A few hours in a deck chair in the garden, floral textiles and a quick bit of market research were all it took to spark the idea of what has since become number one pre-school girls’ brand, Fifi and the Flowertots.
Sounds easy, but when you meet the team behind the series, it becomes clear that the production of a successful series and in turn, a brand, takes an immense amount of hard work, patience and time.
It was mothers that got Keith Chapman thinking about designing a girls’ brand. He explains: “It all came from Mums collaring me at parties, saying: ‘Why don’t you do something for girls, there’s nothing out there for them.’ I’d had this success with Bob [the Builder], but all the other brands at the time featured boy-related characters.”
So Chapman set out to discover what a pre-school girl really wants. He recruited some help from members of the target audience and there was little to surprise in their answers.
“It was pink at the top, cooking, gardening, music, jewellery – all the things that you would think, okay yeah, I can work with that, but now I need to build some other things into it.”
There followed the afternoon in the garden. Chapman’s wife is a textile designer and he had toyed with the idea of using a floral design as the basis for a kids’ brand. He decided on forget-me-nots as the basis, which shaped both the looks and personality of his lead character.
He explains: “I really liked forget-me-nots – tiny little wild flowers with beautiful coloured petals and I thought: ‘Ah that’s interesting because she could also forget a lot. Maybe she is scatty. Then I thought she could forget words and could ask the audience to help her remember, or help her find where she has put her trowel, so that there was a bit of interaction going on.”
And so Fifi Forget-me-not, the Flowertot, was born…
Fifi and the Flowertots premiered in 2005 with a commission for 52 episodes from Milkshake and Nick Jr. Greg Lynn, MD of Chapman, comments: “The great thing about making 52 is it gave licensees a great confidence that we would be on air for a significant period of time. Sure enough, right from the get-go, Fifi attracted a warm, loyal and big following.”
That much can be proved with a quick glance at the latest statistics and accolades:
• 52 licensees signed up in the UK, representing over 600 SKUs;
• Sales of £170 million achieved at retail value to date;
• Winner of the 2005 Best Children’s Programme RTS award;
• 26.1 million items sold;
• Series sold in 162 countries and 15 languages;
• Over 70 local international partners;
• Eight out of the top 100 toys in pre-school, plush and puzzles (NPD January 2009);
• Number four licence overall in the pre-school licence category (NPD January 2009)
I could go on, but you get the idea… 13 new episodes are currently in production and are confirmed to premiere on May 1st on Channel 5’s Milkshake and Nick Jr (TBC).
So how does Chapman Entertainment continue to produce successful shows that little girls still love?
“Originally there were six boy characters and six girls. I needed the boys to be naughty, like Slugsy and Stingo and to create all the havoc and slapstick going on and for Fifi and her friends to be the voice of reason,” Chapman explains.
The mix of male and female roles keeps both boys and girls watching, even though the commercial side is aimed squarely at girls.
Individual personas are also important when catching the pre-schooler’s attention. Fifi is an affable, pleasant character, which combined with a gentle dose of education and current affairs combines to create a seemingly perfect range of storylines.
Lynn explains: “I think the simplicity is she is really just a lovely little pre-schooler, she cares about everybody, helps mend rifts and arguments and breakdowns in relationships and knits people back together. She is passionately concerned about her environment, which is very topical and wants to keep fit and healthy. The outdoors life is very important and she is a good cook too.”
Chapman agrees: “Kids see Fifi very much as a friend – she is so friendly and nice and Jane Horrocks does a brilliant job giving such a warm, inviting voice.”
Chapman Entertainment is one of the few firms still creating shows using the process of stop-frame animation - also key, Lynn feels, to Fifi’s success: “I think stop-frame as opposed to pure CGI, makes the character more real. A child can’t articulate why, but they feel she is a tangible entity and this helps them identify with her. We find stop-frame also translates really well into products, as the toys look and feel to the child just as they see her on screen.”
The animation is a painstaking process, but there is no evidence of anyone cutting corners on the show. Each department shows an enthusiasm for making Fifi the best she can be.
Looking past the series and characters, the commercial success of the brand is down to the team working on licensing, communication, marketing and brand management. Continual communication and brand extension keeps Fifi forefront in the minds of pre-schoolers and their parents.
The website has recently been refreshed and features monthly episodes and clips from the show, as well as providing a safe environment for children to play interactive games, sing songs and print activity sheets. Promotional activity with retailers such as a Fifi and Roary week in Hamleys are also regular occurrences.
Fifi and friends regularly make character appearances and she is also currently treading the boards in both her own live tour ‘The Fairy and the Flowertots’ and as a part of the Milkshake show with Bumble.
This far down the line, the most important aspect of continuing any brand’s success is to keep things fresh and exciting. The new series is using a blend of stop-frame and CGI, as producer Phil Chalk explains: “We’ve embraced new technology to create a product we feel is totally unique in the market-place.”
The new techniques also help keep the magic alive. Tim Harper, director, comments: “We are trying to get the feeling of the viewer being a missing Flowertot in a secretive, voyeuristic, invitational world. The idea is starting to work better now as we can use CGI techniques to show shadows and depth.”
The introduction of new characters also helps keep the series fresh. Lynn says: “New characters can become the axis of new stories and adventures and they also help to create new products. We also look to licensees to continue to evolve the product so that the brand as a whole is kept fresh and exciting.”
Series three sees the introduction of twins Buttercup and Daisy. Fifi will also undergo a makeover and will start to wear the odd dress, as well her infamous dungarees. Beyond the Flowertot garden, a new look will roll out with product packaging featuring a refreshed colour palate and a new patchwork floral design with hand stitching elements.
The new look will appear from autumn/winter this year and the international launch is scheduled from 2010. “Being Fifi’s fourth year, it was time for a change and we feel this move will further increase her appeal to girls,” says director of licensing at Chapman, Valerie Fry.
So does all this add up to equal the new Bob the Builder for girls? Will Fifi make it to her tenth birthday to grab the covetable evergreen brand title?
Lynn comments: “Evergreen is a word that is bandied about with some ease. Some broadcasters and retailers were saying after two years that she was an evergreen and we had to say: ‘Whoa slow down.’
“In these challenging circumstances, the message we are getting from retailers is that they are being more risk averse. It is going to be tough to launch any new brand this year, it may be better to wait until next year. I can understand that – if I was a retailer I would be looking at what I have done well with in the last few years.’ Hopefully they will be saying: ‘Well Fifi is in there.’
“Nonetheless, new shows will launch and new things will be put out there, with a lot of money put behind them, so we are not at all complacent.
Chapman has the last word: “It’s a case of trying to keep her going internationally as well. As you can’t be in all of those countries, it’s difficult to keep it going. You have to have a passion and drive behind it to keep it going and keep it out there in the public eye. That is tricky to do and of course, costs money.
“We do that really well here, we have a brilliant team and that is why it has been so successful in the UK. But it is difficult to keep that going in all the different countries. You need the marketing, TV and licensing companies and the retailer behind it. If one part of that drops, it can affect the whole thing.
“Hopefully she will still be around and reach her tenth birthday like Bob did this year. It’s getting harder to do to create long-term brands. It’s not like it used to be. In the 40s, Thomas the Tank Engine came out with a series of books and it’s 60 years old now and a number one pre-school brand everywhere. Whether its possible to come up with a show that is going to last 60 years is impossible to say.
“But I think in the current market where there are so many different channels, so much competition, dissipated audiences – you don’t get the audiences like you used to, retail space is becoming really difficult, etc. I think it is very difficult for a new show to break through.”