Nickelodeon, Sanrio have high hopes for joint development

by Satoshi Nagano

Traditional rivals cats and dogs have struck a detente of sorts, now that America’s favorite puppy Blue and Japan’s famed feline Hello Kitty are coming together to develop new products in the Japanese market.

Leigh Anne Brodsky, president of Nickelodeon & Viacom Consumer Products, was in Tokyo recently to announce the deal with Sanrio Co., creator of Hello Kitty. The exclusive colicensing agreement aims to launch joint Blue and Hello Kitty products in Japan by next spring.

Nickelodeon is a major producer of children’s television in the United States, including the hit show “Blue’s Clues,” which has won over young fans in other countries as well.

“Although Japan is a difficult market, we believe that ‘Blue’s Clues’ has the right look, appeal and personality for the market. And we think that Sanrio will be a fantastic partner because it has a great track record in this marketplace,” Brodsky said.

“Blue’s Clues” has ranked among the top five commercial TV series for preschoolers in the U.S. over the last decade. The bright blue puppy solves a different puzzle in each episode. An interactive show, “Blues Clues” invites viewers into Blue’s storybook world to help her solve the puzzle. The series is translated into 15 languages and shown here by Nickelodeon Japan.

Since 1998, the show has earned $3.6 billion in retail sales and sold 35 million books.

The tieup with Sanrio is NVCP’s first aimed at creating an original product line. Brodsky said Hello Kitty is an ideal partner for “Blue’s Clues.”

“We are very excited to be in business with Sanrio, especially because the creators of ‘Blue’s Clues’ were inspired by Hello Kitty when she was being developed, and we think that ‘Blue’s Clues’ and Hello Kitty coming together is a great idea, creatively and commercially.”

NVCP is the world’s third-largest character licensing firm, handling the products of Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., MTV Networks International, Comedy Central, Spike TV and Paramount Pictures. Brodsky oversees NVCP’s $5.2 billion licensing and merchandising business.

For NVCP, Japan is the missing piece of the puzzle.

“I think everyone knows that Japan is a very unique market, and a strong one in terms of intellectual property if you hit it right,” Brodsky said.

To help it strengthen its presence in Japan, NVCP agreed on a multiyear sales partnership with Sanrio Far East Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of Sanrio, in June.

“Because we do not have our own operation channels in Japan, Sanrio’s retail relationship and brand strategy were the logical reasons for entering into an agent contract,” Brodsky said. The tieup also covers such well-known NVCP properties as “Dora the Explorer” and Comedy Central’s “South Park.”

Nickelodeon has already enjoyed considerable success in Japan. “SpongeBob SquarePants” has so far generated $20 million in merchandise sales.

The new products will focus on the limited-edition “Blue’s Clues” and Hello Kitty line.

“So far, we are planning to make more than 250 products for the new tieup line — toys, apparel, stationery, accessories, home furnishings and so on. The range will be really varied, from towels for preschool kids to cell phone charms for young adults,” said Andy Toyama, managing director of Sanrio Far East.

In the U.S., most “Blue’s Clues” viewers are preschool kids, so merchandising aims mostly at that age group. However, because Hello Kitty is popular with a broader audience in Japan, the new line will develop products for both kids and adults.

“It is significant that the popularity of Hello Kitty does not relate to (a specific) age group. So our product strategy has followed that trend,” Toyama said.

According to an NVCP official, distribution of the products in Japan is just the first step. Once it gains a foothold, the company hopes the “Blue’s Clues” and Hello Kitty line can conquer other markets. “Of course our first task is to succeed here in Japan. We will then take it to other Asian markets, Europe and eventually to the U.S.,” Brodsky said.

“We believe this new collaboration will reinforce our partnership and take it to the next level,” said Toyama.

The tieup aims to address the needs of both sides. “Blue’s Clues” remains a relative unknown in Japan and Brodsky believes Sanrio’s brand strategy are a good match for it.

For its part, Sanrio hopes NVCP’s media reach, especially in television, will help it with its global strategy for Hello Kitty.

Regarding the possibility of more cooperative ventures, Brodsky is ebullient. One example is a new push in Japan for NVCP’s superstar, SpongeBob SquarePants. “Sanrio, as our agent, has come up with a great marketing plan and licensing strategy for SpongeBob in Japan. Who knows where SpongeBob will be next?”