Promotional talent scouts have discovered a licensing star they overlooked until a couple of years ago, and it's bakeries in supermarkets.
A case in point: a radioactive lizard called Godzilla, the dinosaur movie from Sony that opens May 20 across the nation. Expected to be one of the most heavily promoted entertainment properties of 1998, the Godzilla blockbuster is being counted on by suppliers of cake decorations to keep revenues from licenses roaring ahead in double digits.
What's on marquees in weeks to come -- the computer-animated Small Soldiers (remember Disney's "Toy Story"?) from Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks and Video Barney -- is bound to end up as a cake kit.
"As an industry, bakeries have done a better job of using the licensing that is out there," commented the bakery category manager at a $3 billion supermarket chain, speaking anonymously.
"More of us are experiencing the strength of offerings from Disney and Warner Bros. (the largest licensers), and having the right timing for movie-related licenses and promoting the right items," the bakery category manager said.
"We're getting a lot of additional sales," added Barb Harner, bakery director at Steele's Markets, Fort Collins, Colo. "We use more than we ever have. There really is a lot out there, a whole line of character candles for kids, and so forth.
"Every new movie that is kid-targeted gives us a lot more versatility than we've had in the past.
With all these plastics and edible images to use, it's not so time-consuming, like piping and airbrushing, which we still do a tremendous amount of in our cake department. I would say we've seen a more concerted effort (on the part of licensers) in the last year or two," Harner said.
Thanks to sharper merchandising, as many as one-third to one-half of the decorated cakes
sold in the bakery department now carry licenses, according to Mary Jane Valby, director of marketing and licensing for Lucks Corp., Seattle.
Judging from statistics from various trade sources, that ballpark figure would place sales of licensed in-store bakery goods, mostly pricier decorated cakes that command an average of $4 to $5 more than generic cakes, in the hundreds of millions of extra dollars.
Sales are being punched up by an explosion of properties being offered to bakeries, according to Laura Guder, director of marketing and licensing at Bakery Crafts, West Chester, Ohio.
"There is more segmentation. It's at a point where licensers license different companies for edibles and non-edibles, as well as certain products, even though they're both sold out of the bakery," Guder said.
"Sesame Street never licensed their characters on cake designs before. We just landed that last fall," Guder continued. "We've diversified beyond having the major characters as simple figures that sit on the cake, and have developed a cake kit with Big Bird pulling Elmo in a tow truck, Big Bird pulling Cookie Monster. These are roll-alongs -- little vehicles that actually move."
Bakery managers affirmed they were seeing a surge in toy-like toppers with after-play value.
"Rings are big right now," said Patrick Quinn at Homeland Stores, Oklahoma City. "It's a decoration usually for the top of cupcakes to start with, but the kids can keep it."
However, children, who form the largest target group for licenses start to care less about toy toppers after they turn 8, vendor research shows.
To rope in the rest of us, vendors have pumped up their sports lines with licenses for edible cake lay-ons and plastic cupcake pennants bearing team logos from Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL -- as well as images from ABC Sports (Monday Night Football).
One of the newest ideas is the dual-purpose team-support button, which can be removed from the cake and worn afterward.
Vendors also report that they are successfully upgrading the "hard-to-reach" crowd to premium goods with offerings like The Harley-Davidson Candle cake topper, and minicars identified with star drivers from NASCAR/Racing Champions.
Looney Tunes' Tasmanian Devil, or "Taz," is a favorite with teenagers and young adult males, who go for the character's roguish aspect. And Precious Moments, a Samuel J. Butcher license popular on greeting cards that includes collectable bisque figurines, has built up a following as the top adult female cake topper, said vendors.
Where does bakery licensing go from here? Cross-merchandising efforts seen in video and cereal areas appear to be in their infancy when it comes to exploiting already-evident strengths in bakery, indicated some retailers.
Dominick's Finer Foods in Chicago, for example, is said to be merchandising related party plates and napkins in bakery.