NEW YORK -- Highly focused content and a strong commitment to principles have turned a purple dinosaur into a classic children's character in the relatively short span of a decade.
Barney, and his friends at producer Lyrick Studios, Richardson, Texas, launch the character's 10th-anniversary celebration this week at Toy Fair here. There is plenty to celebrate. Barney -- the first major entertainment franchise to originate on home video -- has sold 52 million units, 4.5 million music albums and more than 80 million books, not to mention clothing, toys and other licensed items. And supermarkets are invited to the party.
"Some of our earliest supporters were supermarkets, like Stop & Shop and Pathmark," said Debbie Ries, Lyrick's vice president of sales. "They were very visionary. Supermarkets would do the promotions in the early days," Ries said. Over the years, chains like Kroger Co., Wegmans Food Markets, Albertson's and Hy-Vee have been important in Barney's market development.
"Because most of the supermarkets have been there since the beginning, it's their celebration too," said Gail Plotkin, director of video/audio sales. "Without them we couldn't have made it."
More concretely, the anniversary provides a "promotional anchor" for the year-long campaign, said Sue Bristol, vice president of marketing. It will involve all Barney products and every month there will be video to promote, she said. For example, in January Lyrick released "Sing and Dance With Barney," which reunited the dinosaur with kids who appeared in the very first videos. A title prebooking this week is "What a World We Share," set for a March 9 release.
"We have done some different things, like an audio and video displayer, which we are offering to all retailers, but it will have special appeal to grocery because it is corrugated," said Bristol.
National television advertising for Barney's January title was another first this year, she noted. "We made a strategic decision a long time ago that we were not going to advertise on TV because we are on TV every day." The PBS show "Barney and Friends" attracts between 11 million and 14 million viewers each week, depending on the time of year.
The change came for two reasons: "First, with 10 years under our belt, we feel like we can promote a little more aggressively and stay true to the character. Secondly, it is a fabulous video," said Bristol. Bringing back five original or former cast members, including "Michael," who is now 19 and a college freshman, the title has broader appeal than the typical Barney video.
All this has been accomplished with a single-minded determination to keep the content at the preschool level, while not compromising the integrity of the Barney concept. This involves the "education of the whole child," said Bristol, moving beyond the ABCs to social skills and the nurturing "unconditional love" Barney exhibits. "Barney accepts everyone for who they are," she said.
"We have never sold out along the way. It may have been easy at some point in time, when sales weren't where we thought they were going to be, to throw money at the situation, or take a promotional partner, perhaps a product that we wouldn't feel good about giving our two-year-old. But we said no, because it wasn't the right thing to do for our property and for the kids. That mission was clearly set from the very beginning and we all carried a huge amount of responsibility to stay true to that," said Bristol.
Lyrick has also held the line in the face of criticism that Barney programming doesn't appeal to older children or adults. "Positioning is sacrifice," said Ries, quoting company founder and Barney creator Sheryl Leach, who was recently inducted into the Video Hall of Fame.
"We are truly positioned for the preschooler. We don't put stuff in to entertain their eight-year-old sister. We don't put stuff in to entertain their parents. So as a result we might be criticized for some of the things that we think are perfect for those little kids. If we have to take a little bit of backlash, that's OK," Ries said.
But after 10 years, there is less of that kind of criticism, said Bristol. "People recognize that Barney is a classic character. Some people may have been waiting for Barney to go away, like a lot of other properties have come and gone. But Barney is here to stay. From the standpoint of retailers, we haven't heard any backlash in a long time," she said.
People may be surprised at Barney's huge success and staying power, but not the executives at Lyrick. "Very early on, we had meetings where we talked of where we saw the company going," said Ries. "For example, I have some plans from very early 1990 that said we want to be in television, we want to have a Barney magazine, grow the fan club, be international. All those things. So we thought very big and planned for that and had a goal and a vision to be there."
As a result, Ries said, "Being there isn't the big surprise." On the other hand, the scope of that success was surprising. For example, she said, "When you have a million videos delivered, it stops traffic. It's a huge amount.
"We really believed that Barney was very special to kids. We saw it over and over again. It didn't matter who the child was, if we gave them a Barney video, they fell in love. So we knew we had something really powerful and strong, something that we really believed in. We just had to get it to market. Luckily we didn't know anything about what we were doing. We weren't intimidated by the enormity of the task," she said.
The company used the instant attraction of young children to Barney to reach the adults who make purchasing decisions for retailers. In 1993, the program was formalized as "Barney Buddies," said Ries. With most movies, the buyers take the screeners home, watch them and then make a purchasing decision. "But nobody would take a Barney video home because they know it is for two-year-olds," she said.
"If they had a child, if their secretary had a child, or if anybody had a child around and we could get the product to them, it made all the difference." In the Barney Buddy program, the screeners went to the child. As part of being in this program, the child had to write a letter or make a phone call to a Barney Buddy saying what he or she thought of the video, she said.
Another promotion in Barney's early days similarly took advantage of the dinosaur's magnetic effect on children. In Operation Preschool, the company would identify preschools around a given retailer -- including supermarkets like Kroger -- and send each a free video with a letter advising where the video was available to buy, said Ries. "If they would take a display, we would send them a costume and they could have an appearance," she said.
A promotion that helped get Barney national attention was run with Blockbuster in 1989. The grand prize was an appearance in a Barney video. "That was a very big milestone," said Ries. "It gave us a lot of credibility to do a national promotion with Blockbuster. There was a lot of interest by parents who wanted their child to be a movie star."
Effective merchandising is the key to making the 10th-anniversary promotion work in-store. "Consumers are so time-poor and pressured and I think you need to make it an easy shopping experience for them. This might be a matter of differentiating product by age, so that it is real easy for the three-year-olds to head for the section that is for one-to-three or whatever. But we are at a stage where you can't buy everything, so you have to make some decisions about who your customer is and then get the product that will support them," said Ries.
"The consumer has to be able to find the product," said Bristol. "There are a lot of products in the supermarket, and video is not necessarily the customer's destination. So it has to have good placement in the store and it has got to come out of the traditional video section, because the busy shoppers are not necessarily going to take the time to go in there."
As Lyrick's executives look to the future, they want nothing more than to keep a good thing going. "Barney is a classic product, and our primary goal would be to keep our classic product line out there at top quality, day in and day out, and then use promotion to drive our peak periods," said Bristol. "But mostly we need to stay true to our product. A video that we created five years ago potentially sells as well today as one that we created this year. That really speaks to the evergreen aspect to our property. It truly is ageless. It will work as well 10 years from now."