Life of Riley: How Michael Riley is busy franchise building at WildBrain

He’s the man charged with identifying and developing key franchise opportunities in what he describes as WildBrain’s “treasure trove” of a property library, and Michael Riley is certainly relishing the role. Source catches up with the company’s chief brands officer to talk Strawberry Shortcake, Teletubbies at 25 and the benefits of a digital-first strategy.

For Michael Riley, chief brands officer at WildBrain, the opportunities available at the company with its properties makes this a “very exciting time to be in the business”.

“The company’s library is a treasure trove of globally recognisable, timeless brands, so a key part of my job is looking for ways to unlock potential and elevate these across all licensing and merchandising platforms and opportunities,” Michael tells us. “As the consumer world evolves there are increasing ways to engage with fans and audiences and we want to ensure that our 360-degree strategies are well developed, resourced and executed to bring kids more of the brands they love in a creative and meaningful way.”

Key focuses for Michael and the team currently include the relaunched Strawberry Shortcake, as well as Teletubbies as the property heads into its 25th year. “We’re also focused on Yo Gabba Gabba, as well as preschool brands In the Night Garden, Chip and Potato, not forgetting the evergreen Caillou, of which we’re launching new specials and short-form content,” he adds.

Strawberry Shortcake made her return with a new series – Berry in the Big City – which launched exclusively on the official Strawberry Shortcake channel on WildBrain Spark, the AVOD platform on YouTube and YouTube Kids. New episodes have been dropping each Saturday since the premiere in early September and will continue through to June 2022. A second 40-episode season has already been given the greenlight.

New specials and short-form content is due to launch for Caillou.
New specials and short-form content is due to launch for Caillou.

“We’re so happy with the new look and feel of the character and her world,” says Michael. “The main ingredient is the proven timeless appeal of the Strawberry Shortcake brand and the cherished memories and nostalgia it invokes in original fans – now parents and grandparents. What we have now is the opportunity to leverage the brand across multiple touchpoints refreshed for today’s kids and that’s very exciting when reimagining the Strawberry world.”

When it comes to CP, among other licensees, Moose Toys is on board as master toy with its new range due to be unveiled in early 2022. And, as part of WildBrain’s digital-first strategy, Strawberry is also graduating for the first time to the Roblox gaming universe in Bake with Strawberry Shortcake.

“We’re hugely excited that the brand will be part of one of the world’s most popular 3D digital gaming platforms, where over 20 million kids play each day,” enthuses Michael.

Despite the reinvention, maintaining a clear bond with the classic Strawberry Shortcake was key. “You must be 100% respectful of the emotional connection that fans have with the brand they grew up with,” Michael continues. For example, Strawberry’s signature scent will be returning in a line of collectable dolls. “The connections that the brand inspired remains centred around scent and play, having fun, being together but the products will have a ‘wow’ factor that will redefine how consumers see and experience the brand.”

Connecting the Teletubbies brand with celebrating Pride Month felt like a natural reach, says Michael.
Connecting the Teletubbies brand with celebrating Pride Month felt like a natural reach, says Michael.

Teletubbies is another brand which has maintained its connections with the original audience from when it launched almost 25 years ago. Michael continues: “Teletubbies is one of those rare brands that transcends age and time – it’s quite unique. On one hand we have an enduring preschool brand that remains a kids’ favourite year after year – but now that the original fans have grown up, we have an adult fan base in Gen Z.”

The past year has seen a raft of activity targeting this older age group including Pride Month appearances, a faux crypto-currency April Fools’ joke in the form of Tubbycoin and an exposé in OK magazine. Michael explains: “The Teletubbies have always embraced their own offbeat quirkiness and style and have a collective identity that houses distinct personalities. This activity was a chance to really dive down into their identities and explore who the Teletubbies characters are and give each of them a backstory that original fans can relate to.”

Further activity such as this is on the cards, but Michael is keeping his powder dry for now. What has recently been announced is a new Teletubbies album, Ready Steady Go, with ten digital-first music videos, created with both preschool and Gen Z audiences in mind. “The album will be distributed by Universal Music Group and is the first music release from the Teletubbies in over 20 years, and yes, they will be going on tour,” Michael reveals. “It is just part of a multi-tiered relaunch campaign we have planned leading into the Teletubbies’ 25th anniversary in 2022.”

Hearing all of this, LicensingSource can certainly understand what Michael meant about it being an exciting time to be in the business.

Ready Steady Go is the first music release from the Teletubbies in over 20 years.
Ready Steady Go is the first music release from the Teletubbies in over 20 years.

Digital first benefits

“For IP owners, great merchandise itself is just one part of the equation when it comes to building and sustaining your brand for the long-term,” says Michael. “You need to engage with your audience on the platforms they’re on and devices they use, in a brand-safe environment.

“Therefore, leveraging ad-supported video-on-demand platforms – AVODs – such as YouTube and YouTube Kids with digital-first content and understanding how your audience reacts to it can be a hugely powerful way of informing your consumer products strategy, as well as helping to create multiple and added value touchpoints for your audience.”

Michael adds that the company’s analytics show that one in three kids with access to YouTube watch content on the WildBrain Spark network each quarter.

This feature originally appeared in the autumn 2021 edition of Licensing Source Book. To read the full publication, click on this link.

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