The Brand Radar: From LEGO to My Little Pony… Why do toy brands thrive in comics and magazines?

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes speaks to Rebellion, Redan and Kennedy about toy brands’ ongoing success in magazines and comics.

One area of licensing that can be rewarding – but is also competitive and congested – is that of children’s comics and magazines. A visit to a shop like WHSmith or a supermarket shows how crowded the fixture is, with multiple titles vying for space.

The category is largely dominated by licensed titles. Although comics like The Beano and Monster Fun continue to fly the flag for non-licensed titles with pages full of their own characters and content. The dominance of licensed titles has been growing since the 1990s and now the sector relies on licensing to drive it. Licenses come from all quarters, but one of the strongest categories is that of brands from the toy and games category… Brands such as LEGO, Polly Pocket and Hot Wheels feature prominently. It is interesting to reflect on why this is the case.

Is this a new thing ? Ben Smith from publisher Rebellion – who own the Treasury of British Comics, a comic archive and imprint that curate many of the UK’s most famous comic titles – gives some insight into the relationship.

“There are so many examples of toy brands featuring in comics, however from classic British comics possibly the most prolific brand was the Action Force line that was inspired by Action Man,” Smith tells us.

Publishing, Ian Downes

“Action Force started in the weekly comic Battle as a single strip, but it proved so popular they renamed the comic Battle Action Force and went on to create ever more series. Within a few years there were close to 3,000 pages of comics made under the Action Force name. Even then, the owners sold the comics license to Marvel UK who launched a successful standalone Action Force comic.

“As toy-fans will know, Action Man was himself a license of US character G.I. Joe who continues to be hugely successful with new comics. A Kickstarter for a collection of his Eighties comics reached $1m in under 48 hours just this week. Meanwhile a collection of Britain’s Action Force is coming soon (more on that here:

“Beyond that, M.A.S.K. was another toy brand that got its own comic that lasted for years and more recently My Little Pony has proven to be a toy-to-comic brand to last across the decades.”

Publishing, Ian Downes

To reinforce the longevity of this relationship, I remember in the mid-1990s working with now defunct publisher Fleetway on a Transformers comic. I worked at licensing agency CPL at the time who represented Hasbro for Transformers. Fleetway developed a Transformers comic under license, blending original and syndicated material. One specific highlight was that they invested in a gatefold cover for the launch issue allowing the comic to transform as you opened it.

Publishing, Ian Downes

I also recall working with comic publishers across Europe around the same time when I worked at TV channel Fox Kids. We created a series of comics under the Fox Kids brand across Europe which featured toy and TV brands like Power Rangers and Digimon. Often these would have input from the toy companies distributing those brands as well – not least as the comics gave them a very targeted way of reaching fans of the toys.

It’s interesting to note that despite the market shifting to licensing, publishers like Rebellion are still investing in original titles and content as Rebellion’s Ben Smith observes. He tells us: “We think new comics with original characters and stories are hugely important. It’s not just that tomorrow’s mega-brands may well be starting out in original comics, but that children and readers thrive on a diet of the unexpected and the fresh. With the right ingredients you can make a fan for life. Our latest new release – the monthly Monster Fun comic – is serving up such fresh ideas and on seeing that, toy and apparel producers are close behind in asking about the rights.”

Publishing, Ian Downes

The latter point underscores the relationship between comics and licensing, including the fact that comics can inspire their own licensing programmes. This can, of course as in the case of the Marvel universe, create a whole franchise that stretches across film, TV, gaming and licensing.

Looking at a few of the toy-led titles that are currently on the market, it’s possible to see the attraction of toy brands for comic publishers. Toys provide a rich seam of content and ideas. Indeed, a brand like LEGO supports a number of titles which reinforces the strength of the brand and how immersive it is for fans.

Comics and magazines can help IP owner build stories, characters and themes. As noted earlier, they also provide a great platform for brand promotion. One feature of modern comics is the use of covermounted gifts to help sell the title. Covermounts range from mini craft kits and sticker sets through to bespoke toys, and help create on shelf presence and drive impulse purchase. Considering how busy the comics fixture can be, a well-chosen covermount can deliver sales. The LEGO titles often feature mini LEGO sets. For example, a recent issue of the LEGO Jurassic World comic came with a 25-piece Owen with Helicopter LEGO set.

Publishing, Ian Downes

Content-wise, modern comics are better described as magazines – not least as they tend to be printed on glossy paper, but it is not uncommon to see titles filled with activity pages, posters, colouring and puzzles. Comic pages and stories feature of course, but they tend to only run across a few pages in licensed titles. This can be explained in part by the cost of producing original comic material – it is relatively expensive – but also because licensed titles need to factor in approvals. Approvals can be time consuming and approving a high volume of comic pages may not fit into tight approval schedules.

There is also a question of ownership. Licensed titles operate under licensing agreements which mean rights generally revert back to the IP owner. For publishers this is not necessarily an inducement to create comic material… Although it should be said it’s not uncommon for comic publishers and rights owners to enter into agreements that allow material to be syndicated to other publishers on a revenue sharing model.

While there is less use of comic strips, publishers like Redan, Immediate and Kennedy have become very skilful at making the most of the licensed content they access. A good example of this is in the creation of activity pages that cleverly integrate the license with engaging content which is often project based.

Most licensed comics are published monthly these days and priced around £4 or £5 so it is important that they represent ‘value for money’ for consumers and have content that is long-lasting. It is interesting to note that the publishers lean in on the educational value of comics and magazines as a selling point, with cover call outs around claims like “Supports Early Years Learning”. Indeed Kennedy Publishing include a Publishers’ Promise on titles like Hot Wheels which talks about how the comic ‘supports accessible learning and problem solving’ and also ‘encourages screen-free imaginative play’.

It’s interesting to reflect on why publishers like Redan see a value in toy brands for their product. Redan’s Managing Director Julie Jones sheds some light on their motivation. “I think it’s because comics and magazines can bring toys to life through the many different types of activities that immerse the reader in the brand,” says Jones.

“This can be anything from interactive sticker stories, spot the difference, maze puzzles, search and find, a craft, a recipe, colouring… The options are endless. Toys are all about play and imagination and comic and magazine content can help to fuel a child’s imagination as well as keep the child interested in the toy brand for a longer period of time.”

Publishing, Ian Downes

Of course, the toy and game market is full of brands, which must make it a challenge for Redan to decide which brands to develop licensed titles for. Julie offered this insight into that challenge: “We look at the popularity of the toys, the assets available from which to produce fresh and exciting magazine content for a number of issues, the longevity of the toy brand as well as what else is going on with consumer products. Toy brands often have some sort of online presence by way of YouTube videos and shorts, webisodes, animated series, which also help and give us more storyline and assets to play with.

“This is of particular importance for standalone magazines which require a wealth of assets in order to create 36 or more new pages every month. We are also interested to know the retail distribution of the toys and whether they are available in grocers as well as traditional toy stores. It’s often difficult to do cross-category promotions in stores but it could be possible in grocers where magazine distribution is strongest.”

Julie’s observations chime with the fact that licensing is much more of a ‘cross-category’ business these days and that licensees are eager to work with licensed brands that have a long reach.

Indeed, a lot of toy companies are keen to work with publishers because of the reach they have but also their storytelling ability and the opportunity to work collaboratively. Kennedy Publishing’s Assistant Head of Editorial Sophie Prewett reinforces this point through her experience with the Barbie title they publish.

“Since we took on Barbie magazine in 2018, we have ascended to be ranked sixth in primary girls for sales, which has been an amazing achievement that we’re really proud of,” said Prewett.

“One reason why we think this has been so successful is because we’ve been able to create cohesion between the magazine and the wider Barbie activations, from releasing a women-in-film special to coincide with the movie’s release to including interviews with Barbie role models and themed chapters to support new toy lines.”

Publishing, Ian Downes

Sophie also went on to explain how Kennedy bring the play element of toys into their magazines. She tells us: “Whenever we launch or acquire a title, it’s really important to immerse ourselves in the brand’s core values and look at what sets their toys apart from competitors. Once we’ve identified the unique play elements of the brand, we’re able to think creatively and find ways of incorporating them into the editorial, design and covermount offerings, such as by tapping into collectible appeal or supporting early years learning. Our talented editorial and design teams are always thinking of unique ways to add flair to puzzles to ensure they strongly reflect the special appeal of each brand and help our readers learn through engaging activities.”

It’s clear that the link between toys, comics and magazines is a strong one, but as in a lot of cases things seem to work best when there is a well developed partnership in place which places a value on creativity, being ‘on brand’ and providing the consumer with an immersive experience. Toy companies have long recognised that a good quality comic or magazine based on their IP can be a major boost for their brand. Timing is, of course, important – not least because the publishers want to ensure their efforts are commercially viable.

Maybe toy companies need to re-evaluate their relationship with the world of comics, recognising the potential they offer to communicate with consumers and to build their brand universe… Perhaps these relationships need a slightly different take from other licensing deals. It is good to know that companies like Rebellion, Redan and Kennedy are committed to producing comics and magazines for the ‘next generation’. Reassuringly engaging content is at the centre of everything, as it always has been.

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