Are Mascots a Good Opportunity for Printers?
As sporting events return to stadiums in the U.S. and across the world, all eyes turn toward Tokyo, Japan, on Friday July 23, as the postponed 2020 Olympics get underway. For print service providers (PSPs) watching what is sure to be a dazzling run-up and opening ceremony, they may be evaluating and admiring print’s impact on the celebration of the event and the host nation’s culture, from the abundance of flags, to colossal graphics and elaborate costumes. But as friendly critters Miraitowa and Someity, the Olympic and Paralympic Games Ambassadors, delight crowds and pose for photographs with fans (not to mention generate substantial revenue through plush toys and clothing), they may be reminded of an overlooked market — the production of mascots. Are there opportunities for PSPs in this niche space?
When exploring potential inroads into mascot production, print service providers will find pros and cons. One of the checks in the “pro” column is a relatively low equipment necessity. However, styling this as advantageous may lull readers into a false sense of security; the reason for minimal machinery is in part due to the fact that a substantial amount of skilled manual labor is required in the creation and finishing of mascots.
For PSPs hoping to invest in equipment and automate the process, they may need to think again, says Brian Adam, president, Olympus Group. Olympus is the largest producer of mascots in the United States, responsible for the production of many much-loved and recognized characters including Tony the Tiger; Yogi Bear; Chester Cheetah; Snap, Crackle and Pop; the Keebler Elves; Bucky Badger; The Geico Gecko; and more.
“It’s a lot of handwork,” says Adam. “Cutting, gluing, and patterning is done by hand, so it requires those skills. We have an automated cutter that helps us to cut out certain patterns if we’re doing large runs of the same product — for example if we’re producing 100 Hot Dog mascots, we would cut those out on our Zund digital cutting machine. Otherwise, it’s a pretty manual, hands-on process.”
Chantal Quinn, international sales executive at Mascot Makers, echoes the importance of skilled handcrafting. “Most of the mascots are finished by hand, so you can imagine the skilled craftspeople we have on the team,” says Quinn. With a U.K.-based sales office, the majority of Mascot Makers’ customer base is in the United States, and they deliver the entire process from designing and 3D modeling, to creating and producing the mascots and their clothing and accessories.
For PSPs with a healthy in-house finishing department, a move into this niche market is more viable; CNC machining and vacuum forming are used for creating and shaping the mascot heads, allowing for strong precision and detail on the most crucial part of many mascots. Although Olympus Group has been manufacturing mascots for more than 50 years, the majority of their business is large-format print, and PSPs with experience in more complex and three-dimensional projects may find it easier to make a successful entry into the market, according to Adam.
He explains, “If you’re a large fabric printer that’s used to doing 3D shapes, overhead displays, set design, and unique form covering structures, you have some of that expertise because instead of patterning to cover a structure, you’re patterning to cover a mascot. A large-format printer that does quite a bit of printing on flexible structures and fabric and has a large finishing department has a lot of what it takes to set up a mascot production line.”
Know What to Expect
Quinn advises potential mascot producers to take an in-depth look at the leaders in the space to ensure PSPs know what to expect: “It’s a good idea to get in with a company first and learn the trade,” says Quinn. “We have such a large team of very skilled workers who all manage different parts of the process. There are a lot of different elements. It’s something that you have to evolve with over a large number of years to get it right. Where we started is not reflective of the mascot costumes that we produce now, we’re just constantly evolving and improving, looking at trends and looking at the best quality premium products we can work with.”
When it comes to those trends, Quinn forecasts a potential surge in interest post-COVID. At Mascot Makers, it takes mascot making a step further with full animatronics that can be controlled automatically and manually, including mechanical or electrical movable and blinking eyes, LED lights, moving wings or body parts, and more. This is an area that is growing in popularity, explains Quinn: “The animatronics have really taken off. We are pretty much the only company that offers the full animatronics spectrum, and it’s like a totally different dimension now to the mascot costumes. We can literally bring them to life. People want that next level ‘wow’ costume.”
She adds that due to COVID, the cleanliness and hygiene side of things has also been stepped up, with everything able to be sanitized and machine washed. She also notes that although stadium and corporate events are just now returning, people have been getting creative with their mascots throughout the pandemic. “People are really keen now to just start getting back out there with their marketing as things are reopening, but many have been creating a lot of video content as well. Where they haven’t been able to do face-to-face meet and greets, they are recording their mascots and uploading it on their websites and social media, and continuing to use them as a marketing tool.”
Olympus Group’s Adam concludes that while mascot production is fun and unique, it is still a small, niche market with limited opportunity. “You’re not going to go be a $100 million company making mascots,” Adam concedes, but adds, “there are certainly opportunities as events come back in a post-pandemic world for people to utilize mascots even more than they do today.
People are trying to find non-traditional ways to promote their brand, and mascots are a part of that. It’s a good photo op, it generates a lot of attention, and ‘real life’ characters running around can be a playful way for people to connect with the brand.”
Karis Copp is a U.K.-based journalist and communications specialist. With a background as a writer and editor in the print industry, she writes about print and technology news and trends, reports on industry events, and works with businesses to help them tell their stories and connect with their customers. Follow her on Twitter @KarisCoppMedia.