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Toy Fair 2013 

Welcome to Toy Fair, 2013!


Interview with Mary Rafferty of Saban Brands

Interview with Mary Rafferty of Saban Brands
Last month at Toy Fair, I had the opportunity to speak with Mary Rafferty, their VP of Licensing for Toys and Hard Lines. We spoke for the better part of a half hour, so I won't provide a full transcript of my rambling discussion, but have pulled the most exciting bits of the chat as concerns Power Rangers, Popples and the industry at large!

Preserve: What was your start in this industry?
MR: I have been in licensing and consumer products for about 26 years, and this is actually my 17th Toy Fair. I have managed toys on the licensing side for Mattel - I was in charge of Barbie, licensing out actually. I've worked for Jakks, Spinmaster, and then I came on board with Saban. I manage all of the, what we call, hard line categories with Sban Brands.

Preserve: Where is the distinction drawn between the two expressions of 'toys' and 'hard lines'?
MR: Toys are considered part of hard lines, but 'toy' is such a big category that we separate it out. The way we work in licensing we put everything into categories. So I don't do apparel and accessories, which are soft. I literally do sporting goods, stationary, electronics, toys, health and beauty.

Preserve: Was Mattel the first gig that you got in this industry?
MR: Actually I worked at the Walt Disney company before that, and I did licensing for them, but I didn't do toy licensing, I actually did collectible licensing. I worked on Walt Disney Classics collection.

Preserve: Excellent - and that's interesting about the Disney connection, because I think it was in 2010 that Saban Brands reacquired the Power Rangers license from Disney?
MR: Haim Saban sold Power Rangers as part of the Fox Family network, about 12 years ago now, and then reacquired it in 2010 when he saw an opportunity to bring back the Power Rangers.

Preserve: How does the relationship between Saban and Bandai work? Is it just a licensing partnership?
MR: It's a much tighter partnership. Power Rangers actually starts in Japan with a company called Toei, and Bandai has a very close relationship with Toei. The Japanese version of Power Rangers, called Super Sentai, has been going on for 35 years in Japan, and Bandai has always been a partner. Bandai also has a very close relationship with Haim Saban, from back when he first came up with the idea for Power Rangers.

Preserve: When Bandai is developing toys, I assume you have to approve everthing they want to use the expression of the brand for?
MR: Yes, we work from the concept, all the way through. I work with Bandai all day long. Our production also works very closely with Bandai. We purchase some of our footage from Super Sentai, but we develop our own story, have our own cast. We work with Bandai as we develop the show - let them know what the story is going to be about, what's going to be important - and they take that information and incorporate that into the toy line.

There's certain key things that always work - that are unique to Power Rangers. The morphing. The ordinary teenages who get called upon to save the world. So those things will always remain constant. Ordinary people who find within themselves extraordinary power.

Preserve: I had the opportunity to tour the Bandai booth yesterday, and saw the new collectible card play aspect to the line this year. Everything is packaged with a card and stuff has card readers, and audio clips are triggered by the cards - so you would work with them to develop that idea more fully?
MR: Exactly - so we knew that cards would be an important part of the series, so how do we get kids engaged in that play pattern? Bandai also has a whole trading card division, so we thought about how to pull that trading card game through to other types of products, and make it that much more fun. So it's a totally different way of doing trading cards - here the cards actually work with the toys. I'm sure you saw the morpher in the booth - 180 different unique sounds and phrases. Being an engineer, you can imagine the engineering that went into that!

Preserve: Oh absolutely - I can't help but think about the technical aspect to something like that, and all the effort that goes into creating it. What's really great is when you have a plaything, wrapped in such a simple package for a kid to really enjoy, that the underlying complexity is totally transparent. That's when you know you have a successful product - when it's immensely complex, but it looks very simple.
MR: We work really hard to make sure the kids can play out the TV show.

Preserve: Well this stuff looks really fantastic.
MR: Thanks!

Preserve: Something I really enjoyed as a kid, and I was looking forward to asking about are Popples. It's kinda funny - I think it's because I like Transformers, and I like stuffed animals, and I said 'well hey, here's this stuffed animal that kinda transforms'. I guess it's sort of a girls property but...
MR: No, you know what's really funny - when I first saw Popples I thought it was a girl property, and there are so many men in our office who are fans. We have actually incorporated that into our thinking about Popples. I'll be honest - I didn't understand the amount of young boys who loved Popples. One of the people who used to work on product development said he would not go out of his house without his Popples.
So we actually are incorporating boy characters into Popples. Originally it was going to be all girls, and we have gotten so much feedback from young men that we've changed our strategy.

Preserve: That's great! How much is it being informed by the classic line? Are there any specific new directions?
MR: We are going to start out with "Retro Popples" - we are going to re-launch some of the original designs that were done in the early '80s. We want to reach back and re-engage the parents. One of the reasons we were so interested in this brand is that there is such a loyal following with adults, who are now having kids themselves.
So we are going to start out with the retro program. Then we are going to introduce refreshed, modern Popples in early 2014. So you'll see in 2013, though, we're going to be engaging with some retailers and come up with not just the Popples, but a lot of different fun products that support the Popples brand. It's a really fun brand to work on! The coloring, the transforming...

Preserve: That's great! I'm glad to hear that there's enthusiasm for the brand, and that people are looking forward to it. So what was the timing for the retro line?
MR: Actually that's going to be about mid year 2013. They're working hard on it.

Preserve: So once again it's coming full circle. It's really nice that he has the opportunity to do that. Does he have a lot of interaction still with the expressions of the brands?
MR: He is very involved with the production day to day. Obviously Power Rangers is very dear to his heart. He was here yesterday, actually, visiting our licensees and our partners and old friends - he's very very engaged with all of our brands.

Preserve: So the toy expressions he would certainly be interested in keeping an eye on to make sure he likes what's happening?
MR: Oh yes! I report to him! When he previewed the line yesterday, I was thinking 'I hope he likes it!' - but he was very pleased. It's the first time he saw it all together in one big display. It's very hard to pull all of that together - so I'm one of the few people, because I work on it day to day, I see what it's all about. But this is the one opportunity where everybody in the company gets to see what it's going to look like for fall 2013.

Preserve: I'm sure all those different aspects of the line are being worked on independently
MR: Everything from the packaging, the cards, the app that goes along with the cards, the tooling of the different products, the plastic, the engineering, the sound chips. All different timelines that I have to pull together.

Preserve: I was really impressed by the voice activated, 15 rocket firing device!
MR: Great! What did you think of the little figures? Do you collect any of those?

Preserve: I definitely do collect some smaller figures, and thought this line looks really solid.
MR: What we added in - I don't know if you noticed - we added in characters from the original Mighty Morphin.

Preserve: I was very excited about that! In fact, I was asking where the Bulk and the Skull guys were
MR: [laughs] Oh that's an internal debate - all the time! So I did add Bulk and Skull - actually Spike - do you know Squinkies? So you can actually find those characters in there - I did that - I think it's in series three.

Preserve: That is great - I'll have to track those down. I did notice the Bulk trading card up on the wall in the booth. The guy giving our tour was even surprised that he was hiding up there!
MR: I didn't notice that one either!

Preserve: Someone snuck it in I guess...
MR: Probably Bulk himself. I don't know if you know Bulk, he's great. He's a speaker at Power Morphicon, and has been with us at Comic Con. He's a fan favorite!

Preserve: Well I really appreciate your time - I know you are extraordinarilly busy! Is there anything else? Any messages you want to get out?
MR: I'm glad you enjoyed the Bandai line. We just want to get the word out - 20th anniversary - we're really excited to engage our original fans. We going to offer a lot of product for those fans. Everything from more Halloween costumes, to action figures, to collectible die cast Megazords, and the original morpher we re-released. But then again we're also really focused on our new fans.

Preserve: Thanks! Have a great rest of the show.
MR: Thank you - nice to meet you today.

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