Universal Brand Development

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Consumer Products

‘SPIRIT’ Tames the Wild West

Universal is building out the consumer product program for its award- winning Netflix original series “Spirit Riding Free,” as it gallops into its second anniversary.


UNIVERSAL BRAND DEVELOPMENT is hoofing it into Licensing Expo 2019, taking place June 4-6 at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Convention Center, with its thoroughbred girls’ series, “DreamWorks’ Spirit Riding Free.” The series, now in its eighth season on Netflix (seasons drop quarterly on the SVOD–52 episodes are now available), is inspired by the 2002 Oscar-nominated film, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.


“‘Spirit Riding Free’ is a consistent top performing kids’ series on Netflix,” says Shannon Vacca, vice president, franchise strategy, Universal Brand Development. “It’s a sure-fire hit with our key demographic, girls 4-12, and we’re celebrating its second anniversary this summer by marking consistent viewership growth year-over-year on Netflix.”


The series’ early popularity led to an extensive consumer product program, which launched alongside season one in 2017. This in and of itself was a victory for the franchise, seeing as the series’ debut on a streaming platform could have been a gamble, more traditionally. After all, it is a rather newer phenomenon that animation that rolls out independent of the linear networks is finding footing with parents and children, let alone one that debuts 10 years after its flagship film.


“‘Spirit’ is the first-ever original IP from a streaming platform to crack the code of generating consumer products revenue–both here in the U.S. and now growing overseas, too,” says Vacca. “There’s nothing like it in the girls’ space. ‘Spirit’ represents today’s generation of independent, adventurous girls, and at the center of it all is this wholesome narrative. The series uniquely and authentically owns that undeniable girl/horse bond, and we recognized this play pattern had tremendous untapped potential. Girls are living out the series in real life through the toys and books as well as through fashion, home and other merchandise.”


Licensee Just Play was tapped as the master toy partner for the brand, bringing to market a full range of dolls, horses, play sets, plush and blind bags. Other early partners for the program include Little, Brown Young Readers for publishing and a specialty line of collectible model horses from Breyer.


As the brand continues to grow in the U.S. and abroad, so does its licensing efforts, allowing it to branch out into lifestyle categories.


Today, additional partners are on board including Playmobil for a collection of play sets; Hybrid, Centric Brands,Fast Forward and Franco are supporting new apparel, backpacks and bedding; party and stationery goods are fulfilled by ACCO, American Greetings, Crayola, Deco Pac, Peachtree Playthings, Trends and Unique; ASO, Centric Beauty and Townley represent the brand in food, health and beauty categories; and Bendon has been added for publishing. Over the course of two years, Denny’s, Durango, Color Me Mine and 4-H have all supported the brand, with additional programs at the YMCA and Color Me Mine coming later this year.


The brand is also finding success at retail, says Universal.


“Last year, ‘Spirit’ was a top performing brand for us,” says Vacca. “In 2018 on Black Friday, our Target exclusive, a three-horse ‘Spirit’ box set, became Universal Brand Development’s No. 3 performing item across the board, sitting right beneath two Jurassic World products, which is significant given the blockbuster success of the film franchise.”


Global retailers such as Walmart, Smyths Toys Superstores, Amazon, Muller, Toys ‘R’ Us, La Halle, Asda, The Entertainer, Ernstings Family, Intertoys, Toycentre, Joue Club, BOl.com, Toy Champ and more stock “Spirit” merchandise on its shelves in key international markets.


This wide, global retail distribution is due, says Universal, to the series’ expansion around the world and on networks and via broadcasters that extend beyond Netflix.


Diversity of media touchpoints is vital to keeping the brand top-of-mind for audiences, allowing engagement to come from numerous sources.


“We all know how disruptive the media landscape is,” says Vacca. “Brands are launched, loved and leveraged from a variety of new sources. And gone are the days of building a turn-key consumer program from a traditional linear TV series. We recognize consumer viewing habits and consumption are changing dramatically, and with so much time shifting to digital, we’re committed to delivering an immersive digital experience that drives brand engagement and reaches new fans.”


“In addition to the ‘Spirit’ Netflix series, fans continue to interact with the brand on our dedicated Spirit YouTube channel That’s the Spirit, as well as through content and series integrations on DreamWorks TV (DTV), one of the biggest kids’ entertainment brands on YouTube, with 5.5 million subscribers,” says Ryan Bradley, vice president, TV marketing, DreamWorks Animation Television.


Social media-fueled content, fan engagement and social influencers are also key strategies to driving the brand. In addition to YouTube content on That’s the Spirit, which hosts content that ranges from clips of the TV series to lifestyle videos, DreamWorks also engages parents via dedicated channels on Facebook and Instagram. A holiday-themed unboxing program, in collaboration with partners Just Play and Playmobil, engaged influencers to highlight product drivers for the season; and even more recently, DreamWorks tapped mom influencers for toy- driven Instagram content, says Bradley.


So, what can fans expect from “Spirit” as the series trots into the future? More content, certainly, and many more products.


Just Play and Playmobil will roll out new toy lines this fall that will feature new characters from the “Spirit” series, and, on the publishing side, several new books from Little, Brown Young Readers including two holiday-themed titles, and a novelty book are also slated.


The program is also continuing to expand into additional categories, such as mobile games. This summer, DreamWorks will collaborate with subscription service Kidomi to a launch “Spirit Riding Free Trick Challenge.”


“Looking ahead at 2020, we’re excited to work with Just Play and Playmobil to refresh the toy lines under an all-new Riding Academy thematic, with new looks for the main characters, new packaging and fun, interactive retail experiences,” says Vacca.


So, saddle up, city folk! There’s more to come. 

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