Licensors Play to Consumer Nostalgia for Days Gone By

Dispatch From Day Two of the Licensing Expo

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LAS VEGAS ( -- If I were a betting man, I would say this is finally going to be Strawberry Shortcake's year. It seems like at each Licensing Expo, American Greetings unveils a "new" Strawberry Shortcake to licensees in the hope that the 1980s children's phenomenon can compete against more recent children's powerhouse brands such as Hannah Montana, High School Musical and Disney Princesses. And this year is no different. Yet again, Strawberry Shortcake has a new look, a new world and a new story line for licensees.

Is this finally the year for Strawberry Shortcake?
Is this finally the year for Strawberry Shortcake?
But this year actually is different, and for the first time, Strawberry Shortcake isn't just some cult throwback fighting against the new flavor of the season. This year she has a lot of company.

As I walked the show floor today, I could really feel the nostalgia kick everywhere I looked. It seems we all are longing for days gone by -- or at least that's what marketers are betting on.

Disney, the "licensor's licensor," is spotlighting its most iconic character, Mickey Mouse, in a big way this year for older children and adults. The move is a big departure for the company from years past, when it focused much more on tween properties.

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Sony Pictures Consumer Products is putting a lot of weight behind classic properties this year, including big marketing programs for "The Smurfs" and its upcoming remake of "The Karate Kid."

Not the Nerf of childhood
Hasbro is pushing its Nerf brand in a big way. The products look great, and by great I mean dangerous (though, of course, they're not, since they are made of Nerf materials). They actually look just like the Nerf products you wish they could have made when we were younger.

Atari is pinning its hopes at this year's Expo to some of its classic arcade games, prospecting for licensees for Pong, Battlezone, Centipede and Asteroids.

FreemantleMedia Enterprises is promoting classic TV properties such as "The Price is Right," "Family Feud" and "Press Your Luck" for new digital platforms. CBS is also aggressively promoting its classic portfolio. In addition to its "Star Trek" franchise (no surprises there), CBS is pushing "Love, American Style" and "Mork & Mindy," among others. And, perhaps most surprisingly, it appears that even Gidget is coming back with a movie in 2010 and an accompanying global licensing program.

Hasbro is pushing its Nerf brand in a big way.
Hasbro is pushing its Nerf brand in a big way.
The look back also applies to well-known consumer-product brands. Icee, the 45-year-old flavored frozen drink, is looking to extend its brand through licensing, as is Pez.

There are a lot of big anniversaries being celebrated at this year's Expo. The biggest, of course, is Barbie, who turned 50 this year. (Doesn't it seem that some of these "anniversaries" last more than a year?) The Peanuts comic series is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and that's being marked by an exclusive partnership with CVS. The national drugstore chain will feature five decades of Snoopy plush dolls this fall. The Boy Scouts is celebrating 100 years in February 2010 with an extensive licensing program unveiled at Expo.

Hearst-owned King Features has one of Expo's larger booths and is showing a number of its most nostalgic brands, including Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible, Flash Gordon, Dennis the Menace, Betty Boop and Bazooka Joe, among others.

No longer second fiddle
Of course, King Features, like Strawberry Shortcake and most of the properties mentioned above, has been to the show before. But in the past, most of these nostalgic brands seemed more like background, playing second fiddle to tween pop stars, Batmobiles and shape-shifting robots from other planets. This year, though, there don't seem to be any major blockbuster properties to take our attention away from the classics. The entire show has a folksier feel to it than in years past.

This trend isn't unique to licensing or brand extensions. Advertisers and marketers across the country have been trying to tap into the past for quite some time now, hearkening back to simpler and less stressful times for consumers (in the hope they'll spend like it's 1987). Clearly licensing, which has the ability to tap into any time period, place or locale, can be a highly effective strategy for emotionally connecting with consumers looking for a respite from the difficult here and now.

Stay tuned for my Expo wrap-up tomorrow ...

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Michael Stone is president-CEO of the Beanstalk Group, an Omnicom Group-owned global brand licensing consultancy.

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