Building a Massive, Long-term Character Brand
w/ Uglydoll founder, David Horvath
Today we have a special guest post from David Horvath, co-founder of the Uglydoll plush toy brand with his creative partner and wife, Sun-Min Kim.
In collaboration with Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment, David is also creator and executive producer of the Nick Jr. animated series, Bossy Bear, based on his Disney book series and best selling toy line.
Littlebony, David’s first animated program produced by Sony and NHK, set the stage for David’s twenty year career in the character IP brand space, utilizing the strategies outlined in his Substack, with focus on the quest for evergreen ubiquity.
Sun-Min and David have authored and illustrated dozens of children’s books, sold millions of their own self-produced consumer products, and have signed hundreds of licensing partners, including Coca Cola, Random House, Sanrio, Funko and Hasbro. They also love and live in web3.
Check out the recent Overpriced JPEGs interview with David. And if you like this article, consider subscribing to David’s Substack.
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Building a Massive, Long-Term Character Brand
By David Horvath
You’ve had a go at generational wealth. Now let’s consider evergreen ubiquity.
In the NFT space, one often encounters calls for the top projects – most operating within the realm of character-based IP – to “make big moves,” and hears celebratory cheers upon the announcement of signing big Hollywood agents, sneaker collabs, TV development deals, licensing partners and entry into the mass market, with the perceived likelihood of obtaining mainstream awareness.
Awareness, in my world, is a brand killer.
My wife and creative partner, Sun-Min Kim, and I, have spent two decades growing our own character brands from zero to top performing shows on Nickelodeon and Nick Jr. in the US and NHK in Japan. In addition, we’ve sold millions of our own in-house character goods in the lifestyle space, maneuvered the world of character IP licensing, and have gone “bow-to-bow” with Hello Kitty even while, at times, collaborating with her.
Giving [Hello Kitty parent company] Sanrio a run for its money won’t require VC backing or a marketing budget… the biggest spend will be time, and belief. Surprising to some, taking no money at all may give you an incredible advantage over those who do.
Character brands are split into two major disciplines: story driven and lifestyle. Knowing how to tell the difference is critical. While it may all seem completely obvious, many become confused over which path they actually want to be on.
Story Driven Character Brands
Story driven character brands are split in two primary approaches: children’s publishing and media.
Story driven children’s publishing includes Dog Man, Wimpy Kid, Pete the Cat, Elephant and Piggy, Cat in the Hat and other characters from the children’s book space. Children’s publishing presents one of the last great methods of entering the mass market without first finding success with lifestyle, movies, television, or gaming. You can reach the world, get us all to fall in love without giving away any rights, and use your library of work as major leverage for future media deal points.
Story driven media includes everything from Paw Patrol and Minecraft to Super Mario and Star Wars. These are brands driven by film, animation, video games, comic books, and all other storytelling vehicles. Media driven brands are just as fragile as lifestyle brands, and require just as much care.
The idea of automatic success in consumer products through a hit animated show is mostly a myth and has become far more complex in recent years, where leading movies can easily have poor consumer product sales (Avatar), and movies which just do OK at the box office can earn billions in toys alone (Cars).
Story driven character IP can pivot and thrive as lifestyle brands, but as of now, historically, the attempt to jump from lifestyle brand to story driven has proven near fatal for most.
Lifestyle Character Brands
Children, in general, do not interface with lifestyle character brands. This means: if you are in this arena, the last thing you want to do is “get a show.” The temptation will arise, as it does for all, big and small, in moments of weakness. Few have survived the attempt.
In the lifestyle character IP world, marketing is noise, and to be associated with the noise leads to a slow certain doom wrapped in a cloaking device of perceived success.
Those new to the space often misunderstand short term, romantic attention and validation with becoming one with culture… an error often caught far too late.
If your competitors have a marketing budget, or worse, major brand and celebrity collaborations planned in their formative years, you’re off to a good start. They’ll have no idea what you’re up to until it hits them, that your twenty items across two SKUs in four specific windows in two countries ultimately propelled your work to becoming a global brand loved by millions while their hundreds of items thrown at Walmart and Target with VC backed ad campaigns, events, celebs, and collabs caused them to disappear almost as fast as their ill-spent funding.
But being small for the sake of dislike for the giant would be just as foolish.
You must be the right small, and utilize the power of no, in pursuit of the best yes.
Some see where Hello Kitty is today, and aim for those results, without doing a proper deep dive into what Sanrio did to get there between 1974 and the mid 90s. There’s zero literature online or in print detailing what it actually took to get there, and how Hello Kitty maintains evergreen ubiquity.
Well here it is…
The Power of No
All character brands (story-driven & lifestyle) live or die by the power of no.
The uninformed misinterpret rights protection as “big evil corporations sending legal letters to the little guy,” unaware of how fragile all brands are, from Hello Kitty and Star Wars to Moomin and Snoopy. No character IP exists in a constant state. They are living ideas, fluctuating between you, the audience, falling in and out of love with them. Sanrio sends warning letters to mall apparel vendors selling knock off shirts, not because they are missing out on royalties or money, but because something as simple as their IP being found in the wrong place too often can lead to certain doom.
Where your character brand is discovered, especially for lifestyle brands in the formative years, is everything. Target and Walmart are not places to go to reach more people… they are markets to enter once a good portion of their consumer is already madly in love with your brand and seeking you out.
Young character brands should avoid mass, full stop.
Hello Kitty was born in 1974, and still treats any entry to mass audience with absolute care.
Do you feel the same walking into the MoMA store in Soho as you do Walmart? Of course not. This is an important differentiation.
There are physical pop culture touch points which serve as breaths of fresh air away from the noise of marketing all around us (there are plenty of opportunities: more museum stores exist than there are Starbucks and McDonald’s combined). Bring surprise and wonder to your tribes and future audience by being discovered in these critical places.
This is not about placement. This is an opportunity to assign an emotional connection they already have with such places, to that which they discover there.
Conclusion: Achieving Evergreen Ubiquity
Evergreen ubiquity does not refer to a level of awareness. It’s how in love the world is with you. You want to live forever. This is the goal.
Some character brand-based efforts, especially in the early stages, often misunderstand evergreen ubiquity as “eyeballs” or “awareness.” Eager creators see Hello Kitty’s collaboration with H&M and assume “That’s what I have to do,” when really the answer is “That’s what I have to earn.”
Starting out the gate with a “big move,” such as a collab with H&M, sends you on a path to being one with the noise. The pursuit of awareness is marketing, and marketing is noise. People know when they are being marketed to. Their subconscious knows.. and you’ll be forever associated with such.
Noise doesn’t just kill character brands… noise throws you into the realm of no longer being seen.
Your future tribes need to discover you, through a sense of wonder and surprise.
Evergreen Ubiquity is achieved by becoming one with culture, never marketing to it, earned through thousands of carefully thought out “culture micro-transactions”… events and moves which on their own, to the uninformed, would appear too tiny to make a difference, but collectively get the world to fall in love.
You are not in the awareness business, you’re in the falling in love business.