Leading content owners discuss the increasingly important role of digital platforms in establishing and building brands today.
Social media apps and sites that host short-form content and cater to engaged consumers—notably, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube—are becoming fixtures in brand plans for media companies looking to reach young viewers. Meeting the audience members where they are is essential, and today’s kids are online—all the time.
“We know that kids are consuming content through digital platforms,” says Fred Faubert, chief creative officer at Digital Dimension Entertainment Group and its subsidiaries Saturday Animation Studio and Meduzarts Animation Studio. “We need to find creative ways to reach kids where they are and give them the experience they are expecting. You cannot go out now without this broad strategy. Kids [need to] see and interact with the characters everywhere they go.”
Digital Dimension is planning to launch a video game alongside a YouTube channel to accompany the Saturday Animation Studio-produced action-adventure series Chase and CATCH. Together with its social media channels, the plan is to build an audience to advertise its products to. Faubert sees both brick-and-mortar retail and online sales, which social campaigns can drive, as key for the company’s developing brand strategy.
Laying the groundwork for 2022 product rollouts, Cookbook Media is keen to use the power of digital media and the communities therein. “A big part of the push we’re doing with our partners is creating content not only for broadcast and streaming channels but also in the spaces that their fans and their audiences live,” says Robert Bencal, partner and co-founder of Cookbook, which is developing a consumer-products strategy for Saturday Animation’s Chase and CATCH. “For example, we’re doing a lot of work in developing content in the kids’ space for platforms like YouTube and TikTok.”
Cookbook is also looking into the gaming space, as well as NFTs for nostalgia properties like Rainbow Magic. “We’re using those platforms—TikTok, YouTube, NFT spaces, gaming—almost for a dual purpose,” explains Bencal. “Developing from a storytelling and content perspective—and brand marketing.”
This year, Konami is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Frogger brand with a new show streaming on Peacock and the 25th anniversary of Yu-Gi-Oh! with key categories and special releases. Somewhat ahead of the game, Konami has long been in the online space to cater to its target audience.
“We’ve been active in the digital space for a while because our fans have been there for so long,” says Kristen Gray, the newly appointed president of Konami Cross Media NY. “Our episodes have been available digitally on many platforms internationally. As digital has grown in each country, we’ve expanded our presence there. We have a strong social media following. We use YouTube episodes, as well as sharing product information and building a community within the show.”
Gray adds, “We think it’s going to continue to evolve, and we’re always looking for new ways to find our fans because they were [on digital platforms] before us. They were the first ones there, and I think our job is to give them what they want.”
Sesame Workshop has created a 360-degree experience to coincide with the beloved Sesame Street character Elmo getting a puppy named Tango. This includes the debut of the 30-minute animated special Furry Friends Forever: Elmo Gets a Puppy. “We’re rolling out brand-new and exclusive digital content featuring Elmo, Tango and other furry friends on our Sesame Street YouTube and social media platforms,” says Risa Greenbaum, VP of international consumer products at Sesame Workshop.
“Our goal is to deepen our connections with families by creating unique and powerful ways for fans to engage with Sesame Street,” Greenbaum continues. “One way we’re doing that is by investing in more short-form content.” As an example, Greenbaum points to the Sesame Workshop and Headspace collaboration Sesame Street Monster Meditations, six animated shorts to help children learn the fundamentals of mindfulness, meditation and social and emotional learning. They are available on YouTube and YouTube Kids. Also for YouTube, Sesame Workshop has partnered with The Wiggles on a reimagining of their “Fruit Salad” song and an updated version of the Sesame Street song “The ABCs of Moving You.”
While platforms are helping established IPs like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Sesame Street engage with old and new fans alike, they also enable brands just emerging in the market to find a foothold, according to Konami’s Gray.
“We have more known brands, but we still see that you have to look at other things like social media, YouTube, what Instagram and TikTok are doing, because they’re leveling the playing field a bit,” she explains. “New IP can find new opportunities there. We think that as much as known brands have an advantage, some of these other platforms are introducing new opportunities, and it just turns out to be different metrics. We’re not looking at ratings so much, but we could be looking at followers and subscribers. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.”
Digital Dimension’s Faubert thinks that children’s desire for fresh content could also benefit properties new to the scene. “Kids today are always clamoring for something new, and we believe that Chase and CATCH has the potential to become a successful and timeless franchise, with diverse characters and universes that will translate into a robust merchandise program. We believe kids will respond to the overarching message that we are stronger together and can make a difference in the world.”
When using platforms like TikTok to build interest in a new property, shorter content can be used to appeal to the audience in a meaningful way with stories they want to hear, according to Cookbook’s Bencal.
“That’s been a really interesting platform to start working with from a brand and licensing space; it’s in more of an organic way, not just running commercials,” he says. “Working with influencers is a big piece—and finding the right influencers. There are those mega-influencers that are doing it and taking checks and things like that, but finding more of those micro-influencers who are fans of your brand or believe in your brand and working in a partnership with them is something we’ve had great conversations on. We’re going to put some things into motion here for 2022.”
For new IP, in order to grab the attention of young viewers, it’s also imperative to be shown on several different platforms, as theater and linear TV alone are no longer sufficient to gain traction, explains Joachim Knödler, head of licensing at Studio 100 Media. “Digital platforms have had a huge increase over the last two years, and with new IPs, it is imperative to connect with the target group through digital and linear and to get successful L&M programs started,” says Knödler. “This includes print-on-demand products to first get consumer demand satisfied and ‘early movers’ involved in a new IP. Integrated marketing campaigns, especially with influencers, are key to get consumer attraction and are the perfect argument to secure shelf space in retail.”
Knödler goes on to say that Studio 100 Media has already developed IP with a view to digital releases. Of note, the prehistoric-set Vegesaurs, developed with Cheeky Little Media, was “designed with content that we will address for loyalty campaigns at super and hypermarket chains across Europe,” he says. “The content supports the launch of each campaign on digital channels and acts as a booster in the entire communication circle.”
Across the board, the L&M business is in a healthy place. While this might create room for some new IP to break through with those willing to take a calculated risk, known brands continue to have an advantage. “Currently, we are seeing a strong demand on classic IPs—the focus on brands well known over generations,” says Knödler. “Retailers and consumers are playing safe with their decisions for such brands, and therefore, they are demanding properties where they value continuity in terms of presence, targeting multiple generations.”
This is good news for Studio 100 Media and such brands in its catalog as Heidi, Vic the Viking and Maya the Bee, for which it has launched the Project Poppy Meadow campaign that places a focus on sustainability.
Sesame Workshop’s Greenbaum has witnessed new preschool properties managing to pick up shelf space and sees that as evidence of a market in good health. But with the ongoing global pandemic and the implications of a world not yet back to normal, she’s also witnessed consumers craving the comfort of the known. “Especially during challenging times, consumers are gravitating toward the tried and true,” says Greenbaum. “They’re attracted to the brands they grew up with, know are safe and want to share with their children.”
“It’s so important that brands have characters that resonate,” Greenbaum adds. “The Sesame Street muppets have a unique ability to spark deep, often immediate, personal connections with kids. When people meet Elmo, they know he represents love, Big Bird is friendship, Oscar is the contrarian and Cookie Monster is the poster child for instant gratification, but he’s working hard on his delayed gratification skills. These relatable personality traits make our characters instantly engaging to kids and adults alike.”
Digital Dimension’s Faubert agrees: “Strong characters and creative storytelling are essential, as is finding ways for audiences to experience the brand when and where they want it, and this will be through a variety of formats,” he explains. “Kids want to be with friends while they are having their entertainment experiences, which is why Roblox, for example, has done so well. Kids want to connect with their heroes, but they also want to be connected to other kids.”
In order to get the shelf space and the opportunity to reach kids on screens, online and in stores, it can be helpful to partner with retailers at an earlier stage, particularly when it comes to bigger properties, according to Cookbook’s Bencal. “There is only so much shelf space and attention space, even in the digital world. You think there’s infinite shelf space, but there isn’t because people can only focus on so much,” says Bencal. It’s important, he adds, to give “retailers an insight into what you’re doing early—and not only retailers but consumer-product companies.”
Bencal continues, “Traditionally, you’d sell a show and then you’d go to the toy companies. We’re getting out there earlier to talk to toy and apparel companies and the major category drivers—even some of the seasonal people—to let them know what’s coming down the pike. In some cases, we’re even collaborating with manufacturers, licensees and retailers on developing programs so that everybody is on the same page on making it the most successful it can be.”
Looking ahead, challenges in brand-building stand to run parallel to the challenges in the content industry at large. Namely, “the audience and the platforms are just getting more fragmented,” explains Bencal. “Going over to the digital side, it sounds easy, but it’s hard. On the digital side, people are making decisions on your content in a short period of time. You have to make sure you’re going in with the right kind of content and also being able to have that authentic voice, the right storytelling and the right messaging to get traction because the digital side and some of those platforms are very transient. That said, you’re able to experiment a little more.”
Meanwhile, the more established ways of connecting with an audience, like theme parks, which provide an opportunity for family-fun experiences outside the home, remain—even if they have been in short supply for much of the pandemic. Studio 100 Media and Sesame Workshop are both keen to welcome young fans and their caregivers back to their sites with fresh activities and events around the world.
“With Studio 100’s extensive experience with our own theme park business, we are currently developing new concepts with a partner in Spain to bring the fun and entertainment back into retail with location-based attractions and entertainment,” says Knödler. “Initiating and launching [a] great project in Poland, we will go for a rollout in other European markets soon and combine this with the brand essence of our classic IPs.”
Sesame Workshop’s Greenbaum notes, “Families are anxious to get back out and enjoy activities. Themed entertainment—live shows, theme parks, family entertainment centers—will see a rise in attendance. Milestones like the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street in Germany in 2023 and character birthdays throughout the year are great reasons to invite families to come out and celebrate, once it’s safe to do so.”