Analysis: Toy revivals must look beyond adult nostalgia

From Postman Pat to Basil Brush, there seems to be no end to returning iconic children's characters. Simon Ellery looks at the challenges involved in promoting this latest trend for nostalgia.

While Basil Brush is in the recording studio putting together his first single, a new batch of My Little Ponies is on its way, and this week a new animated Bertie Basset character hit our TV screens. Now the latest character poised for a PR makeover has been unveiled as Postman Pat.

All these may induce warm nostalgic memories for many adults, but how easy is it for these rehashed characters to engage a whole new generation of children? There is a risk of, and a heavy price for, failure.

An attempt by Unilever to revamp the image of Birds Eye Fish Fingers by drafting in a more youthful Captain Birds Eye bombed, while two years ago, Hasbro failed in its first attempted relaunch of My Little Pony.

This week, Mason Williams started work on an account for Entertainment Rights to mount a PR campaign for the return of Postman Pat. Billed as a 'deeper journey' into the world of the pre-school character, the new series promises a faster-paced, more action and humour-packed series with new characters, including his never-before-seen wife Sara, along with a step into a more multicultural society with the arrival of an Asian family.

The character returns with four specials, including a Christmas show on DVD and video, produced by Cosgrove Hall in November. That will be bolstered by a run on BBC in September 2004.

Entertainment Rights director of marketing and brands Anya Hollis says: 'The advantage of nostalgia properties over start-up properties is the fact that they have in-built familiarity and parental endorsement.'

But unlike the rash of films such as Spider-Man and Hulk, which critics attack as a safe haven for Hollywood studios, toy owners and the firms that market children's characters are looking to long-term sales and stability of their brands.

Mason Williams MD Rita Rowe, whose agency is already handling the relaunch of Hasbro's My Little Pony, says that the toy firm wants to develop brands that have longevity and 'lasting play value', adding that My Little Pony was the best-selling toy for seven years when it first launched in 1983.

Regarding the current PR campaign, the agency's challenge is to appeal to what Rowe calls 'the mums and girls audience'. The reality of this means trying to gain a spread in The Daily Mirror while also trying to interest magazines such as Sugar.

Rowe says the type of product dictates PR tactics. With My Little Pony the emphasis has been on how the toy's look has been updated, including the use of magnets on its feet. It is understood that the orginal relaunch around three years ago failed as the toy itself wasn't updated sufficiently.

In the case of Postman Pat the emphasis is on his character and a renewed focus on humour, although the essence of the character will remain the same. The main reason for the failure of the youthful Captian Birdseye was because it was a tweak too far. According to Rowe, 'it's like having Father Christmas as a 23-year-old'.

Meanwhile, Cadbury Trebor Basset has moved to shore up the £120m annual sales of its vast sweet range through a multi-million pound return of children's favourite Bertie Bassett. In what is the second rebirth of the Liquorice Allsorts character, the confectionary giant spent 18 months using brand specialists in New York to produce an 80-page dossier on how the character can be made relevant to today's kids.

Bertie Bassett is to be the sweet representative across 25 product brands, including Jelly Babies and Murray Mints, making appearances on their packets (PRWeek, 8 August).

'There have been rises and falls in sales, but there was a feeling that if the company was to take the market by the scruff of the neck it had to have unity,' says Launch PR MD Johnny Pitt, hired to run the campaign.

Playing to the brands strengths - and understanding what the brand was in the first place - are crucial elements to take on board, Pitt adds.

'The second point is that it is not a "makeover" but a new journey. Bertie has been promoted to the wider job of brand ambassador,' he says.

Toy experts claim that the return to retro underlines the grip toys have on consumers. The British Toy and Hobby Association director general and secretary David Hawtin says: 'I think it is a social phenomenon. It is proof of the unique hold toys exert on people. It is passed on from parents to children.'

He points to estimates that calibrate the power of retro as slashing the cost of marketing by up to a third compared to a new product launch.

'Barbie mothers have Barbie girls,' says Hawtin. 'They have an appeal to each generation when they come back, and it is something that toys have that other consumer products do not. There are some toys that are bombproof.'

But toy manufacturers and those marketing these characters should beware - a makeover alone will not cut it with today's fickle kids.

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