Monday, September 18, 2017

Permanent Changes In Franchise Entertainment And Toys

Every week seems to be bringing news about changes and challenges in the worlds of entertainment and toys. A summer that has seen box office numbers trailing last year by 11 % with a prediction that year end will see that number hit 15%!

Mattel seems to be in free fall, LEGO (the performance envy of the toy world) is laying off 8% of its workforce and even Hasbro, the licensing kings of the industry, are reporting lower projections attributing it to entertainment timing. These declines are happening during a time when the toy industry has grown by 3% this year but is down from the 6% growth of last year.

Each company, each industry, is claiming different reasons for this malaise. Unrelated? In part..maybe… but underlying these shifts are some very permanent, immediate and profound changes in audience behaviors that are having a big effect. Collectively, they create a powerful imperative to move away from business as usual.

Millennials (born 1980 to 2000) have become the new American family. They have more preschoolers and young kids than Xers and all of us are becoming a lot more millennial in our behaviors. That is because the factors that have formed their generational ethos are factors that are working on all of us. They are simply the first and the most native to the life changes created by those factors and those changes are permanent. 

Rather than unbox all the causes and reasons for the behaviors (I give yearly seminars to do that), I’m going to cut directly to the behaviors themselves and what that means for entertainment and toys.

1.     Millennial families adopt ONLY A FEW carefully chosen and personally meaningful stories to “live into” (lifestyle) long term. 
a.     if you’re not one of them then welcome to the world of expensive ups and downs
b.     Choosing what IP to invest in, that is meaningful and connective to Millennials, is key. This isn’t trivial because the themes, heroic structures, ethos and challenges are all evolving. This can be big opportunity for new IP and Brands who get it right and is clearly a re-invention imperative for some legacy IP and Brands.

2.     Millennials want a relationship vs a transaction for their dollars
a.     IP that only engage in a single format are at a profound disadvantage. Most of the entertainment industry treats these considerations as something their consumer products groups must sort out. By the time the entertainment is set and turned over to the CP groups, it's largely too late to significantly impact how an IP/Story is capable of engaging its audience.
b.     Toy product lines that are “one and done” single activities or don’t have aspects that connect and support the audience moving to and from other expressions are higher friction, less satisfying and don’t rise to the level of the lifestyle IP and goods that Millennials lean into. (remember they are filtering out a lot of purchasing) 

3.     Millennials BUY LESS BUT ARE WILLING TO SPEND MORE on things that are “meaningful” to them.
a.     The IP must create real, useful, meaning or the consumer products won’t sell
b.     The Products and toys must understand what the meaning is and fully deliver that as well. The license itself doesn’t necessarily carry the sale anymore. Millennials and Gen-Z are super savvy when it comes to play value and want the purchases aligned with their beliefs.

4.     With Millennials It can be much HARDER TO ENGAGE THEM WITH A LEGACY IP or brand (unless you are part of their childhood play and entertainment nostalgia)
a.     Beware of celebrating big brand/IP anniversaries. You can easily become grampa’s brand to millennials. There have been brands that celebrate anniversaries and have seen their sales drop.
b.     An IP’s or Brand’s past strength means little to Millennials. You must make it meet them in their world and the themes and ideas must become relevant to the lives and desires they are living with.
c.     Some of the medium and smaller toy companies are having big successes with relatively new IP.

5.     Millennials are the experience economy. They want CONSTANTLY EVOLVING AND PROFOUNDLY IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCES from dining, to shopping to the rare vacation or special occasion. 
a.     A lot of IP doesn’t lend itself to experiences. The IP needs to be built to do so. Millennials see experiences as part of the story, not as a separate “ride” or “trip.” 
b.     Having “pinnacle experiences” for you IP are important. These are experiences that anyone who is becoming a fan of your brand can engage with that takes them to ultimate immersion.
c.     Toy companies need to be more successful at developing using “experience design” so that the play is richer and deeper and much more connective to all the other things happening with the IP in other formats. This doesn’t necessarily mean it all has to be connected toys. It’s about depth and expansion of the IP in ways that connect to the bigger picture easily., these 5 altered behaviors describe a marketplace that rewards millennial relevance and IP/Brand/Product forethought to create a seamless landscape that the audience can expand into. A new/young IP doesn’t need to activate across all these efforts on day #1 but…if it doesn’t have the meaning, ideas, characters and worlds to drive those future events, it’s going to struggle getting off of first base. The business of franchise is so much more than great entertainment.

Shameless Plug: On November 13th in Santa Monica, we are performing our latest seminar on "Creating A Franchise Story." Come and join us to learn about insights, process and tools to help create the kind of IP that can become a true franchise.  LINK

Monday, August 22, 2016

Is Gratitude, the brand power-benefit for the 21st century?

In the turbulent and long-term challenging times we live in, there is an emerging trend to see that our daily lives have people, places, things and experiences in them that are worth recognizing and being grateful for. Arguably, Millennial families are leading this charge with personal and social, value-driven, life choices.

Maybe its just the generational, pendulum swing from the acquisitive excesses of the Winners and Losers, Gordon Gecko, die with the most, inflated gold rush of the 90’s, or perhaps it’s the naturally emerging life-ethos of a generation grown to adulthood with less opportunity, less ability to build wealth, big debt and inheriting a whole lot of problems.

Whatever the cause, some of the world’s personal ambitions are turning to inward looking notions that seem more contemplative. Millennials are slowly defining a new “good life” that has a whole lot less to do with stuff and a lot more to do with building a sense of personal gratitude for a different kind of riches within their power to experience and share. It’s also fair to say that we’re all becoming more Millennial.

When times get tough, it’s natural for us to seek things and activities that are more meaningful and purposeful. The search for personal spirituality is on the rise and contemplative disciplines like Yoga and meditation are in high growth. More than ever before, we are seeking moments of peace and satisfaction for ourselves and for our families.

Evidence of the emerging role of gratitude can be seen in the explosion of discussions and posts around the subject throughout social media. (just a few examples below)

This brings me to an observation I feel is a grand opportunity. The rising role of personal gratitude, so far, is largely overlooked by brands as a prime goal. 

Some brands have managed the move from status or service to desirable experience. Fitbit is an excellent example.

Some brands reimagined focus on “the gift” they may be able to bring to their consumers can rise to become something we are grateful for. Dove with it’s real beauty campaign rises to that benefit:

But generally, few seek to engender the unique notion that is gratitude from the onset.

If we break down things that we are grateful for into it’s component parts, I believe there is a simple but profound list of attributes:
  1. It must be something that makes our life and ourselves better
  2. It must bring real pleasure and moments of satisfaction each time we come in contact with it.
  3. It must be something that repeatedly reminds us of an uncomplicated and essential truth about ourselves
  4. It must be a touchstone that grounds us in a moment, activity, time or event that we cherish

These attributes are powerful, ritualizing elements that speak to the deepest of meaning and connection for someone. 

If we were to measure our brand development, product ideation, experience design and activation planning against such measures, we might just surprise ourselves and make something disruptively new and deeply in service to the audience/consumer of the 21st century.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Know when you need an expert for entertainment

This is the fifth installment in the 8 part series: 8 Things You Should Know Before Making Entertainment For Your Brand

The old saying: “everyone has a story in them.” Needs a second half that says: “but you need to be professionally trained to develop commercial entertainment.”   

The old adage is more than just a saying. Humans are evolved to instinctually participate in story. It’s how we teach and change. Because of this, it’s tempting to feel we are qualified to create or manage the development of stories for our brands, companies and efforts.

But when it comes to creating commercially successful entertainment, it’s a bit like saying you like to sing in the shower so next stop is winning on “The Voice.” That’s a one in a million undiscovered talent story and there’s a whole lot more craft to the development process of entertainment than learning to sing a song well.

Net/net, Brand managers, marketing directors, Industrial designers, licensing directors, and art directors are generally not trained in the craft of story development.

There are rich and additive ways for all of the above to engage with and inform the story development process but I highly recommend finding that person who can lead your team in a successful interaction with story developers who can insure you get the story that will drive your brand and at the same time, achieve real excellence in entertainment.

This can take the form of a single, experienced, individual, or it can be achieved through finding and partnering with a studio, network, or development company that is also experienced with a track record of delivering success in your lane. By lane I mean that if you need a girls property developed, find the talent that has been successful in girls entertainment etc. There is no person or company that is simply good at all things.

Choosing that expert also effects what you own, how much leverage you’ll have in rights retention and how early you will get momentum and placement. There’s a lot of detail and variation in that statement and I won’t unbox that in this post but generally there’s two big buckets two consider. Developing your unique and ownable story idea using an individual talent prior to attaching a studio or attach a studio first. Usually, if you have defined your story and its details prior to studio attachment, you can retain more of the rights. Either way is quite workable with different advantages and you have to decide what your goals, budget and access to talent are.

Whichever road you choose, attaching professional, full-time, entertainment talent to run and develop your entertainment is the best insurance you can buy for success.

The next installment in this 8 part series is:

Do the right work before beginning story development

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Do It Right And Support It Well Or Don't Spend The Time And Money

This is the fourth installment in the 8 part series: 8 Things You Should Know Before Making Entertainment For Your Brand

When it comes to developing or launching entertainment, magical thinking is not a good strategy for how to support that effort.  The decision to develop and launch a narrative/story happens because there is a need to have bankable, repeatable, commercial success and entertainment is a driver of that success. For business that is driven by entertainment, the entertainment itself must be good enough to succeed and, it must be launched and supported in a way that insures it will be found, sampled and explored to develop a relationship with your intended audience.

The age of social media is rich with stories of spontaneous discovery, meteoric growth, garage creators and memes-turned-riches. We have all heard the myth. A lone someone creates a story and in the absence of a significant budget, either they themselves, or some friends who like the story, create some visual and narrative assets, put it online, and it grows. As the myth goes, sometimes success takes years and a lot of relentless pluck and sometimes it’s really fast, virally exploding as the story finds its audience and becomes big.

This can be a hopeful and motivating  story for those whose day jobs aren’t creating or managing stories or brands. It’s a chance to see if your narrative might have merit and resonance for more than just yourself and perhaps immediate family and friends.  

The underlying truth is that for every story that has humble beginnings yet manages to break out of the unimaginably crowded world of social media, there are uncountable magnitudes of stories that remain obscure forever.

For a real commercial enterprise, shoestring development and Hail Mary support campaigns cost and lose more than the meager investments assigned to the efforts. Valuable people will spend valuable time working on these efforts. The commercial product/services will be created, tooled and funded. Critical external partners will become involved and bring their own resources to bear as well. The cost and risk list goes on and on.

Here is a listing of things to consider as you develop your thinking about how to fund and support entertainment for your brand:

Creators and Development talent costs money
Work with a good agency or a partner who can advise you on finding and attaching top talent. Strong results happen a lot more because of “who” versus strategy and plan.

Time is money so be clear about what you want developed
The more time development and production resources spend casting about pursuing a result that gets reset because it doesn’t meet your needs, the more expensive it is. Be clear about your goals and timing (see section on timing).

Funds commitment horizon is longer for entertainment
Product companies (including licensing companies) often fluxuate their budget on a quarter by quarter basis as their results come in. Entertainment needs to function on commitments that lock in funds for 2 or 3 years. Shortening up funds during the process is very destructive to the process and often significantly harms the quality of the results.

Set aside a distinct and sufficient “discovery” budget for advertising
Making the entertainment is one step. Making sure your audience shows up and finds you is equally as important or all that good work never has the effect you’re looking for. Set aside that budget from the beginning and make sure it lands during the critical discovery and spread period and that it lasts long enough (highly variable dependent on what format you’re launching in).

You’re in or You’re not because just a little bit often has no effect
Doing just a tiny bit of entertainment to see if there’s interest in usually not very effective and definitely burns time and resources.  There are some exceptions. I’ve seen multiple short forms launched to test concept ideas with direct audience feedback that has worked. This is best when you own enough of your own development and production pipeline that the cost isn’t prohibitive because short forms (1 to 3 min.) are the most expensive way to produce entertainment per minute.

Greenlight your next round to be ready vs when you have proof.
Due to the lengthy development and production run up for entertainment, if you are a product company, you will miss the opportunity to continue driving your brand with entertainment if you wait until your first round is in market and successful before you greenlight the second round. That gap will be a year or more.

Trust the talent and don’t get research paralysis

I get a lot of questions from non-entertainment companies about when can research be fielded to insure they are doing the right entertainment. The short answer is research can’t tell you much of quality until you have some truly complete entertainment to test. Imagine testing sponge bob with boards and an explanation: “He’s a sponge…square…and he has a silly laugh…”  It's not funny and powerful until it's all there. You need to trust your entertainment talent and your own understanding of your brand to give you most of those directional answers during development.

The 5th installment in this blog series will be:

Know When You Need An Expert

Friday, August 5, 2016

Developing Entertainment For Your Brand Needs A Different Time Cycle

 Excellence takes time, talent, and the right process and environment to discover and grow the big idea. 

In today's crowded entertainment and story marketplace, nothing short of excellence creates success 

There is no "good enough" when it comes to getting over the creative bar that will find and attach an audience. I'm not talking about how expensive the entertainment is nor about any particular style or genre. There are many examples of excellent entertainment that doesn't break the bank from a production budget standpoint.

A big challenge for many non-entertainment companies (I define this as a company whose primary product is not the entertainment itself) is to understand and support the process and timeframe necessary to achieve the story excellence needed to effectively compete. This is understandable (though not desirable) because you always get the behavior you incentivize for and if you make your profit from something else other than the entertainment, then that's where you'll focus your process, competencies and decisions. 

Product, service and experience companies all have very unique and specific milestones and timeframes that become ingrained in their cycle planning process. It becomes critical for there to be someone involved who understands the uniquely different, and often changing timeframes and development steps involved in entertainment development. This is especially key in setting the horizon for when the entertainment will meet up with product, experience and/or service. I have seen many cases where getting the financial approval to proceed with the entertainment development is tightly tied to the new product concept to be launched 12 or 24 months in the future. By the time funding approval is received based on those non-entertainment approval cycles, there remains little or no time for development. This usually guarantees mediocre or worse results because everything depends on the breakthroughs that occur in development.

Entertainment development is a highly iterative process within which highly trained creatives are striving to “crack the story” and find a new way to tell a timeless story.  The process works best when, in the development phase, everyone involved in the process is willing to repeatedly dump 90% of the work because a powerful discovery has been made that is clearly going to be the heart of the idea and now everything must comform to that newfound heart. Discovery happens at a certain rate in each project and it can't be rushed without diminishing the quality of the end result.

There are very good reasons why entertainment studios of all sizes are organized into “Development” and “Production.” Nothing is certain in development until the big idea has been found and refined because only excellence will succeed. The gods of development are: Creation, Uniqueness, Human Truth, Excellence of Concept, Vision and more. The Gods of production are: Cost, Schedule, Refinement, Expansion, Excellence and Consistency and Effeciency.

For brand companies entering this new world, committing to entertainment needs to include the commitment to the uncertain timing of the development phase. This can be uncomfortable because the decision to pursue entertainment often comes as part of a plan to drive and support specific product, licensing or  service/experience rollouts. Production timing can be hard planned but if you don’t already have the new story in hand, plan in the 6, 12, or 18 months necessary to find that story. 

More of the future of your brand will be shaped by this work than you may imagine.

The upcoming fourth installment in the 8 part blog series "8 Things You Should Know Before Making Entertainment For Your Brand" will be:

Support It Well 

or Don't Spend the Time and Money