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‘Beatrix Potter was an amazing force’

We chat to Penguin’s Susan Bolsover and Thomas Merrington about the 150th anniversary.

As I write, Beatrix Potter is trending on Twitter in the UK.

Thursday July 28 marks the official 150th anniversary of the author and illustrator’s birth – and events will be taking place up and down the country to mark this milestone.

For Penguin Ventures and Penguin Random House, the date is something they have been working towards since January, when the publishing and licensing teams kicked off a year of activity dedicated to Beatrix.

“Our biggest goal for this year was perhaps for people to understand just how awesome Beatrix Potter actually was,” Thomas Merrington, brand manager for Peter Rabbit at Penguin Ventures, explains to The Source.

“She was a woman of her time who had such an amazing mind and was so talented in many areas – she was an author, an illustrator, an environmentalist, a scientist, a conservationist… she had all of these amazing attributes and was an amazing force.”

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The year of celebration begun in perhaps the best possible way in January, with the announcement of the discovery of Kitty in Boots (pictured above), a new original tale from Beatrix which had never been published.

It will officially launch in September and has apparently already notched up incredible pre-sale numbers.

This was followed by a range of clever deals and partnerships – many of which have been well documented by The Source across the year.

One of the highlights was The Royal Mint collaboration, which marked the first time the company had used a literary character on a coin, and also one of the first times it had put a character coin into circulation. Peter Rabbit was first to launch, followed by Jemima Puddle-Duck, Squirrel Nutkin and Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.

“The Peter Rabbit coin sold out within eight days and the Royal Mint wasn’t expecting the demand,” says Thomas. “We’re now talking about what we do with the Royal Mint going forward, as there could be some more opportunities there.”

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Coins have also been joined by stamps from July 28, with the Royal Mail launching a full range of stamps and collector’s items featuring characters such as Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Tom Kitten and Benjamin Bunny among others.

Also debuting on July 28 is a deluxe edition gift box from Signature Gifts (pictured below). Limited to 250 pieces, it includes a personalised picture letter to a recipient of the buyer’s choosing; a limited new edition of the original privately printed Tale of Peter Rabbit from 1902; a Royal Mint Peter Rabbit Silver Proof 50p coin; a facsimile copy of The Times newspaper from the day Beatrix was born; and a facsimile copy of the cover of The Times featuring her birth announcement.

Other bespoke collections and products from Wedgwood, The National Trust (which has created 150th scarves featuring images from The Tailor of Gloucester) and Gund (which is now looking at creating new collector’s editions following the sell out success of its limited edition Peter Rabbit) have all enjoyed success, while Milly & Flynn is readying the launch of its recreated Peter Rabbit Race game later this year.

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Then there’s the relationship with Mothercare, which has had a phenomenal response, according to Thomas.

“The relationship with Mothercare was really about building a bespoke destination for the 150th anniversary across toys, apparel, gifting and bedding,” he continues. “We knew it would be popular, but we didn’t know just how amazing it would be. It’s done so well that it will run through 2017 as well, and we’re looking at new toy development and new clothing ranges.”

The relationship has also given Mothercare the opportunity to stock some Peter Rabbit publishing.

Further opening up the brand to different audiences, Paperchase now has a successful Peter Rabbit collection, which will again carry through to 2017, with further products being added.

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Talking of expanding into new areas, Thomas says that the brand strategy going forward is to concentrate on the experience and experiential side for Beatrix Potter.

Earlier this year saw the opening of the official Peter Rabbit adventure playground at Willows, while the World of Beatrix Potter in the Lake District has been hosting a Where is Peter Rabbit? musical (pictured below), both of which have been a hit with visitors.

Three major initiatives are being planned for Christmas – although Thomas has to remain tight-lipped on any details, only saying they will all be different and will be a “really great way to end the year that we’re having”.

“We want to look at more interactive and immersive experiences that whole families can go to and enjoy – so they can really experience the world of Peter Rabbit in a different way,” Thomas explains. “Something that will create memories for them.

“Also, how do we take Peter into new markets? We’re also looking at digital strategy alongside experiential. Taking Peter into different age groups – how would Peter work in the social gaming arena for example.”

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It’s clear that there are still plenty of opportunities available to Penguin to further grow the Beatrix Potter brand, buoyed by the momentum of the 150th celebrations.

Away from the UK, the brand has some exciting developments coming up in the US with some well-known nursery branded shops for Easter. Kids Preferred has just carried out a big relaunch of the classic plush, while activity is also taking place in Pottery Barn and Barnes & Noble among other retailers.

Myer in Australia is also a big supporter of the brand, says Thomas.

Japan, however, is the biggest territory for Peter Rabbit and a host of different collaborations have taken place in the territory, including one of the biggest exhibitions of National Trust assets, kicking off in September.

Interestingly, in Japan Peter Rabbit is positioned as an adult brand, rather than a nursery brand, opening up a number of further opportunities.

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And what would Beatrix herself have thought of all this activity? Well, considering she registered the patent for her Peter Rabbit doll back in 1903, chances are she would approve.

“She was already well aware that licensing and merchandising (or what she called her “little side shows”) were an incredibly important way for her to engage her fans with her characters beyond the book, something she continued to do throughout her life,” comments Susan Bolsover, head of licensing and consumer products at Penguin Ventures.

“She took a great interest in choosing the right licensees and offering feedback on the whole PD process especially toys, where her knowledge of the manufacturing process was quite amazing.

“Had Beatrix been alive today I think she would certainly have been extremely interested in our ever expanding global licensing programme – though I expect she’d have had more than a few comments to make!

“As for the celebrations this year, I think she’d also have been secretly quite proud of her achievements, though you can be sure she would have also hated all the fuss.”

You never know, Beatrix may even have joined in the Twitter party too.

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