How Hollywood is cashing in on appetite for branded merchandise in India

The market for licensed merchandise in India is exploding; according to a recent report by ESP, a Group M company, licensing and merchandising (L&M) is a staggering Rs 87,000 crore plus industry in the country. This constitutes between five and seven per cent of the global L&M market, small but significant enough for every superhero franchise to flood the market with a figurine or branded accessory. However, less than 10 per cent of the total Indian L&M pie comes from Indian brands. Hollywood and American pop culture rules the niche, even as studios put their might behind popular domestic television icons and Bollywood and the Indian Premier League bring out their celebrity led merchandise.

For Hollywood, the L&M market in India is now an integral part of their movie marketing strategy. The pre- and post-release weeks are marked by a slew of products around the movies, their contribution to the total kitty growing at a steady clip. This year, for instance, Disney has a range of merchandise around its latest Star Wars movie (The Last Jedi) just as it had for Thor: Ragnarok towards the end of 2017. Sony Pictures too has an assortment of products ready around its latest release Jumanji 2. But none of the big Bollywood releases over the past two years (Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is the exception) have even come close. What is holding them back?

Not just child’s play

Merchandise is not just a kids’ game; that is what most Bollywood producers and Indian television magnates do not understand say industry experts. So far the maximum efforts have been towards popularising licensed merchandise in the kids’ entertainment genre. From Chhota Bheem (Turner) to Motu and Patlu and Shiva (Viacom18), the popular characters have been used to develop merchandise aimed at school-going kids. 

However this is a rather myopic view of the opportunity believes Bhavik Vora, founder and CEO of brand consultancy Black White & Orange Brands. Especially because the growth of online marketplaces in India has opened up an effective sales channel for such products and the global playbook of Hollywood studios shows that the young adults and even people in the late twenties to early thirties are big consumers of merchandise.

“While kids’ (entertainment) brands have got traction, it is a limited audience, so the scope to scale up is limited. What is attractive, from a business point of view, about the licensing rights from Marvel, DC and some of their TV shows, is that it lets one tap into the 14-35 year age group, which is scalable.” Also this is the age group that transitions from being dependent on parents to fulfil their demands to being able to buy their own merchandise. No one can afford to ignore this group, he believes. 

And yet Indian brands have repeatedly done that. Currently, with the exception of Baahubali to some extent, there has been no effort to nurture an older age group of consumers. Instead brands fashioned on characters from the Marvel and DC universe, or from popular shows like Game of Thrones, the Big Bang Theory or even Friends which went off air 14 years ago, are focused intently on this age group. 

Underestimating the opportunity

Home-grown content producers and IP (intellectual property) owners have also failed to recognize the potential of the merchandise market. Jiggy George, founder, Dream Theatre that works with several international studios on their merchandise development in India says, “The focus on homegrown IP’s started only three to five years back. Indian broadcasters were late to party in a way. In addition, there seems to be little or concerted effort to work towards growing the eco-system.” 

George believes that the potential (even in the kids’ genre) for L&M is huge. This is evident from the huge viewership numbers many of the kids’ shows stack up. But converting this audience into merchandise fans is a hurdle that few have been able to cross. And just as the game has spun away from the domestic content producers in the kids’ genre, it is set to go the same way for Bollywood and sports—the two areas that have big merchandising potential in the country.

The Indian Premier League franchises like Kings XI Punjab, Kolkata Knight Riders, Bengal Warriors (Pro Kabaddi) and the All India Football Federation have tried but not been successful so far. Ditto for Bollywood. In the past, films like Ra.One, and Krrish have launched merchandise around their movies as have recent titles like Raees and Rock On 2 but the response has been tepid. 

“The most important lesson that Bollywood could learn from its western counterparts is the way it looks at merchandising. It’s still treated like as marketing tool more than a revenue stream. The effort invested in growing it is insufficient. For the L&M piece to make business sense, a significant investment and a long-term plan needs to be in place. That, unfortunately, isn’t happening,” Vora says.

Another area that could see some traction this year is celebrity licensing and here many believe Indian sports heroes have learned their lessons well. Be it Virat Kohli, Anushka Sharma, Sachin Tendulkar and several others, there have been a spate of celebrities taking themselves to the shelves. However, the big challenge here would be to ensure that personality is not lost in making of the product. 

“For celebrity owned labels or merchandise to work, the product has to be immaculate. The Indian consumer is very costly and quality conscious and if the product is not up to the mark, it could backfire,” says George. Celebrities must also ensure that their labels eventually turn independent of their success or failure on the screen or on the field. Vora believes that patience is the key and the only Indian brand to have done this is Salman Khan’s Being Human. No amount of controversy or failure keeps fans away from his label; now that is a consumer that every celebrity covets.

 

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