As apps are being developed seemingly at lightspeed and the popularity of mobile gaming spreads globally, the licensing community has quickly targeted brands and categories that are rife with opportunity.
We're all connected now 24-7. We go from our desktop computer to our handheld, wi-fi-enabled smartphones, with technology integrated everywhere in between. Our tablets hold all of our files and data, helping to organize and manage our lives while we conduct business virtually from anywhere in the world. According to the Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project study released in March, 46 percent of American adults use smartphones, up 11 percent from the previous year and surpassing those that own basic mobile phones. For these modern conveniences, mobile applications, or "apps," have evolved to better streamline advanced technology use.
Apps were "born" in the mid-2000s from the first smartphone models. Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, sans third-party web application abilities, and it wasn't until several months post launch that the mobile device began to accommodate apps. Blackberry and Google followed suit soon thereafter for their smartphone and Android platform devices, respectively. That being said, apps as we know them today have only been around since roughly 2008. But once the virtual floodgates opened, apps have taken the world by storm and become modus operandi for most–if not all–tablet or smartphone users. It was only appropriate that licensing got into the business of capitalizing on a trend that is not showing any signs of slowing.
"Apps are incredibly real and just as important as film or television," says Larry Seidman, chief executive officer, Dimensional Branding Group. (DBG is the licensing agent for Imangi Studio's "Temple Run" app.) "When you look at digital and mobile, the growth is astonishing. It's a complete revolution and a paradigm shift for licensing. When you have 1.2 billion phones out there that have access to the Internet, it's very compelling. I would argue that game play on a hit app is incredibly engaging and done with more frequency and by a broader demographic–you see everyone playing it from grandfathers to toddlers."
The most successful licensed app property to date, and the No. 1 iTunes App Store paid app of all-time (according to Apple), is hands down Rovio's Angry Birds franchise. Launched in December 2009 for iPhone, the original "Angry Birds" app took basic physics principles and applied them to colorful, recognizable characters in silly scenarios. Several iterations have launched each year since (with updates made available in between), expanding the franchise from Apple devices to compatibility with most mobile platforms. The combination of likeable central characters, refreshed gaming updates and accessibility to all demographics has made the franchise a boon for licensing, and has helped the app to achieve more than 1 billion downloads and push $100 million in yearly sales.
Angry Birds product began roll-out in the U.S. in fall 2010 with a line of plush from Commonwealth, t-shirts from Fifth Sun and games from Mattel. The line was an instant success, selling out immediately, says Claes Kalborg, senior vice president, licensing and brand strategies, Rovio Entertainment. Since then, Rovio has signed more than 300 licensees worldwide in all relevant categories, making the program a model for all app franchises.
"Angry Birds has become an iconic brand in a very short time, and there will always be product on shelf with the classic, original characters," says Kalborg. "At the same time, new games are being developed, constant new seasonal updates [are made available] and collaborations keep the brand fresh."
The combination of all of these factors keep the "Angry Birds" app, even several years out, still top of mind and top of market. It also ranks as the No. 1 free iPad app of all-time, as well, with three of its iterations making the top 25 list. On the iPhone, "Angry Birds Free" ranks No. 8 on the list of top free apps of all-time (Facebook took the top spot), and again that list includes three different versions of the game in its top 25.
In the U.S., Striker Entertainment represents the brand as its licensing agent and, in partnership with Rovio, has brokered multiple deals for the property and helps elevate the brand's awareness.
"What's interesting about 'Angry Birds' is that it's the first app to break out as more than just an app. It has become a pop culture icon," says Marc Mostman, partner, Striker Entertainment. "Even if you've never played 'Angry Birds,' you've heard of it. The fact that Rovio really got behind [the property] and did some really innovative partnerships is very interesting. Whenever you saw an ad for a phone or tablet, you saw 'Angry Birds' on it. Rovio was smart about increasing its exposure."
Because of this, the licensing program just grows and grows. Products are in all retail channels, with major program launches at Walmart proving successful.
Most recently, the franchise took home two major awards at the 12th annual Toy of the Year (TOTY) Awards in January. Angry Birds was named Property of the Year and toy partner Mattel's Angry Birds Knock on Wood game was named Game of the Year.
But apps and app licensed merchandise potential is hot, and there are multiple properties emerging or in market now that are eager to grab that Angry Birds dollar.
ZeptoLab's "Cut the Rope," which ranks No. 4 in Apple's list of top all-time paid apps, is closing the gap between gameplay and merchandise.
With more than 130 million downloads across all mobile platforms since its debut in October 2010, "Cut the Rope's" Om Nom character is quickly making its way to market with global product lines. In the U.S. and Canada, Studio Licensing is representing the property, while ITV Studios Global Entertainment signed on in May to represent the app franchise in the E.U. The program launched in North America this year with plush and apparel at retailers such as Walmart, Sears and YM, and will expand to include sleepwear in the fall. Second and third tier categories are already slated, such as bedroom décor and back-to-school, for roll-out in 2013 and 2014, says Rob Miller, president, Studio Licensing. More than 30 licensees are already on board, which Miller expects to increase at Licensing Expo.
ITV will drive the property into Europe with apparel, gifts, publishing and mobile and game accessories. It will support the program with a comprehensive marketing and PR campaign across digital, visual and print media.
But how does a licensee sign on for program that does not have the proven success rate at retail and when true, qualified statistics are sparse?
"There are a lot of naysayers when it comes to apps because there is no historical data," says Miller. "Apps are the flavor of the day right now, and you can't force a hit, but one of the key things about our strategy is 'retail first.' Our strategy is to pitch retail first, or at least coincide with the license manufacturers. We've always been working from the back, frontward, almost pre-selling the brand and the concept itself, then talking to license manufacturers."
Licensees are being asked to take a measured risk when signing on for app properties in hopes that it just may be the next big thing, and without the retail data to ease investment piece of mind or the marketing and PR guarantees major entertainment or gaming studios are able to provide.
"There are so many apps, and people lose interest so quickly," says Derrick Baca, vice president of licensing, Hybrid Apparel. "We are not ahead of the apps–we watch them flourish just as consumers and users are watching them flourish."
Hybrid brought a line of Fruit Ninja young men's t-shirts to market last fall at JCPenney. The venture proved successful for product placement, says Baca, and the line has spread to other mass retailers such as Target, where it remains the strongest. The line has also expanded into boy's apparel, which is proving to be equally as promising as the men's line, he says.
"It's going to be interesting to see how this world comes together," says Laura Zebersky, executive vice president, sales and licensing, Jazwares. "Nobody wants to miss an opportunity like Angry Birds, but we need to see how long this trend will last and if the properties will become evergreen. It's hard to know what the next big property is. However, apps are becoming a mainstay for most programs."
Licensee Jazwares is launching three app-based programs this year for Halfbrick's "Fruit Ninja," PopCap Games' "Plants vs. Zombies" and Warner Bros. Games' "Scribblenauts."
For Fruit Ninja, Jazwares is the master toy licensee, and will release a range of figures, plush and electronics with interactive features to work conjointly with the app.
Part of the success for the Fruit Ninja licensing program, which ranks No. 2 on Apple's all-time paid list of most downloads, hinges on how quickly product can reach retail shelves, which Zebersky calls a crucial component for app-related product.
"You have to move fast, and you have to be fast to market," she says. "You can't take two years to develop the product. It's a risk, but you have to take the leap and get to market."
The "Fruit Ninja" app debuted in April 2010. Jazwares signed on as master toy partner in September 2011. Product was launched in January.
According to Miller, Zebersky and Brennan Townley, director of brand licensing, PopCap (which is now a fully-owned subsidiary of Electronic Arts), a property must have high brand awareness, refreshed gameplay and rich, accessible characters in unique environments in order to sustain a licensing program, tenants reinforced by the success of the Angry Birds program.
PopCap will take a more measured approach to launching its licensing program for "Plants vs. Zombies" (Apple's No. 12 all-time paid app), however, which will hit market in early 2013.
"While speed to market is important, doing it right is even more important for us. Our goal is to have maybe 20 licensees that are best-in-class and ultimately serve our goal," says Townley. "Good licensing will enhance the core game, but bad licensing will hurt the brand deeply. We're not looking to license anything and everything. We are looking to create franchises and transcend gaming."
PopCap's program is "very detail oriented," with quality remaining a focus.
According to Townley, the licensing program for Plants vs. Zombies is the driver for PopCap's licensing division, and for which it was founded. While there are other appropriate apps within the PopCap roster that will get a merchandise program such as its "Bejeweled" app, Plants vs. Zombies is the lead and inaugural program. The initial launch will include key categories such as apparel, headwear, bags and accessories from Bioworld; plush, figures and electronic accessories from Jazwares; wall graphics from Walls360; Pop! vinyl figurines from Funko!; adult sleepwear and boxers from MjC International; and calendars and posters from Trends International.
Also taking a calculated approach to the app market is Disney. The company first made its foray into mobile gaming with the app "Where's my Water?," which launched in September 2011. Quickly the app has picked up steam, and now a full range of merchandise will launch for Swampy the Alligator and friends, again reinforcing the importance of speed to market when capitalizing on an app brand's licensing potential. Hasbro, Jakks Pacific and retailer Toys 'R' Us are on board to bring Where's my Water?-branded merchandise to the masses with early lines including plush, novelty toys, electronics accessories and apparel. The line hits shelves this month. A second wave of product is planned for fall and will include a face-to-face game, consumer electronics, stationery, home accessories and Halloween costumes.
As "Where's my Water?" hit mobile devices, so did Disney's AppMates mobile application toys. The line allows toys to be safely played on iPads, transforming the tablet into a virtual play mat. The collaboration between Disney Consumer Products and Disney Mobile launched first with the Cars 2 property.
Other app properties expected to launch product programs, and for which major moves are being made, include Imangi Studio's "Temple Run," Lima Sky's "Doodle Jump" and Outfit7's "Talking Friends."
For the Temple Run property, Spin Master will produce traditional board and card games with electronic features. The "robust program" will cover all foundational categories and debut domestically and internationally, says Seidman.
Lima Sky recently named Eric Karp as chief licensing officer to oversee the licensing for "Doodle Jump" (No. 3 on Apple's top paid apps of all-time list) in collaboration with agent, FremantleMedia Enterprises. FME is actively seeking partners across consumer product categories, live events and publishing.
The Talking Friends property, which is represented by licensing agent Beanstalk, has already secured 17 licensing agreements across North America, Europe and Asia, including apparel (which launched already at Next in the U.K. and Walmart and Amazon.com in North America), plush, mobile accessories, footwear, gift and novelty, sleepwear, bedding and home décor.
Toy companies are getting in on the app business too, and not just as a licensee.
Mattel announced plans for its Apptivity platform, which merges physical toys with immersive play, allowing users to use toys on tablet screens. The first launches for Apptivity will integrate its Hot Wheels, Laugh & Learn and Barbie properties.
Hasbro also has a gaming connectivity platform to add to the mix, Hasbro zAPPed Gaming. Using its tried and true branded games, Hasbro has combined traditional analog, face-to-face gaming with mobile technology functionality. The first three brands to get the zAPPed treatment are The Game of Life, Monopoly and Battleship, which will bring elements of the games to life when iOS devices are combined with a game board.
Hasbro is also actively getting into the social gaming realm, a wholly distinct category from app merchandising. In February, Hasbro announced its partnership with social game developer Zynga to develop a wide range of toys and gaming experiences based on Zynga's properties including FarmVille, CityVille and Words with Friends. The deal also allows for co-branded merchandise featuring both companies' brands. No products have officially been revealed yet, but they are expected to roll-out in fall.
Also diving deep into the mobile frontier is Mind Candy's Moshi Monsters. Mindy Candy signed a partnership with mobile social gaming company GREE in May to bring the popular children's website to mobile devices. The partnership will kick off with two new Moshi Monsters mobile games on the GREE platform, set for release later this year.
All in all, it is collectively agreed that apps and the licensing programs that can support them are a worthwhile pursuit. But it remains to be seen for how long and how many retail dollars app programs can generate.
"[App development] is a tough business," says Seidman. "It's crowded, and it's only going to get more crowded. There will be thousands that do well, but there won't be millions. The apps that make it into the top tier are amazing–just look at who they had to jump over."
Apple's Top Paid and Free iPhone and iPad Apps of All-Time
In celebration of its 25 billion App Store downloads, Apple released its list of the top downloads of all-time, both paid and free, in March.
Top 10 paid iPhone apps:
Top 10 paid iPad apps:
Top 10 free iPhone apps:
Top 10 free iPad apps:
*Because Apple iOS (iPod, iPod Touch and iPad) is the oldest and most qualified platform for app launches, License! Global chose to use this list as an indicator for app sales.