Strawberry Shortcake returns with a bet on nostalgia

Strawberry Shortcake's reappearance is a long time coming, and is a key investment for WildBrain.
Strawberry Shortcake's reappearance is a long time coming, and is a key investment for WildBrain.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE - WILDBRAIN/YOUTUBE

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Strawberry Shortcake, the cartoon baker that started as a greeting card character and became one of the most popular kid's franchises of the 1980s, is making a comeback.

Her pink hair has been straightened. She's dumped her bulky bonnet for a beanie. And her fictional friends are now a racially diverse crew that speak to the woes and triumphs of modern young girls.

The reboot was developed by the Canadian entertainment company WildBrain Ltd in collaboration with a diversity and inclusion consultant.

WildBrain, which includes Peanuts and Teletubbies in its lineup, bought the Strawberry Shortcake franchise in 2017. It's hoping to cash in on a bigger revival of once-famous kids brands, one that's helping modern entertainment companies capture attention amid a glut of content.

Strawberry Shortcake will make her modern debut on Sept 18 on a short-form YouTube show, and later she'll appear in a Roblox Corp video game, toys, books and Dippin' Dots ice cream treats.

"I think that for the company, it really represents an opportunity for reinvention and to bringing back a classic property that is beloved by moms and that we'll be introducing for the first time to kids," Mr Eric Ellenbogen, WildBrain's chief executive officer, said in an interview. "It also has a great economic legacy."

Strawberry Shortcake's reappearance is a long time coming, and is a key investment for WildBrain.

The company, formerly known as DHX Media Ltd, purchased the franchise as part of a US$345 million (S$464.50 million) deal to acquire the entertainment division of Iconix Brand Group Inc four years ago.

The acquisition gave WildBrain ownership of Strawberry Shortcake as well as an interest in the Peanuts characters created by Charles M. Schulz.

To bring back the character, WildBrain started by hiring writer and showrunner Michael Vogel, who helped launch the entertainment division at toy giant Hasbro Inc, bringing back to life other older brands including My Little Pony and G.I. Joe. The company also hired designers to update Strawberry Shortcake, who first appeared as a rag doll in 1973.

Entertainment companies have always relied on nostalgia to churn out reliable film and TV hits, but iconic brands have become especially valuable with a proliferation of streaming services creating mountains of programming for people to choose from.

Walt Disney Co launched its Disney+ service largely by expanding the fictional universes of its most popular brands, including Star Wars, Marvel and bit characters from beloved older movies like "Up."

Mattel Inc has seen physical sales of its best-known toys, primarily Barbie dolls, reach records, and is also pivoting to capitalise on its other intellectual property such as Uno and American Girl dolls.

Strawberry Shortcake was once a retailing giant. The character's image was tied to about US$500 million worth of yearly consumer product sales in the 1980s, according to WildBrain. More than five million Strawberry Shortcake dolls, known for their fruity scent, were sold.

"The fun music, the core element of friendship, we thought: 'How do we bring that in and make it relevant today? How do you make sweetness not come off as fluffy or too over the top?" said Ms Stephanie Betts, WildBrain's executive vice-president of content.

In her new iteration, Strawberry Shortcake is a young woman who, along with her cat, moves in with her Aunt Praline in "Big Apple City" to fulfil her dream to become a star baker.

Her almost exclusively white crew of friends, all with flowing multi-coloured hair, has been replaced by a multiracial supporting cast with names like Orange Blossom and Blueberry Muffin.

Instead of finding a spot in the Saturday morning cartoon melee, WildBrain will launch a short video show directly on its YouTube channel on Sept 18. The company said it has 245 million subscribers across its various video outlets, and a digital launch affords it more control than starting with another distributor, such as Netflix.

YouTube provides WildBrain with much more data, down to where people may be tuning out of certain episodes, that can inform the company where to take the show.

WildBrain didn't give numbers for how many viewers it hopes to attract, but Mr Ellenbogen said a return on its investment will take "years." The real money will be in licensing the brand, if it becomes a hit.

Roblox will launch the "Baking with Strawberry Shortcake" game on Oct 2. WildBrain will unveil a line of toys with Moose Toys in 2022, as well as books with Penguin Random House, among other partnerships.

Though an older brand like Strawberry Shortcake tends to be a safer investment than new inventions, there's always a risk the effort doesn't catch on with some of the pickiest consumers: four-year-old girls. "You can get people into the tent," Mr Ellenbogen said. "But you've still go to show them a really good circus."

Mr Ellenbogen said he thinks his team has put together a good circus this time.