Nickelodeon’s Evolved ‘Turtles,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Hamilton’ Among Licensing Innovators

From 'Game of Thrones' to 'Hamilton' to 'Star Wars,' licensors are inventing products to make consumers pounce

Nickelodeon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Courtesy of Nickelodeon

Licensing is more complex than ever, as studios and networks compete for increasingly distracted consumers. But Star Wars; Overwatch League; and Snoop Dogg’s marijuana products are among the content creators inventing products consumers covet. Here are six companies, stars or shows showing the way.

Nickelodeon Shells Out New Take on Turtles

Network pulled back merchandise to reinvent and relaunch familiar characters

As long as pizza remains popular, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will be ripe for reinvention. 

What began as a comic book series in 1984 is now one of the most durable properties in kids’ media. In September, Nickelodeon debuted the 2D animated series “Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” the network’s second reboot of the property following a CGI-animated show that ran from 2012-17.

According to Pam Kaufman, Viacom/Nickelodeon’s president of consumer products, merchandise played a key role in both reboots. “Back in 2010, we were thinking of making a meaningful play in the consumer products business,” she says. “Frankly, in our own portfolio of development, there wasn’t a property that would go down the action figure aisle.”

So Viacom found TMNT, which was then a dormant intellectual property. “It felt like Nickelodeon: Four brothers, it’s funny, amazing adventures, wasn’t that violent. And then we found a creative team that was ready to reinvent it.”

After relaunching it for a new generation of kids and their nostalgic parents, Kaufman says, “it quickly became the No. 1 selling action figure, for multiple years. So: mission accomplished.”

But there’s a property life cycle to all IP, and Kaufman eventually noticed a consumer products decline in the Turtles merchandise. “In late 2015, we decided that we want to manage our own future and our own contractions of retail,” she says. “So we took a pretty bold step, and decided as a company: we’re going to pull back on Turtles. It’s time to reinvent. So we slowly removed product from the shelves.”

For the 2018 2D relaunch, in which co-executive producers Ant Ward and Andy Suriano return to the humor and action of the original comic book, with a young, multicultural cast (and different species of turtles), Viacom collaborated with Playmates to invent a new toy line, replacing the older products on the shelves.

Thirty-five years into the Turtles life cycle, Kaufman says it still feels new. “It’s a property that has reinvention in its DNA. Our creative team has always had a blast working on it.”

— Akiva Gottlieb

The harsh, cold winters around the Clynelish distillery inspired Diageo to create the “Game of Thrones” tie-in, White Walker.

HBO Partners With Diageo to Create ‘Game of Thrones’ Tie-In Whisky

White Walker blend and single malts for Westeros houses link to global hit series

The “Game of Thrones” brand is no stranger to beverage partnerships, having released specialty collections of beer and wine. But according to HBO’s VP of licensing & retail, Jeff Peters, “we’d been looking for partners in the licensed spirit space for a while,” which was where Diageo’s pitch came in for limited-edition Scotch whiskey.

The Night King calls forth his icy army in Diageo’s White Walker by Johnnie Walker. The idea emerged from the fact that “we happen to have one of the northern-most distilleries in Clynelish that survives long, hard winters,” says Dan Sanborn, Diageo VP of PR and entertainment marketing. 

Diageo also created eight single malts by aligning the locations and histories of their Scotland distilleries with the virtues of the Houses of the Seven Kingdoms and the Night’s Watch. Sanborn explains that the Cardhu Gold Reserve, for instance, celebrates the female leadership of Daenerys and House Targaryen, as the Cardhu distillery was “pioneered by two women during the 1800s when the industry was almost entirely male-dominated.”

The pairing of alcohol and “Game of Thrones” seems a natural fit, thanks to characters including Cersei Lannister, who has a proclivity for wine, and her brother Tyrion, whose motto is “I drink and I know things.”

“We’ve found in our research that there is an overlap between the adult ‘Game of Thrones’ fan and the adult Scotch enthusiast,” Sanborn says. 

The experience of drinking the whiskey during “Game of Thrones” viewing parties is HBO and Diageo’s hope. “We’re getting ready to celebrate the end of this amazing story, and the whiskey can be part of fans’ own celebrations,” Peters says.

The whiskies were released nationwide this fall.

— Tara Bitran

The Leafs by Snoop line includes varieties of marijuana and edibles including fruit chews, extending the reach of the brand.

Snoop Dogg High on Outlook for Budding Cannabis Biz

Popular personality proves potent pitchman for legal pot products

Hip-hop icon Snoop Dogg, a.k.a. 47-year-old Long Beach native Calvin Broadus, broke into the rap game more than two decades ago, releasing such hit albums as “Doggystyle” and “The Doggfather,” but his appeal has broadened into the mainstream as host of the primetime TBS game show reboot of “The Joker’s Wild,” and on VH1’s “Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party” with Martha Stewart herself.  

“Game-show host, chef, football coach,” Snoop told Variety. “All of that unfolded when I was able to live my life.”

But it is through his cannabis companies Leafs by Snoop and investment firm Casa Verde Capital — boasting investments in weed-delivery service Eaze, among others — that Snoop has proved most valuable. Along with such high-profile stoners as Willie Nelson, Wiz Khalifa and Cheech & Chong – Broadus looks to become a major licensing player in the emerging legalized hemp economy. 

“I’ve personally selected my favorite strains for you to enjoy,” states Snoop on the website. With a product line that features flower, shatter, wax and edible fruit chews dubbed Dogg Treats, Snoop is ready to follow marijuana into the mainstream. 

“Snoop is a brand onto himself,” says Joe Killian, a veteran music and entertainment marketer and founder of Killian + Co. “He’s authentic, passionate and appeals to both young and old.” 

Snoop has proven an apt study on Madison Avenue, memorably transforming one of his songs for a Nestle’s Hot Pockets commercial (“Pocket While It’s Hot”) and starring in the classic 2005 Chrysler ad with Lee Iacocca.

Robert Santini, a former PMKBMC exec, now a consultant who has overseen a number of artist and brand partnerships — including Kendrick Lamar and American Express — calls Snoop “a passionate spokesperson who has always stayed true to who he is. At the end of the day, he’s going to deliver, and not just for cannabis.”

— Roy Trakin

Hamilton” products extend beyond the T-shirts, show jackets and mugs common to hit Broadway shows.

‘Hamilton’ is Winning its Merchandising Duels

Fans of the Broadway smash turned a pop-up store into a Theater District fixture

“Hamilton” is leading an American revolution in theater merchandising. 

The prizewinner has birthed a vast array of unique memorabilia, and its own exclusive Broadway boutique opposite the Richard Rodgers Theater to vend it.

“A lot of people are just comfortable putting their logo on a T-shirt,” says Pete Milano, CEO of 10-year-old firm Creative Goods and mastermind of the “Hamilton” line. “But we try to take the experience that’s up on stage, and express it through graphic design and merchandise.” Thus audiences may opt for a cap honoring their preferred antagonist, “A. Ham” or “A. Burr.” Customized souvenir programs for different companies include cast-specific photos. The entire two-tiered set can be brought home in a pop-up greeting card.

Speaking of pop-ups, the “Hamilton” brick-and-mortar — the room where it happens — was to run only October through Christmas, Milano says, as “people were showing up at the theater when we weren’t open.” Yet the elegant Paramount Hotel storefront operates seven days a week in the second year, burnished in signature black-and-gold, the ubiquitous logo discreet and understated. New items arrive periodically, including high-end merch such as a striking pillow-and-blanket set handcrafted by Faribault Woolen Mill in Minnesota.

Milwaukee-based Tactile Craftworks is slated to produce a “Hamilton”-themed Manhattan map leather clutch, and refillable raw-edged leather journal. Says co-founder Anna Warren, “Especially with a show that’s so iconically about the American story, it’s a new idea Creative Goods has: to have a small, exclusive selection of American-made goods with which people can connect, in the same way they connect with the show and the art.” 

Milano is keeping mum about his specific deal (industry practice varies, from straight royalty or fees to all-in partnerships) or hard numbers. But healthy store traffic and the steamrolling “Hamilton” phenomenon suggest everyone is making out very well indeed, satisfying customers and, not incidentally, keeping box offices buzzing.

After all, Milano adds reasonably, “If they don’t sell tickets, I can’t sell merch.” 

— Bob Verini

Overwatch League designs gear, like the jackets sported by the London Spitfire players below, to reflect local fashion trends.

Overwatch Videogame League Launches With Premium Clothing Line

Worldwide fans of the esports pioneer get styles localized for individual cities

After kicking off its inaugural season in January, Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch League established itself as the first major professional esports league on an international scale. The huge fandom surrounding the league, largely supported by millennials and Generation Z, quickly lent itself to a booming industry of merchandise, with T-shirts, hats, jackets and team jerseys, which fans can also personalize. 

With 12 teams in its first season and 20 teams set for the second, Overwatch League has relied on a strategy of “being locally significant and culturally relevant,” says Daniel Siegel, the league’s head of esports licensing. 

“The goods that we’re going to be making and designing should look different around the world,” Siegel says. “What we’re selling for the Florida Mayhem here should not look like what we would sell a fan in Seoul or Paris or any of our four Chinese team cities.” 

That differs even within the U.S., with the Florida team appealing to its local base with swim and beachwear, while the New York Excelsior has embraced a trendy streetwear look for its products. 

“Fashion around the world starts in New York, and the streetwear trend that is actually in the luxury market … that all started in New York,” says Collette Gangemi, vice president of consumer products and merchandising for the Excelsior. “We’re really going to make sure that our looks are of a very New York City street look.” 

This year, the Overwatch League held its first Grand Finals championship in New York. The event resulted in the league’s collaboration with Stance for exclusive championship gear. The New York Excelsior also partnered with big names including Undefeated, Champion, New Era and Levis for exclusive team merchandise. While traditional sports are just starting to explore streetwear collaborations, as with Undefeated, Gangemi says, “We’re starting our league that way. We’re skipping the first 20 years of creating lesser fanwear; we’re creating our brand from a more premium space.” 

— Kirsten Chuba

Disney tech plus a Lenovo headset and controller puts fans into their own lightsaber battle and lets them choose a side.

Disney-Lenovo Deal Brings Lightsabers to Living Rooms

Augmented Reality lets ‘Star Wars’ fans play as a Jedi hero or a Dark Side villain

It’s every “Star Wars” fan’s fantasy to wield a lightsaber, and a licensing deal between Disney and Lenovo makes that fantasy a little more real through Augmented Reality.

“We knew ‘Star Wars’ fans have wanted to wield their very own lightsaber ever since they saw Luke Skywalker fire up a lightsaber for the first time when ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ came out in 1977,” says Kyle Laughlin, SVP, Disney parks, experiences and consumer products. 

A form of AR has been portrayed in “Star Wars” movies from the first appearance of the hologram of Princess Leia in “A New Hope.” The technology was a perfect fit for the franchise.

Lenovo had been working with Google on an AR device when Disney reached out through its Connected Experiences team, which creates technology-driven experiences for the home. 

“We knew immediately that it would offer an incredibly compelling experience for our joint customer base,” says Matt Bereda, VP of global consumer marketing for Lenovo.

In under two years, the Disney team developed and patented new technology to license to Lenovo.

For the launch of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” in holiday 2017, they launched “Star Wars: Jedi Challenges,” a smartphone-powered AR experience using a Lenovo Mirage AR headset and lightsaber controller modeled after Skywalker’s. Fans download the app, put on the headset — which holds their cell phone — place a tracking beacon on the floor, and use the lightsaber controller for a series of gameplay challenges superimposed in 3D.

A Best Buy exclusive helped launch the experience in 2017 through POS placement and in-store demonstrations. The game won more than 30 gaming and technology awards.

The Lenevo-Disney partnership has continued with free updates, including a multiplayer mode and a Dark Side Expansion, launched Nov. 1, with new content and a new controller lightsaber modeled after Kylo Ren’s — because fans wanted to be able to play as a Dark Side character, too. 

— Stephanie Prange