Mine the gap

Kidscreen talks to licensing execs from Upper Deck, hand2mind and Relatable about new opportunities in the market, including demand for card games that can age down.
November 22, 2023

Licensing is a difficult business where a few super-categories dominate the market, and it’s hard to stand out unless you have a big brand—or unless you find the gap. Kidscreen talked to three toycos about white-space opportunities they’ve spotted recently, and the licensing deals they put together to fill these gaps.

The Gap: A learning intervention 

License: Numberblocks 

Two years ago, educational toyco hand2mind picked up on an unintentional connection consumers had made between its stackable math-teaching cubes and Alphablocks’ CG-animated series Numberblocks. “We started noticing online that customers were using our cubes to recreate the characters from the show, which was a great jumping-off point for us to talk with series creator Joe Elliot about doing some licensed products together,” says hand2mind VP Elana Ruffman.

The core gap that hand2mind’s team hopes to fill with its Numberblocks toys is that kids need a “learning intervention.” Looking at the National Assessment of Education Progress reports, math scores are the lowest they’ve been in the US since the 1990s, and there’s a market opportunity for products that help kids improve these skills. 

“The key trend we’re seeing is that there are a lot of kids who are missing anywhere from six months to two years of education, which is what teachers call unfinished learning,” says Ruffman. “So when we’re looking for new licenses, we’re always trying to address that core problem with products that can help kids learn complex concepts more quickly.” 

The Illinois-based company signed on as master toy partner for Numberblocks in early 2022 and has since rolled out more than 20 branded products worldwide. They include figures, activity playsets, puzzles and memory games, and 10 new SKUs are planned to hit retail next year.

The success of the licensing deal comes from Alphablocks contributing to the toy design process by proposing new ideas and joining brainstorming sessions, says Ruffman. There’s also a synergy because both teams have former educators who consult with child development experts to make sure the show and the toys are hitting math concepts that kids are struggling with. 

The Gap: A new face in the card game 

License: Neopets 

The trading card game (TCG) market has become a new hotbed for licensed games, including the likes of Disney Lorcana (Ravensburger), One Piece Card Game (Bandai Namco) and Star Wars: Unlimited (Asmodee)—but it’s dominated by big existing brands. To carve out its own slice of the TCG pie, California’s Upper Deck turned to the persevering Neopets franchise, which changed ownership this year and is looking to grow in ambitious ways. 

Upper Deck will roll out its Neopets Battledome TCG to retailers across North America next year to align with the IP’s 25th anniversary. This two-player game features more than 250 pieces of original artwork featuring 20 Neopets creatures.

Upper Deck experimented with Neopets trading cards two years ago, signing a licensing deal for the IP with former parentco NetDragon. As part of this agreement, it planned to launch nine waves of NeoPets e-Pack digital cards, but production was halted when the first wave’s product art garnered negative feedback.  

Company president Jason Masherah adds that what convinced him to return to the Neopets brand was how strong its community has remained after nearly 25 years. And this popularity seems to be transferring to the revived brand, too. The Neopets website had more than 14 million visits last month, with users spending an average of 14 minutes playing the browser game, according to Boston-based SEO company Semrush. 

“When we go looking for new licenses, we want to see properties with huge fandoms,” says Masherah. “During its peak in 2005 and 2006, the Neopets flash game had more than 25 million active users. We’re seeing that those fans are still active online, sharing their nostalgia for the brand, and this next generation is an opportunity for us to rekindle the fandom.”

The Gap: A younger audience 

License: Squishmallows

New York-based gaming company Relatable caters to Gen Z and Millennial audiences with its pop culture-themed board games, but these audiences are getting older and starting families.  

Spotting a demand from these existing fans for more kid-friendly tabletop play in consumer surveys, social media searches and feedback from retailers, Relatable inked a licensing agreement with Jazwares to create a new range of Squishmallows-branded games and plush. Its Squishmallows Take 4 card game launched with an exclusive plush toy in August, along with plush heat pads featuring a removable pouch that users can warm up in the microwave and cuddle with.

“Having that [consumer] knowledge showcases to [brand owners] that there’s a strong level of commitment,” says Relatable’s chief strategy officer Tom Emelo. “You need to come up with a business plan for your product’s life cycle and show them how it has great qualities before a brand is even attached to it.”

Relatable also did a deal with Paramount Consumer Products for the rights to produce a SpongeBob SquarePants expansion pack that came out in May for its flagship What Do You Meme? party game.

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