Pepsi's Marfalump, Tricon eateries marketing craze

NEW YORK — The record-breaking box office perf of “The Phantom Menace” may well be matched by its licensing program, which is producing tons of “Star Wars” merchandise and generating auction bids topping retail prices by hundreds of dollars.

“Factories are working overtime trying to keep up with demand,” Burnham Securities toy analyst David Leibowitz reported Tuesday.

“The number of consumers who are buying everything in pairs — one to put away as a collectible, the other for the family’s toy-playing member — is raising eyebrows, despite very high expectations in the first place,” he said.

Leibowitz added that he hasn’t heard a single “down-in-the-mouth statement” about “Phantom’s” performance from anybody in the licensing community.

The upbeat appraisal extends to tie-ins as well.

Pepsi-Cola spokesman Jon Harris said its “Phantom Menace” campaign, which began last week with the introduction of “Star Warsian” character Marfalump, couldn’t be going better.

“Early indications spell success,” he said of the May-September effort that will include the release of new cans every two to four weeks.

Harris also promised that “Phantom” fans will see a lot more of Marfalump, the spokesalien created expressly for the Pepsi campaign by ad agency BBDO-New York and George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic.

Slated to air later this week, for example, is the campaign’s second commercial, in which Marfalump attempts to wow a date by acting out lines from the movie.

Anecdotal evidence from Tricon Global Restaurants — the KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell chain spun off from PepsiCo two years ago — suggest its “Defeat the Dark Side” effort is off to an equally fast start.

The $50 million campaign, which began May 12, is intended to get fast-food consumers to visit all three chains for a variety of premiums and prizes.

The ambitious objective, said Mitch Litvak of the L.A. Office, a consultancy specializing in entertainment promotions, is to get incremental sales. And based on his field research, in which Taco Bell loyalists are being spotted at KFC and vice-versa, that’s exactly what the campaign is doing.

Retailers are similarly upbeat, despite less-than-outstanding movie reviews.

“Are they impacting our sales?” Wal-Mart spokesman John Bisio asked rhetorically. “Quite frankly, they’re not.”

Bisio went on to report that Wal-Mart, which recorded extremely brisk business when the “Phantom” merchandise line went on sale May 3, got another “real punch in sales” when the movie premiered May 19.

“It’s obvious that the movie appeals to kids and to the kid in us,” he said. “Just looking down the aisle, I see shoppers 3 feet tall standing next to 30-year-olds, both groups examining the same merchandise with the same intensity.”

At retail’s other end, FAO Schwarz spokesman Alan Marcus said the fanatic collectors who stood in line for a special midnight shopping session on May 3 are giving way to standard family shoppers, but both are snapping up the Darth Maul action figure as soon as the stock gets replenished.

Like Wal-Mart, Marcus said, FAO plans to use a secretive strategy to sustain interest. “A lot of the good stuff hasn’t even been released yet,” he said.

Wal-Mart, meanwhile, will stagger its release of “Phantom” product with the stocking of new inventory in June, July and the fall.

Among the still-to-be-seen items: the Furby Yoda, which combines last year’s hottest toy with this year’s hottest entertainment property, and Lego Mindstorms’ Droid Developer Kit, described as a build-it-yourself R2D2 kit.

Of the latter, especially, analyst Leibowitz is already predicting holiday shortages a full half-year in advance.

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