Hello Kitty is a hard act to follow. She's been sitting pretty for 38 years without a wobble of confidence. In the last five years in particular, she's made her way into the European mass market, appealing to several generations of women and girls.
Hello Kitty was ranked the top licensed property across Europe (source: The NPD Group) in 2010, with data still to be released for 2011. Which begs the inevitable questions: when will Kitty's star wane and what will be the next big property for girls?
The first question is irrelevant–Hello Kitty's star may never wane. But the second question has been on everyone's lips for some time now. What is going to be big for girls? As a retailer, what properties should you choose with the sure knowledge that girls will like it?
The question is as relevant in the preschool segment as it is for older girls. Peppa Pig and Disney Princess still dominate the preschool market in the U.K., and some retailers are backing Everything's Rosie, while others still are selecting Poppy Cat or Minnie Mouse. This year, Barbie will be challenged by Lalaloopsy, unicorns (Mia and Me), Moshi Monsters and the Winx Club fairies.
It's worth remembering two factors: Hello Kitty was in the market for decades before it experienced the splash it's currently enjoying. It goes without saying that you can't achieve a slow build, a steady international creep and a cross-generational appeal overnight.
The second factor is that little girls are hard to please. One licensee recently described little girls to me as like little sheep. She explained that, on the whole, they don't know what's cool until they've checked it out with their friends. Trinkets, pocket money items, collectibles and stationery all make their way into girls' lives, but before the brand progresses into apparel or such, it has to bubble in the cauldron of the school bag or on the bedroom floor until it achieves a certain kudos.
Getting it right for girls is a challenge for brand owners large and small. LEGO has been under fire for LEGO Friends, the new range marketed specifically to girls and, apparently, simpler than traditional boys'-centric LEGOs. U.S. "mom" bloggers are ranting and the rage is spreading across the Atlantic. But it's not the opinion of the parent that matters. One blog reports LEGO's claim to have researched the new line with thousands of mothers and children. Perhaps that's the problem. I don't suppose Ole Kirk Kristiansen, creator of the first LEGO bricks, canvassed anyone any more than Yuko Shimizu did when she drew the first face of Hello Kitty.
A singular creative vision has a lot going for it. When you realize you have something good on your hands, it's important to run with it, as Marianthi O'Dwyer, vice president of merchandise licensing for the U.K. and Ireland, Disney Consumer Products, explains in this issue (see page 54). When Disney's Cars was released in 2006, there was a strong Mattel toy line in place, yet only after the DVD was released did sales soar for Cars toys. Quickly, DCP and Mattel realized what an opportunity they had and responded accordingly.
Not everyone has the scale of DCP on their side, of course. Top Drawer, the design-led gifts and interiors expo which opens the European show season, has just finished. It is packed full of fresh designers, tiny companies, first time exhibitors and new concepts–the sort of companies that are the lifeblood of retail. The small scale of many of these companies means that licensing isn't dominant yet but the lure of brands and characters never seems far away. It's a great opportunity for smaller brands to make it onto products (Roald Dahl lamp shades for example) or to cross national boundaries (as with Finnish tableware company Iittala importing The Moomins). Passing an importer of Danish products I overheard a salesman taking an order for Plasteam's exquisitely made LEGO storage boxes and say: "Start with the boy colors, they are selling much better than the girl colors." Oh, girls!