Every Saturday morning at around 9am, five American teenagers team up and save the world. These are no ordinary teenagers: these are the Power Rangers. But these are no ordinary Power Rangers either: they are the latest incarnation of the popular children's television characters - the Power Rangers Zeo. As any child up to the age of 11 will testify, the Power Rangers are an extremely potent force. But while their strength can be measured by their success in repelling the evil intergalactic intruders led by King Mondo and Queen Machina, they can also be measured in commercial terms. Take the Power Rangers away from the small screen and into big business and they morph into a mighty retail brand.
Global sales of Power Ranger merchandise have been running at around $1bn (pounds 625m) a year.
However, children are notoriously fickle, and yesterday's fad can easily become tomorrow's reject. That the Power Rangers are now in their fourth year in this country is some measure of their longevity. They have certainly defied the critics who dismissed them as one-minute wonders. That is in part due to the strength of the series, and in part due to some extremely skilful marketing and licensing.
In the UK the responsibility for licensing Power Rangers falls to Jackie Ferguson, managing director of Saban UK. It is Saban Entertainment in the US which produces the Power Rangers television series which represents the lifeblood of the merchandising initiative. A year or so ago that blood began to flow a little less readily. Toy sales of Power Ranger figures slumped in the US amid fears that the series was becoming a little jaded. Saban responded by killing off the old Power Rangers and replacing them with the new improved Power Rangers Zeo.
It was a moment of inspiration. The launch of the Zeo series on US television last year confirmed the show's top rating with young viewers, and, in turn, gave a new lease of life to the merchandising initiative.
Ms Ferguson believes that experience will be mirrored in the UK. New Zeo merchandise is already on the shop shelves, and the series premiered on terrestrial television a fortnight ago. She has already built an impressive list of licensees who will be using the Power Rangers Zeo on a range of products from shoes and socks to tinned pasta shapes and sausages.
She attributes the success of Power Rangers to its easy differentiation from the competition. Much children's programming is animation-based, whereas Power Rangers is live action which provides the audience with excitement and also creates the potential for role models. Parents may scoff at the notion that a bunch of teenagers in leotards can inspire a small child but there is no doubting the clear admiration in the mind of a four- year-old for the Red Ranger because he is the leader of the pack.
Whatever the reasons for its success, the one big challenge which faces Ms Ferguson is extending the product's durability. Her licensing campaign in the UK would make something of a textbook study. She has always trodden a careful balance between exposure and exclusivity. The quickest way to make money would be to grant licences to anyone and everyone. However, market saturation is also the quickest way to retire a product too early.
It may have been luck rather than judgement which ensured there was a shortage of Power Rangers toys in the shops for their first Christmas in Britain. There is no doubt, however, that shortage of a product enhances demand significantly. Other merchandise was also filtered in steadily, rather than in bulk.
This helped establish the credentials of the brand. However, one of Ms Ferguson's key roles is not to add new licences but to monitor existing ones. She is constantly reviewing consumer demand and checking to see that the right licensees are delivering the right products to meet the changing needs of the market. Originally, the typical Power Ranger audience was from six to 13 years of age. Now it is three to seven. That has the effect of dramatically changing the merchandise which will appeal, and the licensees must reflect this change.
The merchandise is therefore frequently reviewed, relationships with retailers strengthened and the concept is constantly promoted, often being strengthened by Establishment or corporate endorsement. The Power Rangers can now frequently be found at the centre of anti-drug campaigns.
With such a roaring success on her hands it would be easy for Ms Ferguson to sit back and admire her handiwork. This, she knows, is a recipe for disaster. She is acutely aware that the hunt is always on for new Power Rangers. Four years ago transatlantic audiences were blissfully unaware of their existence. Today they are part of child folklore.
When the challenge comes, Ms Ferguson will be there to meet it. With five of the world's toughest kids on her side, how can she possibly fail?
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