Brands Built on Play

License Global celebrates the importance of play in the world of brand licensing and extension.

Ben Roberts, Content Director

May 1, 2024

14 Min Read
Robosen Transformers Grimlock Auto-Converting robot, Hasbro
Robosen Transformers Grimlock Auto-Converting robotHasbro

At a Glance

  • The State of Play Today
  • The Business of Play
  • Brands Who Play

The concept of play has changed. Today, play is immersive, digital, interactive, family-oriented and interconnected across various platforms. Play not only sits at the heart of cognitive development and family dynamics but resides at the center of global brand identities for multi-billion-dollar companies. Play shapes the new and meaningful ways brands interact and collaborate with consumers. Thanks to the widespread societal acceptance of fandom for adults and the increasing adoption of digital play patterns for kids, play allows brands to communicate with fans regardless of demographics. Play, in short, is the connecting factor between family, fan and brand.

The State of Play Today

“For over 100 years, our business has been driven by play,” says Tim Kilpin, president, toys, licensing and entertainment, Hasbro. “Play today is highly social, collectible and happening across all platforms. We intend to create play opportunities on every platform where our fans are.”

The brand licensing business has evolved to absorb play into its DNA and work across all consumer touchpoints, authentically connecting fans with brands. It starts with intellectual property and moves through video games, tabletop gaming, toys, fashion and, of more importance, family-driven experiences, to name a few.

Related:Spin Master on Fan-First Brand Extension

“People desire connection, whether online or in-person, which has led us to focus on experiences and products that bring people together and create fan communities around the globe,” adds Kilpin. “For example, our new LEGO DUPLO Peppa Pig sets not only provide a tangible building set for young Peppa fans but also in-person play experiences as part of our larger work with LEGO and Merlin Entertainments. The first LEGO DUPLO Peppa Pig Playground opened in Billund, Denmark on March 23 at LEGOLAND Billund, followed by Europe’s first standalone Peppa Pig Theme Park in Günzburg situated next to LEGOLAND Deutschland, open now.” 

Adopting play across all ages has allowed brands to build creative and impactful multi-generational touchpoints that enable families to connect, give kids a chance to be kids and allow adults to join in the fun. Outside of the family dynamic, grown-ups are also now a key market in the business of play. The licensing model around “kidult culture” celebrates fandom and creates on-ramps for new fans and audiences worldwide.

“Play is truly for fans of all ages,” says Kilpin. “We’ve seen this for years on the games side with the fan communities around our Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering properties, but in the past, there was a broader assumption that play was limited to kids. Now, everyone is seeing an increasing demand for play products and experiences from adult consumers. With this group in mind, we’ve launched incredible licensed products geared towards their interests with our LEGO Transformers Optimus Prime and LEGO IDEAS Dungeons & Dragons building sets.”

Related:The Changing Pace of Screen Time with WildBrain

LEGO IDEAS Dungeons & Dragons: Red Dragon’s Tale set, Hasbro

Another property that has significantly influenced generations of fans is Pokémon, whose video game debut on the Nintendo Game Boy brought to life a brand that continues to grow to this day. Not only has Pokémon nurtured its core audience of Game Boy and Trading Card Game fans from the late ’90s, but it has also placed significant emphasis on how the evolution of that intellectual property engaged new generations of fans.

“The joy of play has been an inherent part of the Pokémon brand since its debut when the original Pokémon video games launched in Japan in 1996,” says Amy Sachtleben, senior director, licensing and promotions, The Pokémon Company International. “Since then, Pokémon has evolved into one of the world’s most successful entertainment franchises by offering a variety of ways to play, including the globally popular Pokémon video games, mobile apps, the Pokémon Trading Card Game (TCG), animation and movies, Play! Pokémon competitive events or through one of the brand’s licensed partnerships.”

At the core of Pokémon’s success is the commitment to its dedicated fan community, which The Pokémon International Company brings to life through a continuous drive to create new, authentic and innovative touchpoints through play.

“When ideating on new offerings and experiences, the concept of play is the connective tissue that binds the Pokémon brand to its fans while simultaneously connecting fans, creating a global community of cross-generational Trainers,” adds Sachtleben. “Many adults within the Pokémon fan community grew up with Pokémon and continue to engage with the brand today in different ways while still tapping into play by sharing their fandom with their children.”

“Pokémon Horizons” series

With long-standing properties now leading the way in omnichannel, trans-media exploration across fan bases, brands are playing with new methods of building and engaging communities. Mattel, a leading global toy and family entertainment company and owner of one of the most iconic brand portfolios in the world, explains how the concept of play has inspired their approach to brand licensing and bringing brands to life.

“One of the powers of our company is to be local and to understand and know our fans,” says Josh Silverman, executive vice president, chief franchise officer, Mattel. “We want to take those incredible play patterns that exist within Mattel toys and then bring them to life across all the areas we operate in. When it comes to play, it’s such a broad term, so the application of that is predicated upon the space you’re in. When you think about some of our live experiences, ‘Hot Wheels Monster Truck,’ for instance, it brings the play pattern of Hot Wheels, racing and the spirit of challenge to life. ‘Hot Wheels Elite’ has also had an incredible response from a fan standpoint. We have something like 11 million active players and almost 50 million monthly active users on our digital side with NetEase and Mattel 163. On the digital side, to use another example, Uno. We now have that patented in a digital format where fans can engage there, too. So, the term play has many applications. At our heart, we are a toy company and continue to manage our franchises proactively, exercising and executing them at a high level across all verticals. It matters to the fan when they engage with each of those offerings.”

Hot Wheels Flippin’ Fast, Mattel

The Business of Play

Play as a concept is now a progressive model to engage fans and showcase brand identity. It is a movement that is becoming increasingly relevant in the business world and brings about creative approaches to consumer products, brand extension and collaboration. The Wyld Bunch – a team of experts working across the brand marketing, collaboration and gaming spectrum – believes the right way to meet consumers is to shake things up and make connections through play.

“Integrating ‘play’ into licensing strategies is all about engaging consumers in a fun and interactive way,” says Paul Brunton, founder, The Wyld Bunch. “Whether through gamification, interactive storytelling or experiential marketing, professionals are tapping into the power of play to forge deeper connections with consumers. It’s about creating programs that feel more like an invitation to join in on the fun and less about a simple commercial approach in brand extension.”

Social media is a landscape in which brands are increasingly partnering with influential content creators to produce playful campaigns in which brands showcase the potential of play in a less direct, more engaging way, and a practice that is becoming more and more effective.

“Influencers are shaking things up,” says Brunton. “By partnering with influencers, brands can reach their target audience in a more authentic and trusted way. These collaborations feel less like traditional advertising and more like a genuine conversation from a trusted source. From sponsored content to influencer-led events, brands are finding new ways to connect with fans and drive engagement. Our studio has developed an influencer platform, Clout, exclusively for the licensing industry. Our platform connects brands to micro-influencers anywhere in the world, opening followers directly linked to activities and niches that suit the brand/IP. Through our creators, we’re amplifying awareness of our partner’s brand or product with huge engagement rates that some of the more traditional marketing mechanics cannot compete with – at scale, rapidly and affordably.”

The changing concept of play is leading brands across the globe to take core intellectual property and audience or fan engagement and transform that connection into something more meaningful. One key aspect is the rise of location-based experiences (LBE). The increasing demand from the younger audience such as Gen Z and Gen Alpha for the experience economy has driven in-person experiences, according to Kilpin, who notes Hasbro’s 500 annual events to date and over 100 open permanent experiences worldwide, including theme park attractions, restaurants, interactive, life-sized games and more.

“Given the growing importance of live experiences, LBE will be at the forefront of the evolution of play and providing fans with innovative in-person experiences,” says Kilpin. “For instance, the co-branded Transformers & My Little Pony Playlodge is coming soon to Shanghai, China, featuring an indoor family entertainment center, hotel rooms, retail and dining offerings. NERF Action Xperience (NERF AX) is expanding as well. Following the Manchester, U.K., opening, we’re bringing two more locations to the United States in New Jersey and Tennessee to bring families blaster battle arenas, sports challenges, obstacle courses, food and beverage offerings and exclusive merch.”

NERF Mania! at Beto Carrero World, Hasbro

Mattel is also building a new world dedicated to its brands, cementing the idea that the experience economy is alive and well and, in fact, a growing opportunity for brand development and fan engagement. To celebrate the company’s upcoming 80-year anniversary, Mattel is venturing into theme parks to bring its robust portfolio of brands together for the first time.

“The 80-year anniversary will be another tentpole moment for us as a company, and we’re excited about the potential. We’re opening our first theme park at the end of this calendar year, Mattel Adventure Park, which will be in Glendale, Arizona,” says Silverman. “We just announced a second location for our second park in Kansas City, Kansas. And so, we will continue that elevation of the Mattel brand by inviting guests to celebrate all characters and intellectual properties together. We want that vertical and horizontal endorsement; we want people to see Hot Wheels, Barbie or Barney and think of Mattel. Our portfolio of intellectual property is robust and has incredible breadth and depth. These are multi-generational and universal brands and franchises that people have a real connection to, so we will spotlight the company for our 80-year anniversary.”

The growing fan demographic also drives creativity in collaboration, partnership and extension. Combine this with the increasing innovations in play, and brands have more opportunities to surprise and delight than ever before.

“The current perception of ‘play’ has led to significant growth opportunities,” adds Kilpin. “At Hasbro, we’re going beyond play by using a franchise-first approach to deliver the magic of our brands through various categories across licensed merchandise – such as fashion, home goods and publishing, along with digital games and services, location-based entertainment and more.

“There are so many ways to meet consumers where they are,” continues Kilpin. “We can bring fans of our brands entirely new offerings through seemingly endless channels while reaching all-new audiences. For example, we’ve been reimagining some of our classic Hasbro IP for modern players by launching into new formats. We’re excited about our Littlest Pet Shop product lineup from Basic Fun!, which includes surprise packs and playsets with over 120 pets to collect that all feature unique personalities, breeds and rarity levels to delight and excite new and original Littlest Pet Shop fans worldwide.”

Brands Who Play

Brand licensing as a business model has evolved from traditional merchandise and consumer product lines to bring an emotional connection between brand and buyer in authentic and innovative ways. This evolution from the “logo slapping” of bygone times would not have happened without those individuals willing to take risks, understand audiences and play in new spaces.

Because of the fan- and consumer-first mindset, brand licensing is fast becoming a place to generate revenue and engage core fandoms, embrace new audiences, enter new markets and create a buzz around curated consumer pieces. In short, brand licensing is no longer just a business model but a way to build brands. The bigger picture may be creativity and consumer confidence, but how does a global brand explore creativity while maintaining authenticity and loyalty to its fans?

“Pokémon maintains a robust licensing portfolio that’s purposely category-agnostic to allow our diverse fan community the opportunity to experience and engage with the brand in new and unique ways,” says Sachtleben. “Whether it’s a young Trainer learning to read or an adult Trainer looking to flaunt their style – or anything in between – we want to ensure that fans can immerse themselves in the Pokémon world in various ways. For example, parents may look to share their fandom with their children by introducing them to the wide range of Pokémon titles for beginner readers from our long-time partner, Scholastic. Those same parents may also turn to one of our many fashion and lifestyle collaborations – such as the popular Pokémon collection with Santa Cruz Skateboards or the premium Tiffany & Arsham Studio & Pokémon jewelry collection, both of which launched in 2023 – to integrate Pokémon in their own day-to-day lives.”

Pokémon’s brand licensing approach prioritizes working with partners that will elevate the brand and understand its commitment to its fans. According to Sachtleben, that partnership needs to be anchored by the brand’s core values: play, adventure and friendship. After all, licensed consumer products and experiences are an extension of a brand and, therefore, must create a natural representation of what fans love about a brand.

Brands have passionate fans, meaning there is a level of communication that dictates creativity. From Hasbro’s public playtests to Pokémon’s live-event community, franchises are built on fan and consumer interaction.

“The Dungeons & Dragons franchise has been using public playtests with fans for years to create its products,” says Kilpin. “The ‘Dungeons & Dragons 2024 Core Rulebook’ update had more than 100,000 testers and respondents to our ‘Unearthed Arcana’ public playtest process. Further, our recently announced LEGO IDEAS Dungeons & Dragons set was designed by a fan. Our Wizards of the Coast division and LEGO co-developed a brief shared to the LEGO IDEAS platform, and we received over 600 fan submissions before deciding to move forward with a version proposed by 32-year-old Lucas Bolt (aka BoltBuilds) from Amsterdam. Lucas then worked closely with our designers and the LEGO design team to develop the unique setting represented in the final set.

“As highlighted, it’s also essential for partners to be fans,” adds Kilpin. “Working with licensees and retailers who share a love for brands can expand franchises in the most authentic ways possible. Hasbro exemplifies the practice by collaborating with Pokémon, Hello Kitty and Mattel’s Barbie. By working with those who love the brand, we allow ourselves to play in new spaces and create something by fans, for fans.”

Heinz Classic Barbiecue Sauce, Mattel

Speaking to the Barbie experience, that fandom became clear when Mattel and Warner Bros. brought the Greta Gerwig-directed film release, “Barbie,” to life in 2023. Working with licensees across the board, the experience brought the brand to life and inspired fans worldwide to celebrate the launch, from those who had grown up with Barbie to those first experiencing the ambitious play patterns of the iconic toy.

“What we’re seeing more today is people having shared social experiences,” says Silverman. “There’s something special about that. You saw that in ‘Barbie,’ where people dressed up to go to the film. Traditionally, people go to a film and connect to the story, then potentially go home and engage with the product. Now, you have fans dressing up to go and experience the movie, which shows you the uniqueness of the story and the incredible work of the filmmakers. The film was so fresh and had such a voice that it brought tremendous honor to the brand and the company.”

Play is the thread that binds brands and fans, driving each interaction or shared experience. Play allows brands to explore new levels of creativity, bring communities something to celebrate across touchpoints and give families a chance to build memories around intellectual property. Play, in short, is fueled by curiosity, connection and creativity, be it the toy box or the brand, and it may never change.

This story was taken from the May 2024 issue of License Global. Read the full issue here.

About the Author(s)

Ben Roberts

Content Director, License Global

Subscribe and receive the latest news from the industry Article
Join 62,000+ members. Yes, it's completely free.

You May Also Like