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Thomas the Tank Engine’s New Pals Land as Migration Becomes Important in Licensing

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The upcoming film release of the well-known Thomas and Friends franchise will witness the introduction of 14 new engines from diverse ethnic backgrounds for the first time. In attempt to expand the property’s global reach, Mattel, the world’s largest toy maker and the owner of the show through its HIT Entertainment arm, will launch the brand new characters in the film “The Great Race”, which is due for cinema release in May 2016. While many applaud the move, some critics argue that the traditional feeling of the books could be lost forever by the influx of foreign characters, whilst there could also be a risk of cultural stereotyping.

Foreign Citizens, Selected Countries, 2015


Mattel has been looking to increase the scope of the franchise since it purchased the rights via the acquisition of British company HIT Entertainment in 2012, and it has been reported that the characters will include Frieda (from Germany), Raul (from Brazil), Ivan (from Russia), Axel (from Belgium), Ashima (from India), Carlos (from Mexico), Gina (from Italy), Vinnie (from Canada) and Yong Bao (from China).

This is not the first time a global licensor has attempted to diversify the cast in their shows. For example, the impact of the Hispanic population is massive in the US, and it is thus no surprise to see Hispanic characters popping up in family films every so often. In 2010, in a bid to woo the large Hispanic audience in the country, Toy Story 3’s beloved Buzz Lightyear switch to “Spanish mode” for part of the film, a very clever touch by Disney, the world’s largest licensor. In 2013, playing for the same viewers, Universal Pictures included Eduardo and his son Antonio in Despicable Me 2.

The latest addition to the list is the return of Speedy Gonzales, the fastest mouse in Mexico, known for his catchphrase Arriba! Arriba!...Andale! Andale! (Meaning Up! Up!...Go on! Go on!). It has recently been announced that Warner Bros is planning to bring the famous character to the big screen. These moves could all be down to the fact that animation travels well globally, and children are more receptive to characters that look and speak like them. Bearing in mind that both films also have considerable adult followers, it could be argued that the reach of the shows and their characters has been expanded with little effort.

Migration drives cultural globalisation

While multinational licensors experiment with ethnic diversity, country populations are also becoming more heterogeneous than ever before. Migration is fast changing the face of populations, while playing a key role in the age of cultural globalisation. When people migrate they carry to the host country not only their physical belongings with them but also their perceptions of the world, culture, customs, language and religion.

In the UK, Indians and Pakistanis are the largest ethnic groups, accounting for 2.8% and 2.3% of the total population, at 1.8 million and 1.5 million people, respectively. Germany has been home to the world’s largest Turkish migrant group for decades, and in 2015, it was the second recipient country of refugees and asylum seekers in Europe with just under 574,000. Turkey was home to more than 2.1 million refugees (mostly Syrian) and asylum seekers in 2015. In Australia, 31.5% of the population is foreign born, while in the US, a substantial 17.7% of the population (56.9 million) is Hispanic or Latino. The US Census revealed that newborn babies from minority groups became the majority for the first time in the year to July 2011, and analysts predict that the US will be a “majority minority” country by mid-century. Algerians and Moroccans combined account for 2.3% of France’s population, with almost 1.5 million in total, while Romanians make up 2.5% of Italy’s population, again numbering 1.5 million. In Singapore, 10.5% of the population’s birthplace is Malaysia, while in Canada, the multiple ethnic origin population (population from two or more ethnic origins) accounts for 42.1% of the total population, well ahead of Canadians (17.9%). The list goes on.

Refugees and Asylum Seekers, Selected Countries, 2015
Turkey 2,157,091
Germany 573,828
USA 504,551
France 321,541
Russia 303,715
China 301,605
India 209,497
Italy 158,157
Canada 154,359
United Kingdom 137,545
Belgium 38,361
Brazil 21,166
Spain 14,931

Additionally, high birth rates among migrants mean that their population is tending to grow a lot faster than the inhabitants of their new country, thus increasing their impact. If it were not for immigration, the US and the UK would face much more rapidly ageing populations today than other developed countries. Japan’s closed door policy to immigration has contributed to it having the oldest population in the world, where the median age is predicted to increase from 46.8 years in 2015 to 52.6 years in 2030, while its population is predicted to decline by 2.3 million inhabitants by 2020.

Opportunities for Licensing

Most of the people who are immigrating to other countries are young, coming with families who could potentially be tomorrow’s new consumers of character-based licensed products. Although, in general, the majority of migrants are currently less economically active than the fellow residents of their host country, there are still opportunities for the industry.

First, their spending power is bound to increase. In the medium-to-long term, consumer-facing businesses, including the licensing industry, will benefit from a bigger market size and growing expenditure. Population diversification will present new prospects as multiculturalism becomes more widespread. Tesco is an example of a UK supermarket which is already catering to the increasingly diverse population. Rather than adopt a “one-size fits all” strategy, it has taken a local approach in determining the changing demand in different areas, and has adapted the product range in specific stores.

Second, if pricing strategies are set correctly, economically inactive migrants could still represent an attractive group to target by licensees and licensors. For instance, in Germany, Lidl, the country’s second largest discounter, with a 26% value share in the category in 2015, boasts an extensive range of licensed products, such as Frozen, Cars, Mickey Mouse, Planes, Disney Princess and Fairies, and Winnie the Pooh. In the UK, Poundland Group, which owns the low cost Poundland and 99p variety stores, has a broad range of Disney’s Frozen tie-in products on its shelves, and is still making the most of the phenomenon. It is also one of the best performing retailers in the country, commanding a 13% value share in the variety stores category in 2015.

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