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Singing the Blue’s

Singing the Blue’s – Blue’s Clues

Becky Ebenkamp

In each episode of Blue’s Clues, puzzle-solving pup Blue and her human pal Steve engage preschool viewers in a learning activity. Behind the scenes about two years ago, Nickelodeon’s vp of soft goods Gail Stern and her licensing team were embarking on a learning project of their own: how to build an apparel program that could incorporate the show’s special qualities. But who’d ever heard of problem-solving clothes?

For the first breakout hit of the Nick Jr. block of preschooler programming, franchise potential was realized about a year after the fall 1996 debut. The popularity of the show and characters–it’s now the most viewed program among the preschool set–has led to such initiatives as blue Mott’s applesauce, prime time specials outdrawing the NBA finals and, last week, a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. When it came time to think about apparel, however, focus groups showed that mom wanted something reflective of the show’s learning qualities.

To build a licensing team that could create this, Stern immersed licensees in the Blue’s brand with an approach that took on sort of a classroom feel: They took field trips to the production offices to better understand the show and how it’s created. They participated in brainstorming sessions to find the best adjectives to describe show qualities that would need to shine through in the clothing: organic, naive, fat and chunky and craftlike were some that came up.

“We became partners in the creative process,” said Cory Silverstein, vp-sales marketing & licensing for Kids Headquarters, the master apparel licensee. “Nickelodeon’s approach was unique. It was all about partnership and how to best translate these words to apparel-friendly.”

The team contemplated how kids approached the task of dressing. The consensus: They don’t like it. So the focus turned to what was intimidating about the process and ways to empower kids. At each meeting, licensees–many of whom would normally consider each other competitors–presented the previous session’s “homework” as sort of an oral exam. Along with showing their lines to Nick executives and fellow licensees, they had to explain how the product addressed one of the desired product traits from the research, such as empowerment.

The result was larger, more kid-friendly buttons and neck openings. Visual clues were especially pertinent for an age 3-7 target that can’t read, so color-coded tags signified matching items and “kissing fish” on shoes distinguished left from right.

The importance of quality garments also registered with moms, but the clothing had to be affordable since retailers expect licensed product to serve as an entry-point traffic driver. “Our task was to bring all these qualities from the show to the marketplace, but still deliver something that the market could bear,” Silverstein said.

Sears got involved with Nickelodeon’s consumer products division in early 1998, as it was looking to inject some newness into its kids department via licensing. Execs took a trip to New York to look at about a dozen opportunities for partnerships with WB, PBS and others.

“We were looking for something to differentiate Sears,” said Greg Sandfort, vp/general merchandising manager of children’s apparel. “There were more companies coming to us than we had money to spend, but a lot about this one made sense. It had good viewership, and it was building; it had a unique storyline and was educational; it had great characters. We thought we could really build a unique program using these elements of the show.”

An exclusive nine-month deal for Sears to carry Blue’s Clues clothing and accessories was finalized on a subsequent New York meeting with Nick in January 1998, but it was something that occurred on the return trip that solidified the deal in Sandfort’s mind. Walking through LaGuardia airport armed with his Blue’s Clues goody bag, three kids ran across the concourse yelling “Blue! Blue!” practically attacking him upon spying the puppy’s image. He lost some swag, but gained the knowledge that he had a hot license on his hands.

The retailer and the net put together a range of marketing vehicles around the January 1999 Sears debut, including advertising and promotions that tied in with Blue’s Big Treasure Hunt, a programming event timed to the Sears launch. The piece de resistance? A “Blue’s Boutique” in each of its 853 stores.

With its window of exclusivity Sears saw an opportunity to build, for the first time, a kids’ destination department. Throughout each store, a path of big blue footprints playfully led shoppers to the boutiques, which housed all licensed bedding, bath, accessories, toys, and boys and girls apparel under one roof, a virtual world of Blue’s Clues.

“There’s not a kid who doesn’t walk by and want to stop; it’s a magnet like you’ve never seen;’ Sandfort said. “The kids floor should be fun, and until Blue, we just weren’t that fun.”

Last month, the licensing program began shifting into phase two–the broadening out to mid-tier stores such as Kohl’s and Kids “R” Us, and department stores, such as May Co. Come spring, mass lines will be added.

To differentiate the tiers, each channel will tap into a different design strategy. Mass apparel will stress value and playability, such as 3-D buttons and blue zipper pulls; mid-tier will focus on quality and coordination; higher-price-point items for department stores will be less novelty-based and use better fabrication. A particular garment may transcend the tiers, its differentiation residing in the details: The striped “Steve” shirt–a big seller for Sears–will retail in all channels, with the quality ranging from a thick woven, almost rugby-type offering in department stores to a poly-cotton pique version at mass.

To ensure success in each tier–deemed essential by Stern for maintaining longevity for what she believes is an evergreen program–broad licenses were granted to vendors in each clothing category. Normally, a different one is signed for each retail channel.

“The problem with that is you create no incentive for each partner to manage it as a whole, a brand,” Stern said. If one licensee is doing mid-tier apparel and another is doing mass, they’d have to compete because their retailers do; Sears may ask for lesser goods to better compete with Kmart.” With the across-the-board approach, “We can superserve each for the longevity of the brand.”

Also unique: Contractual financial guarantees were almost equal per channel, so there was a disincentive to underserve the mid-tier in favor of a larger mass market buy, which can cheapen the license by glutting the market and thus slow down its run.

How the property fares as the program broadens remains to be seen, but if Sears is any indication, retail partners will be pleased. From week one, Sears reaped sales increases in the high single digits to the low double digits–not for just the boutiques but the entire stores, proving Blue’s drawing power. Apparel items sold so fast, Sandfort said, they were registering before the goods could be logged into the system, and the retailer turned over five months of Blue’s merchandise in 60 days.

“It brought us lots of customers, and we gained recognition through the industry because we continue to get people to come to us first for things,” Sandfort said. “They ask, ‘Do you think this could this be a Blue’s Clues-type program?'”

Program: Blue’s Clues licensing

Marketers: Nickelodeon, N.Y (licensor); Kids, Headquarters, N.Y. (master apparel licensee); Sears, Hoffman Estates, Ill (retailer)

Key players Nickelodeon: Leigh Anne Brodsky, sup-Nick cnsmr prods; Gail Stern, vp-Nick soft goods; Rulh Sarlin, svp-Nick mktg & brand mgmt;

Kids HQ: Co?y Silverstein, vp-sales, mktg & licensing;

Sears: Greg Sandfort, vp/gerl mchds mgr-chldren’s appl

COPYRIGHT 1999 BPI Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group