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"A character is a story you can look in the eye, remember like a friend and understand like yourself"
Helen Nathan talks about Flossie Crums
Topic: Are characters key to the success of great franchises?
In this issue:
This question recently led to a lively discussion in the Characters Engage Linkedin group.
An American screenwriter and producer said that in his experience the concept gets people through the door, while the characters make them come back.
In response, a European IP developer asked, "... do they therefore become vital to sustaining and growing the franchise? Also, how important do you think characters are to moving franchises into other media formats?".
The screenwriter and producer said that in the case of Maurice Sendak's "Where The Wild Things Are", for example, the characters did not have developed personalities and that therefore the merchandising had next to no shelf life, despite the fact that the concept was great. Dreamworks Animation, on the other hand, cleverly started introducing Kung Fu Panda two years before the movie was released, managing to establish his name and character, as well as the high concept title, well ahead of the launch. Characters, he said, are not only essential for longevity, but there can't be any crossovers without them either.
When he was asked what gave characters such remarkable abilities, he stressed the importance of their backstories. Typical examples include Orphan statuses, which he said would immediately hook an audience, being communally estranged, misunderstood, and other such circumstances.
An American illustrator thought that things were different when characters represent a company rather than a story. Mentioning Mickey Mouse, he wondered whether Mickey was actually still a character in the classic sense, or whether he had become more of a brand mascot.
The IP developer thought that in the case of Mickey Mouse a traditional character had indeed become a brand mascot, and in the case of the 3 rings which represent the silhouette of his head, even a global iconic brand logo, on a par with The McDonalds "M", the four rings of Audi, or the bitten apple of Apple.
A writer, director and concept artist said that despite this, characters, at least in the beginning, need to have a great story attached to them, and that this story needs to relay inner conflict effectively.
A character designer wondered whether that is actually always true. He mentioned the Crazy Frog phenomenon that swept the UK a few years ago, despite the fact that there was little, if any, story associated with the Crazy Frog clips.
Other examples, he said, can be found in the character licensing arena. "Hello Kitty", for example, originally made a rather clever point of not having a story, not even a mouth to relay feelings with. This was a very clever attempt to enable people to project their feelings onto her. The character itself, was simply über-kawaii.
He thought that stories depend on characters, but characters are not always dependent on stories, in the character industries. Where the story is the product you are selling. whichever media format it may be in, it needs characters. If, on the other hand, you are selling a product utilizing the brand recognition value of a character, such as "Hello Kitty", the character alone is of vital importance.
Echoeing the point the screenwriter and producer made at the beginning of this discussion, the IP developer thought that characters are uniquely sticky. It is they who have the power to engage their demographic in format after format, on platform after platform and in industry after industry.
But what do you think? You can let us know your thoughts... here.
CE: Could you tell us a little bit about your professional background, Helen?
HN: Back in the late 80's when I left school, I won a scholarship to attend a management training programme with the Savoy Hotel Group (one of ten places awarded yearly). I worked in the kitchens for a year, particularly enjoying my time in the patisserie section. I washed laundry, learnt about wine and changed thousands of pillows. I was in the industry for five years.
I was always intrigued that sales people seemed to be offered less than "sales and marketing" people, so I applied to work for Hardy's wine company to train in brand management, in a sales and marketing role. Marketing wine is hard work. As an agricultural product, with little brand awareness (is chardonnay a brand?) I had my work cut out.
However, in the early 90's, as the newly appointed marketing director for Bibendum Wine, I launched a range of 4 wines called "Great with" ("Great with pasta", "Great with Steak", "Great with Chicken" and "Great with Fish"). These wines caused controversy in the wine trade, as some critics felt that I was belittling wine and dumbing down a product to satisfy the masses. My research, though, showed that more and more women were buying wine, while many felt intimidated and unsure what to buy. The "Great with" range helped them with their choice.
From a manufacturing perspective, it meant that we could source the wine from regions that had had a good harvest, so quality was maintained each year, and we could buy where the product was cheap, allowing us to make good margins and use this to market our wines. The 4 wines were a phenomenal success, selling in excess of a quarter of a million cases.
After 15 years in the wine trade, I stopped to have a family and open a cookery school called "Lick the Bowl", teaching people from five to eighty five how to cook. The idea for "Flossie Crums" came to me, during a kid's cupcake master class.
CE: Could you tell us a little more about your ideas for the Flossie Crums brand?
HN: I knew that there were thousands of cookery books for kids on shelves in the book stores, but nothing that combined a fairy story, with a baking heroine, with a recipe book. I wanted kids to read the stories at bedtime, then ask their parents to bake Flossie's recipes with them at the weekend.
Initially publishers asked, "where will this sit on the book shelf, In the cookery section or the fiction section?". The answer is, that when it did finally get published, it sold in both sections of the book stores. By creating this seven and three quarters year old cartoon character, I had also created the first child "celebrity chef". My aspiration was that Flossie Crums would be a culinary version of "Angelina Ballerina". I was also lucky with my timing, as baking is currently riding high. It is a "feel good" activity in austere times, that doesn't cost much, but gives pleasure to the senses.
CE: Could you describe your brand strategy for Flossie?
HN: The brand strategy for Flossie Crums was to get books published to give Flossie credibility as a chef. I always knew that I wanted to licence Flossie and I have hundreds of brand extension ideas. I never planned to manufacture products myself. Additionally, I want to have a strong online presence and ultimately a TV show. I approached McDougalls flour and suggested that Flossie Crums, could help rejuvenate their brand and appeal to a new target market, the bakers of the future. They seized the opportunity and Flossie appeared on 3 million bags of flour, nationwide. This meant that most of the UK supermarkets were happy to list the book and other cake related manufacturers then came to speak to me about licensing the Flossie brand.
CE: What was your insight into the demographic, and how did it inform the creation of the character?
HN: Flossie Crums targets girls aged 4 to 8 years old. However, once Flossie was "on pack" with McDougalls, I organised a schools drama workshop tour. As an author, I was given access to many school children, to help explain the importance of baking, through numeracy, literacy and story telling. I was amazed that so many little boys wanted to bake too. Flossie now has a little brother, called Billie, and there are plans for brand extensions.
CE: How important was the introduction of Flossie Crums, the character, to the brand strategy?
HN: The introduction of Flossie Crums was integral to the brand strategy.
CE: What's next for the Flossie Crums brand? What can our readers look out for?
HN: I am currently in initial talks to launch a TV show, and there are further licences launching in 2014.
To find out more about the Flossie Crums brand, please click the link below:
You can contact Helen, under this email address: