Further adventures of the Famous Five

The Blyton brand is being transported to the US. Meg Carter reports
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The Independent Online
First it was toyland. Now, Britain's best loved children's author is taking on the world. Last week the Enid Blyton Company kicked off celebrations to mark the centenary of Blyton's birth by unveiling plans to establish the literary brand internationally and to enter the United States market in the new year.

Enid Blyton has certainly come a long way since she was merely an author. Today she is a rapidly-growing multimedia publishing and merchandising business for Trocadero plc, which acquired copyright from the Enid Blyton estate at the start of this year.

Although Blyton is Britain's second most translated writer (after Agatha Christie) with worldwide sales of 8 million books last year alone, little had been done to develop the commercial exploitation of her work until Trocadero took an interest, says Enid Blyton Company managing director, David Lane.

"Our first job was to develop the brand," he explains. The new approach introduced an aggressive marketing focus which addressed Blyton and her work as a portfolio to exploit.

Beneath the umbrella brand - represented by the author's distinctive signature which appears on the cover of every book - are hundreds of characters and collections of stories. "There are 58 series featuring a single character or character grouping. That's one more than Heinz and a hell of a lot more than Warner Brothers," Mr Lane claims.

The first step was to analyse and renegotiate existing licensing contracts. Representation for Noddy, the most merchandised of the Blyton brands, was taken back from the BBC to be handled in-house. And a series of overseas representatives was established in 21 international markets.

Mr Lane has adopted a three-pronged strategy. First, to expand existing rights exploitation into other media and new products. Second, to expand exploitation in other countries. And finally, to expand awareness of the Blyton "umbrella brand" through activities connected with the centenary: Mr Lane last week announced the launch of an annual Enid Blyton Award honouring services to children's entertainment.

Initially, attention has been focused on the best-known sub-brands - such as the Famous Five, Secret Seven and Noddy. Recent deals have resulted in the Famous Five appearing in a poster campaign for United Airlines and the launch of Noddy biscuits through a deal with McVitie. Noddy has also helped out in a promotion for Panasonic batteries. And a Famous Five CD-Rom is launched on Friday.

Attention is now shifting to lesser known Blyton properties, such as Amelia Jane and Mary Mouse. Unlike their celebrity cousins, these will need greater media exposure before they can be successfully exploited commercially. Which is why negotiations are under way to secure TV and feature adaptation for a range of characters and stories.

The Enid Blyton Company is currently in "advanced talks" about 15 possible deals, Mr Lane claims. "Two to three TV series or film adaptations will be made each year for at least the next five years. We are making sure that, by and large, all will either be adaptable for or made in the US market."

The reason for this is simple: 50 per cent of the world's licensing revenue is generated in the US. Yet to date, Blyton is virtually unknown there. "There has always been a feeling that Blyton was quintessentially too English for the US market," says Trocadero chief executive Nick Leslau. "The potential there is absolutely vast."

An internationally successful property such as Thomas the Tank Engine - whose marketer, Britt Allcroft, hopes to raise pounds 30m through a stock market flotation next month - generates worldwide sales of around $1.5bn (pounds 940m), Mr Leslau says. "This translates to around $11m a year in royalties. What's the potential for Blyton? Very significant."

To crack the US market, Mr Lane and his team are "translating" Blyton's books into American. This entails changing certain words and style, although few names. A balance must be maintained between making Blyton more accessible and diluting her strengths, he says.

The approach is less radical than it sounds, Mr Lane maintains. Blyton's works are continually revised to avoid dated idiom. This is essential if the works are to remain both timeless and relevant, which are core brand strengths.

The family-oriented character licensing and merchandising business is rapidly expanding. But while demand is growing, it is in danger of being outstripped by supply. "More characters are coming into the market than the market can at present support," Mr Lane warns.

Every new movie has heavy merchandising associated with characters. Meanwhile, established brands, such as Jelly Babies, are developing merchandise spin-offs. "It's tough. But you have an advantage if your properties are classics with clear brand values in terms of what they stand for," he says. And in the mid-1990s, Blyton is coming into her own.

Despite falling out of favour with educationalists and the politically correct in the 1970s, her star is once more rising as parents and teachers seek material that is safe and stimulates reading.

"Core integrity", Mr Leslau hopes, will ensure the growth of the Blyton stable of brands into the 21st century. For the past 10 years, Blyton has been churning out revenues of around pounds 1m a year, he says. "With 700 books and 10,000 short stories we are confident there is significant potential for growth."