In April 2024, Mattel teamed up with Heinz to release a pink “Barbiecue” sauce. While Barbie dolls and condiments aren’t an obvious pairing, character licensors are moving into unexpected product categories through increasingly inventive brand partnerships.

Though brand collaborations aren’t new, they’re certainly becoming more creative. 2024 has seen an influx of surprising co-branded merchandise, from Shrek x Lush bath products to Fendi’s luxury apparel with Pokémon and FRGMT. These novel pairings have become more prevalent, prompting us to explore the implications of character brands that are venturing into consumer categories. Are the possibilities truly limitless?

How do characters connect with followers? Toys and gaming remain front and center.

Character brands have historically dominated the $340 billion licensing market with a focus on toys and games. Licensors like Hasbro and Mattel have extended their reach by creating content, exemplified by the Barbie film produced with Warner Bros., which grossed over $1.4 billion. Similarly, gaming has gained cultural traction, with many titles transferring to screen, including The Witcher and Super Mario Bros. However, character licensors are now venturing into unexpected product areas through brand collaborations. So, what’s behind this shift?

Character licensing has a 41% market share, with toys, gaming, and media key product categories.

How are licensors broadening their appeal? By moving into consumer categories.

The transition into consumer categories is illustrated by Mattel’s partnership with over 165 brands before the Barbie film release. A vast range of co-branded merchandise was available, from Barbie Crocs footwear to Di Martino Barbie pasta. So, why the sudden influx? By partnering with consumer brands, character licensors can connect with their loyal followers in new ways. And in most cases, the more unexpected the pairing, the better. Novel collaborations command consumers’ attention, helping brands stand out in a crowded market.

By moving beyond toys and gaming, character licensors can also reach a broader audience. Indeed, much of the merchandise is aimed at adults, from Disney-inspired bridal gowns to Christian Cowen x Teletubbies premium clothing. Though collaborations give character brands room to expand, it’s challenging to navigate unknown product areas. Licensors need to manage growing programs, while unifying merchandise across categories. And with new markets emerging, including location-based entertainment, these opportunities pose complexities.

Where are character brands going next? The rise of location-based entertainment.

In recent years, there’s been a rise in theme parks and attractions dedicated to valuable character properties. While Super Nintendo World and Toy Story Land are notable examples, even heritage brands are moving into location-based entertainment, with the Paddington Bear Experience opening in 2024. This market is enjoying explosive growth, up 67% in 2022. So, why the dramatic rise? Creating an immersive experience for followers, these attractions offer a new channel to promote merchandise when the character brand is front of mind.

Of course, location-based entertainment isn’t just about theme parks. In 2024, several art exhibitions have been dedicated to character properties, from Pokémon to the Care Bears, while the Peninsula London Hotel launched a Peter Rabbit-themed afternoon tea. Though there’s clear growth potential, entering any market is challenging. Character brands must navigate new relationships and categories, beyond the realm of physical merchandise.

The location-based entertainment market is valued at over $3 billion, and rapidly growing.

How can growing brands cope with rising complexity? Understanding the challenge.

With multiple licenses and new growth categories comes complexity. As brands broaden their frontiers, licensing programs become harder to manage. It’s also hard to maintain a consistent identity across multiple categories, particularly unfamiliar product areas. Co-branded merchandise will need careful curation to ensure it reflects the identity of both brands and sets the right tone, particularly products aimed at younger consumers. Contrasting brand values can also undermine partnerships, as with the Lego-Shell alliance. Furthermore, while novel brand pairings are the norm, certain categories don’t mix. Some saw the Barbie Burger King menu as a step too far.

Beyond commercial missteps, character licensors must also be wary of illegitimate threats. Crucially, licensing products over multiple categories can make brands more vulnerable to counterfeit and trade diversion. Even with location-based entertainment, trademark infringement is a risk, as unofficial events could damage brand identity and reputation. For instance, The Willy Wonka Experience in the UK went viral for all the wrong reasons and wasn’t affiliated with the Wonka franchise. So, how can character licensors navigate such challenges?

Character licensing programs are vast, with Funko managing over 1,100 licenses alone.

How can character brands control new moves with consumers? It’s back to basics.

To manage intricate licensing programs, licensing software is instrumental. These platforms bring control to growing programs by streamlining workflows across the licensing lifecycle. With such technology, licensors have complete visibility of partners, proposals, and products. Many platforms provide tools to review product artwork, allowing licensors to control how their brand is portrayed across different categories. Brand enhancement also helps maintain a consistent identity, as premium merchandising components add impact and unify merchandise.

Finally, brand protection is vital to safeguard valuable character properties. Customized hangtags and packaging can contain security elements that help consumers and brand inspectors spot fakes. Additionally, online brand protection technology enforces against multiple forms of brand abuse, from counterfeit listings to unauthorized selling and trademark infringement, and reaches into new environments, such as NFTs and the metaverse.

From character to consumer, OpSec has the solution.

OpSec provides these solutions for some of the world’s best-loved character and consumer brands. One of our recent projects created a comprehensive licensing solution for a leading brand. Using OpSec licensing software, the brand can review product and marketing imagery, as well as video content. We also created a hologram for each piece of licensed merchandise, incorporating optical security features as well as QR coding technology for consumer engagement. Finally, OpSec developed a range of premium merchandising components that aid brand consistency, unifying merchandise across multiple categories. The customer is using our solutions to streamline their licensing workflows, while ensuring the impact and integrity of their licensed merchandise.

Ready to elevate your brand’s potential? Contact OpSec to discover how our licensing solutions bring superpowers to beloved character properties.

Mattel and Heinz Team Up for Barbiecue Sauce – License Global

Lush x Shrek – Lush

FENDI x FRGMT x Pokémon – Fendi

2023 Global Licensing Industry Study – Licensing International

Barbie is the 3rd Movie in the 21st Century to Achieve this Box Office Record – Screen Rant

Partners – Barbie Media

Every Single Barbie Partnership That We Could Find – Time

Disney Unveils Allure Bridals’ Disney Villains-Inspired Wedding Gowns – License Global

Christian Cowan Unveils Teletubbies Collection – Fashion United

The Paddington Bear Experience Comes to London – License Global

Licensing International Annual Study Shows Industry Growth of $340.8 Billion – License Global

Pokémon x Van Gogh Museum – Van Gogh Museum

‘Care Bears Forever’ Group Art Exhibition Opens – License Global

Peter Rabbit Afternoon Tea – Peninsula

Burger King Fans Debate Over New ‘Barbie’ Pink Burger – Huffington Post

The Less-Than-Magical Willy Wonka Event – Vox

Finding the Next Funko – Licensing International

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