Take Balamory, the BBC's smash-hit toddler show. At this time of year, few sectors are more ripe for spin-off merchandise than the children's toy market. So when the BBC decided to launch a range of toys to complement the show earlier this year, expectations were high.
But consumer demand was higher. Merchandise has flown off the shelves, retailers are tipping the toy to be this year's most popular Christmas gift and media reports claim that 'Balamory fever is gripping the nation'.
This, of course, follows Bob the Builder fever, Spider-Man fever, Tweenies fever and countless other recent spin-off product launches that have met with wide success and heaps of positive coverage.
By comparison, back in 1997, TV and film product spin-offs were relatively rare and were often perceived by the media as cynical attempts to cash in on high-profile brands. But then along came the Teletubbies and media perceptions about spin-off merchandise were fundamentally challenged forever.
Fuelled by a media frenzy, hordes of Christmas shoppers queued up to buy the Teletubbies dolls until manufacturers announced to the press they could not produce enough to meet demand.
'The Teletubbies broke boundaries because journalists could see the products were stimulating children's imaginations and giving them what we call a "360-degree experience",' says BBC Worldwide head of communications for children Mary Renouf.
'Children were watching the programme and then re-enacting it in role-play sequences using the toys. It turned the show into an interactive experience they could control,' she explains.
But the picture is not always so rosy. Spin-off product launches rely heavily on the success of their TV show or film to attract consumers, and yet merchandise licences are often sold before the programme or movie's popularity is documented. When children's TV series Boohbah failed to pull in viewers, sales of Boohbah merchandise fell far short of expectations.
'The problem was the lack of scheduling in the autumn, which is a key selling period for toys,' says Pittilla PR MD Julia Pittilla, who handled its product launch.
Boohbah's failure to sell was heightened by the fact that the British Association of Toy Retailers had originally predicted it would be one of the top ten toys for Christmas 2003. In fact, one of the biggest dangers for PROs working on unknown film or TV brands is the risk they might overhype the spin-off product launch by overestimating the success of the brand.
The ideal time to launch the product is after consumer perceptions have been able to form. 'You need to be able to show journalists you're meeting demand from consumers or they may become cynical about commercial elements of the launch,' says Norton & Company director Emma Jowitt, who handles product PR for the Spider-Man movies, Balamory and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
When a film or TV show is a hit, however, it is important its spin-off products capitalise on this success. Taking film spin-off products to the movie premiere and persuading celebrities to be photographed with them is a classic way to do this. Mason Williams, which did the PR for Shrek 2 merchandise, even persuaded a broadcast journalist to wear part of a Shrek costume during her report on the premiere.
'You've got to try to hijack the publicity of the film because the reason people want to buy the merchandise is that they loved the film,' says Mason Williams director George Anthoulakis.
'But you have to be extremely careful or you could end up doing the PR for the film and not the launch of the toy.'
When justifying the connection between the film and its merchandise to the media, Jowitt argues that one should emphasise the reasons behind the product's development and its added value. 'You can't simply slap a merchandise licence on a film and expect its products to sell,' she says.
This strategy was the secret behind the Balamory merchandise success.
Norton & Company focused on publicising how the products bring the programme to life, such as through a jumping-mat representing the bouncy character of Josie Jump, rather than the products themselves.
Toy News editor Ronnie Dungan agrees that something unusual works: 'As long as the target audience will play with them, I don't really look at the spin-off toys from a critical point of view. But if the film is a hit I want to know what they are doing with this toy - something such as the use of a celebrity or an interesting venue for the launch can make a difference to whether we will cover it.'
There is obviously more of a challenge when your celebrity is an animated character. This was the problem posed by Hit Entertainment when it launched its Bob the Builder merchandise. The solution was to bring journalists to the animation studios to give them an insight into the creativity behind the show - creativity that in turn, they argued, goes into the toys.
Most spin-off merchandise currently consists of toys launched for children.
But there is a growing market among adults for spin-off products too.
When Mason Williams launched its range of Star Wars figures on the back of the release of the Original Trilogy on DVD, lads' magazines, specialist science-fiction and collectors' publications were heavily targeted for the launch. As Star Wars was the original catalyst for film spin-off merchandise, it is perhaps not surprising that it is at the forefront of movement in this area.
Targeting the media
TV shows aimed at adults have caught on too. Channel 4 is looking to launch a range of Big Brother merchandise to coincide with series six in May 2005. But with a target audience of 18 to 35-year-olds, it will be difficult for C4 to suggest its products will create an interactive, educational experience for its viewers in the way that children's TV shows often do. Instead, it plans to launch the products to try to reposition the programme within the media.
'The association of Big Brother with sex means it has an unfair image in the media. So we're staying away from sex products and going for food, clothing and gift merchandise,' says C4 head of commercial development Joe Mahoney.
Spin-off products can help to consolidate a desirable brand identity for a movie or programme. Get the product launch right, and success may well follow.
DOS AND DON'TS
- Convey the care that has gone into developing the product and how it links in with the programme or film.
- Explain the reason behind the creation of the product rather than talking about the product itself.
- Communicate to journalists the demand and expectations of consumers for spin-off products, for example by highlighting letters from parents requesting toys.
- Target fans of the movie or TV show. Targeting this audience makes the story stand out from straightforward commercial product launches.
- Bring the experience of the programme into a child's physical environment by launching a product that makes their imaginative experience of the show real.
- Ignore the importance of retailers. It is essential to stress the popularity of the series or movie to retail journals to convince retailers that the product will sell.
- Predict widespread demand for the product before the popularity of the TV show or film has been measured.
- Get the timing of the launch wrong. A spin-off product launch that occurs long after or before the TV or film is released will lose out on news hooks.
- Forget to tailor your press releases to trade publications as well as consumer magazines.
- Underestimate opportunities to drive awareness of the product at publicity events. Product placement at a movie premiere may provide journalists with another angle on the story, for example if celebrities comment on merchandise.