The kids business begins with kids, ... right?
by Rob Travalino
It starts with kids.
I love the kids business, I really do. It’s has a certain timeless quality to it, a place where the adventure never stops and the journey never ends. You know a lot of us in this business don’t really talk about it, actually a lot of us don’t even have the time to think much about it, but there’s a need, a deep and profound developmental and psychological and human need for story. I don’t want to scare anybody with the “E” word but for kids, great mainstream media stories are part of self-education. Brands though commercially defined by structure, are entirely communal and human by nature. Stories and action heroes and adventures and great quests are how kids learn about themselves and their place in the world. It’s how kids learn to build identities and join and form communities as they grow; it’s how humans of all ages do as well. The big business of family entertainment is proof enough of this. Sometimes though when I look at the kids business as it relates to the business of kids, I wonder, where exactly are “the kids” in the kids business?
Everything is story.
We live in a land and a moment in time where clear divisions exist between the economic machine served by mainstream entertainment, and the actual needs of our audience. Every aspect of the kids entertainment business from toys and games to the Internet and publishing are part of the same thing; they are tools for playing story. Just look at the epic rise of mass media family entertainment in all of its forms and see just how important it is entertainment and business-wise to touch not just kids in general but the kid inside all of us. The best of the family genre involves in the truest spirit of Disney and classic Warner Brothers, stories that carry the same meaning and empowerment to you if your 5, 35 or 85. What’s that part? It’s not about collecting trading cards or buying products, it’s about our journey and our search for meaning and empowerment. The products are just there to remind us.
The trick is in fully developing those deep human stories to be told through all of the channels of physical product entertainment and in full, deep and unique ways. To think from the distribution channels back down is contrary to the primary reason the entertainment works in the first place. The usual suspects of physical media in this land are separated by business category; often embroiled in competition for resources and creatively walled off from each other. To kids, and the rest of us humans, the experience we generate from great story is singular and intrinsically our own; we only use channels and products as tools to construct our larger story. Take the Internet and the wave of audience contributed content for example, by structure alone, it does not empower us; we only use the tool to empower ourselves. The economic illusion is such that it’s easy to think that the money generated is the power alone. Wow, we’re leaving a lot of money on the table then! Modern technology is a relative toddler on the stage of history; meanwhile, we humans are still the same kids we always were. We just have better things to hunt and gather with.
Kids are good business but being good for kids is better business.
While we all have to exist in a financial and economic world where dollars and cents and stockholders and corporate entities need to thrive and survive, at some point, the process itself can outpace and even miss meaning, purpose and quality of story and the quality of story is what has always been the measure of long-term economic success. Our connection to that story is the actual fuel behind the economy of entertainment. But of course, how do you accomplish this level of unified story when you have 6 or 12 months of resources allocated, distributors and stockholders to deal with and your competition rushing to trump your every move?
The audience comes first.
I could bore you with quotes and statements from educators and psychologists about the importance of story to human development but some of you might wonder, well, where’s the profit in that? So, instead I’ll just give you this one short quote from Steven Spielberg when asked about being conflicted whether to make more artistic films, or more commercial films: "All the time, but when you have a story that is very commercial and simple, you have to find the art. You have to take the other elements of the film, and make them as good as possible, and doing that will uplift the film." Who I ask, has been more successful at just this than Steven?
Movies and TV shows and the toys and games they throw off aren’t truly viable until they become pieces of personal or group stories, until they are stitched seamlessly into the fabric of the human quilt. You don’t do this by marketing, you make people “aware” of this “through marketing” and then, they do it themselves. Once kids of all ages make your story theirs, all of the expressions of your story become conduits to telling deeply personal stories. It’s about socialization, aggression, understanding, taking risks, facing fears and most of all, about rising beyond our limits and discovering great powers we thought we never had. These powers don't come in trading cards or merchandise; they come from us. Nike built an empire of shoes by not selling shoes; instead they challenged us to “Just do it!”
Think “the force” in STAR WARS; the vehicles and characters are just stand-ins for the flavors of opinions on and the human archetypes and philosophies of personal power. To put it simply, it was the power to believe in yourself and what you can do. Joseph Campbell the great mythology teacher, who was quite influential in shaping STAR WARS once said, “When we quit thinking primarily about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness”. This applies to companies, societies and properties too. Think deeper than the bottom line. George Lucas may have written Star Wars the movie and given us “the force”, but the community of fans he touched and empowered “used the force” and built Star Wars the brand.
It’s about building Communities in a whole new way.
That’s why Kevin and I have spent two decades developing a bigger model for our entertainment and you’ll see more as we move forward on our journey with The Story Hat. Working at and with some of the largest entertainment companies on the planet, we have lived for 20 years inside the box and realized that the best way to feed the box was to live outside it and feed the audience first. Looking at entertainment as a great machine as the financial community might, we think of ourselves as the next generation of software developers, making better story to fully diversify through the channels and tools of our media culture. And it can’t stop there, if we are going to approach story in a new business model that knocks down the walls between business and culture, then a new kind of company must also emerge.
To this end, we’ve just established a relationship with the Rhode Island School of Design that we hope will grow into an entirely new level of creative, social and commercial reciprocity between our respective communities. We also plan to roll out future initiatives in partnership with the State of Rhode Island to bring kids and the community far deeper into the mainstream than ever before. We want to create deeper contact and empowerment with our audience, we want to help grow and nurture impassioned and empowered collaborators to feel like they have already made a difference in the world and our stories before they graduate school. Essentially, we want to co-create the next great human stories on every level. After all, we're not in the kids business; we’re in the business of kids.
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