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Popeye Flexes his Co-Marketing Muscles

Spinach-Gobbling Cartoon Character Gets Major Branding Push

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LOS ANGELES ( -- Popeye the Sailor Man, the cartoon character who is worth a couple billion dollars but hasn't fully flexed his muscles for more than 20 years, is doing so now with a vengeance.
The Popeye character is being signed to dozens of co-marketing and brand endorsement deals by King Features.

Outside of licensed merchandise, which has kept the property alive on store shelves, Popeye and his animated posse mostly show up in the wee hours on Cartoon Network or through an occasional brand endorsement deal -- Wimpy hawked Carl's Jr. burgers and Bluto pushed Tropicana orange juice.

But now, the owner of the property, King Features, is trying to lift Popeye out of his relative obscurity as both an entertainment icon and a marketing partner.

"In 2004, we updated his look and built a marketing program around him to put him back on the radar," said Rocky Shepherd, King Features' president. "Now we're positioning him for the next 25 years."

Toward that goal the company has created the first 3-D computer-generated Popeye entertainment; signed several promotional partners for spring sweepstakes and co-marketing; and used the vast media of King Features parent Hearst Corp. for new exposure. The character has been popping up everywhere from Nascar to Brawny paper towel ads to the New Year's Day Citrus Bowl parade.

The alliances aim to make hip again the 75-year-old sailor, whose theme song has been reimagined by Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh and is available for downloading on Apple's iTunes.

The deals also have put Popeye on national broadcast TV for the first time in years -- a special called Popeye's Voyage: The Quest for Pappy aired recently on Fox. The show drew

A new 3-D, computer-animated version of Popeye was released as a TV movie special on Fox, heavily pulling the 18- to 34-year-old demographic.
4.2 million viewers, and won its time slot in men ages 18 to 34. Lion's Gate released a longer version of Pappy on DVD, with bonus features. (Popeye last appeared in film in the live-action 1980 comedy starring Robin Williams).

Spinach package contests
Two packaged-goods partners, Allen Canning Co. and River Ranch Spinach, have splashed Popeye and his friends across some 7 million packages of spinach, garnering valuable grocery store real estate. Both marketers are running contests that hype the DVD and send winners to Universal Studios Orlando, where there's a Popeye attraction at Toon Lagoon.

River Ranch has used Popeye as a brand icon for years, but this is its first full-scale promotion.

"This is helping us expand our base to a new generation," said Leslie Tripp, River Ranch's marketing director. "And we're getting so much awareness by tagging along with the other partners and their media."

Hearst Corp. covered the gamut to promote Popeye's Fox special, DVD and the sweepstakes, running ads in mom-targeted media such as magazines Good Housekeeping, Redbook, O and Country Living. Women's Web site ran an extensive Popeye promotion, as did 116 Hearst daily newspapers.

75th anniversary
King Features latched onto Popeye's 75th anniversary for some high-visibility events, like a retrospective exhibit at the Museum of Television & Radio in New York, in-park promotions at Universal Studios, and a link with the National Council for Adoption in November when Popeye officially adopted the foundling Swee'pea.

Popeye jumps into the fray after several years of nostalgia properties have made a comeback. A number of toys and animated characters, from Transformers and Cabbage Patch to Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears, have captured contemporary fans.

"Popeye's always been there -- he never disappeared because the licensing has always done well," said Nisreen Shocair, King Features' marketing director. "But the nostalgia rage is giving us a boost and creating a new launching pad for the property."

752 classic cartoons
It was important to update the character through computer-generated animation and brighter colors. But he's still the same Popeye, so as not to alienate the core older fans who know some or all of the 752 classic cartoons, Ms. Shocair said.

"There's still a market for retro properties," said Marty Brochstein, executive editor of licensing trade publication The Licensing Letter. "And by using CGI, Popeye can have a new image for kids and renew interest in the classic image for longtime fans."

Some in the licensing business, though, wonder if Popeye is too late to the party.

"The timing would've been better four years ago," said Debra Joester, president of the Joester Loria Group, the licensing consultancy responsible for the relaunch of Care Bears, which sold $650 million at retail in 2004. "Disney came late to the retro trend and made it work. I'm not so sure anyone else can do that, but it depends on how they measure success."

Further market research
Executives at King Features are running Popeye through some market research, trying to find out how children, parents and college students feel about the property. Future entertainment will take that research into account, perhaps bringing certain characters to the fore or creating multilayered story lines that children and adults would respond to, a la Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants.

Young children, 7 to 10 years old, are the target demographic for the property, but the characters could have appeal in other consumer segments. Olive Oyl, as a confident woman who's not a beauty queen, could be a role model for young girls, said Ms. Shocair, who is discussing possible stories on the character with teen magazines.

Last year was focused on brand building, with the focus this year shifting to Popeye's future, new entertainment and more licensed products. There are currently some 200 worldwide licensees for Popeye.

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