve focused on innovation and updating the brand for the 21st century. Of course we’ve retained iconic elements of the original and incorporated ‘nods’ to the classic brand along the way, but developments in technology and the expectation for both shows and products to incorporate modern techniques have encouraged us to push boundaries.

What has changed the most about the licensing industry over Thunderbirds’ 50 year history and how has this impacted the brand?

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. For Thunderbirds, this has meant that we’ve been able to offer fans the opportunity to maintain their connection to the brand in a variety of new and interesting ways.

What’s next for the Thunderbirds property?

We’re going to be focusing on supporting the roll-out of the new 50th anniversary products. We also are very excited with how fans are celebrating the anniversary in style.

Aardman has included a Thunderbirds Shaun the Sheep sculpture to feature in their Shaun in the City trail, alongside 69 other sculptures. It will be part of an exhibition in London to coincide with the anniversary.

And finally, film director Stephen La Rivière launched a successful campaign on Kickstarter and is currently filming three new episodes of Classic Thunderbirds in true 1960s style, in the same studios where Gerry Anderson brought the original series to life. 

Then, for 2016 and beyond, we’ll be continuing to add new fashion and gifting partners to appeal to fans of the classic series while also striving to attract new audiences.

We’re really looking forward to BLE 2015; it’s already shaping up to be a fantastic year and we’ve got lots of interesting news to share! I’m also particularly looking forward to meeting with potential partners, retailers and licensees from all around the world who share our enthusiasm and dedication.

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