Merchandising madness to milk major mass appeal

Fox revamps Simpsons marketing strategy

By Paul Karon

© Variety, April 23, 1998.

Will Homer have his own fragrance? Might Marge’s azure-coifed profile grace a line of hair care products? Could Itchy or Scratchy replace that little alligator as the new symbol of polo-shirt snootiness among the country club clique? These questions and more will be answered in the coming months as Fox’s revamped marketing strategy for products based on “The Simpsons” leads to a new generation of merchandise and brand partnerships.

Those who’ve been drawn into the special lunacy of the world’s favorite animated family know the show’s genius for humor and satire isn’t confined to a single slice of the demographic pie. Now, 200 episodes and 10 seasons into what has become one of television’s most enduring hits, Fox’s licensing and merchandising team is taking “The Simpsons” to the next level with a strategy designed to push the brand deeper into mainstream retailing than it’s ever gone before. The ultimate goal: to grab a larger share of the estimated $12 billion world-wide entertainment property licensing business.

“We’re taking a long-term, lifestyle approach to ‘The Simpsons’ to provide new licensees and to re-energize existing licensees,” says Rosanna McCollough, vice president of marketing for Fox’s licensing and merchandis-ing division. “We want to help licensees create compelling new products with the highest quality art attached to them — it’s not just about putting as much out there as possible.”

In fact, Fox believes the potential for “Simpsons”-related games, clothes, tchotchkes, housewares and so forth is so great that the network’s made “Simpsons” products the Licensing and Merchandising group’s primary initiative this year. It’s also not restricted to the United States. “The Simpsons” is hugely popular in Australia, the U.K., France and other European countries.

General categories of “Simpsons”-phernalia include apparel, clothing accessories, gifts or novelty items, stationery, housewares, sporting goods, food and published materials. New interactive games and electronic toys will also come out next year.

Fox licensing officials would not divulge details of unreleased products, but they provided a few hints. Starting in the fourth quarter of this year, expect to see new additions in “Simpsons” clothing and accessories.

The apparel line, for example, will integrate the show’s characters in more complex, organic ways with T-shirts and other garments. And toy makers will likely use voice chips and other computer technology to provide fun, cutting-edge gadgets.

Existing entertainment products, such as the musical album “Songs in the Key of Springfield,” the Rhino Records release of Simpsons’ songology, and CD-ROM interactive software, such as the “Simpsons Cartoon Studio” and “Simpsons Virtual Springfield,” are already hot sellers. The more complex electronic toys and musical and interactive products probably won’t start showing up until next year.

“Our strategy is clearly not to make this a kid-focused property, but an adult property as well,” says McCollough. “The goal is not to partner with too many people, but with the right people, and those who will take the time to retail the products well.”

The engine of the reinvigorated “Simpsons”-stuff effort is the creation of what’s known in licensing circles as a comprehensive style guide — in this case, a sort of graphic artist’s bible for all things Simpson. A year in the making, the nearly-completed 500-page reference book contains some 900 pieces of art that will stand as the official standard visual descriptions for 42 primary and secondary characters — including but not limited to the immediate family members — as well as other images from the show.

“It’s the crucial element to any licensing campaign,” explains McCollough. The style guide ensures that eve-ryone’s product looks exactly the same as everyone else’s — a critical matter for Fox, which currently has al-most 200 licensed manufacturers around the world and expects to add more.

The revamped merchandising initiative, however, actually predates the creation of the style guide. Starting two years ago Fox began partnering “The Simpsons” to high-profile companies around the world. The goal, says McCollough, was to raise awareness of the show and its characters in the worldwide pop culture consciousness. Organizations such as Kodak, Pepsi and Subway were involved, culminating in last year’s “Simpsons” look-alike house giveaway promotion in Las Vegas with construction giant Kaufman Broad.

According to Fox, the licensing division will start to place new controls and standards on the sorts of products they’ll allow to carry the “Simpsons” identity: specifically, they’ll focus on creating a full spectrum of merchandise to appeal to various demographic groups. And, since Fox doesn’t have its own retail stores, they’ll work with retailers to ensure variability and individuality — and diminish price-lowering competition — between different stores in the same geographic market.

“We’ve built a licensing program to take us through the next millennium,” says McCollough. “The show continues to entertain its audiences by maintaining a freshness in its writing, and the merchandise has to maintain freshness as well.”

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Last updated on June 15, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (