Interview: The Resurgence of Nostalgia: Retro Brands Reimagined for a New Generation
Total Licensing talks with with Mellany Welsh, Head of Nelvana Enterprises
Thanks so much for speaking with Total Licensing, Mellany! First of all, can you tell us a little bit about your role?
Thank you for this opportunity! I have the really fun job of taking the amazing content that our studio produces and distributing it to broadcasters and platforms for kids all over the world to enjoy. My role oversees the commercial arm of Nelvana – Nelvana Enterprises which encompasses global distribution and consumer products. In addition, I oversee our publishing division Kids Can Press.
While Nostalgia has been super popular as a ‘trend’ for a long time now, why do you think it retains its longevity with consumers and retailers alike?
First of all, I personally love nostalgic trends, probably because many of the brands and styles that are ‘in’ today are playing on brands that I grew up with! I think the most simple notion of “what’s old is new” is always in style and while the specific brands or decades may change, there is something really fun about making something from the past cool again. I think the trend is here to stay because it works.
What do you think appeals most, and do you think in these times of current strife there is an appeal to turn to brands that comfort us?
Since nostalgia is ultimately about bringing out a feeling of affection for the past, it naturally takes us to a place of happiness or comfort. There’s a notion that life in the past was simpler and so even if it’s from a time that we didn’t live through, brands and fashion from those eras allow us to escape to another time and place where the stresses of life and technology wasn’t as prevalent. There is almost something peaceful about going there and so I do think that we turn to that comfort even if it’s subconscious.
When we launched the Care Bears x Peace Collective and Babar x Lanvin collections – I knew I had to have them! I grew up watching Care Bears and Babar and both shows were two of my childhood favourites!
How are nostalgic brands working cross-generation?
Parents will naturally gravitate to brands that they grew up with for their kids because there is familiarity and something really fun about wanting to introduce their little ones to the content and characters they loved as kids.
Parents (and in some cases grandparents) now wish are making it a priority to have more family time and are spending some of that time co-viewing content with their kids. We see that with the demand for both our owned and represented brands — interest to reboot childhood classics like Babar and Franklin the Turtle, as well as through newer series such as Bluey where the parents play a fun and key role in the series.
There is an ongoing trend to revamp older series for a modern audience. We’ve done this successfully with The Hardy Boys, and more recently have partnered with Mattel Television on a 2D animated version of Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go, as well as a 3D animated reboot of Barney, called Barney’s World.
Can you outline which brands, in particular, you are seeing success in the nostalgia arena?
We are so lucky that we get to work on some of the best nostalgic brands in the business! I mentioned a few above in relation to the some of the amazing new series we have rebooted. On the consumer products side, Care Bears, Sesame Street and Max & Ruby are top of mind. We represent the iconic Care Bears franchise in Canada and are seeing strong engagement–launching consumer products programs with Peace Collective, Retrokid, Kernels, Cakeworthy–and most recently Ardene, playing on nostalgic-inspired artwork and fashion body trends reflective of the 90s and early 2000s. In addition, the series-based merch continues to resonate with younger fans and gives fans the ability to introduce brand new characters with viral potential like Canada’s very own True North Bear which launched earlier in 2023 as a Canada-only excusive Care Bear!
Similarly, Sesame Street continues to trend with adults and juniors based on the strong history of the property amongst those who grew up with it. We have had great success with our partnership with WN Pharmaceuticals whose Canadian-based Sesame Street Vitamins recently became the #1 selling Children’s Vitamin brand in Canada, as well as NOLA Baking that launched a delicious line of snack bars and pancake mixes the whole family can enjoy, and Cakeworthy who launched a line of apparel for adult fans of the brand. Sesame Street’s characters are so engrained in today’s pop culture, that we’ve also had great success launching Millennial and Gen Z-targeted licensing programs with Peace Collective, and Retrokid, to name a few.
Given our recent viral success on TikTok with Max & Ruby, Gen Z’ers who grew up watching the series, are now rediscovering the brand through the platform and we now have +715k followers and +12M likes to our account. This has proven the staying power of Max & Ruby and relevance in pop culture. This success has led us to a number of new deals including our deal with Hot Topic for apparel and some new deals launching in 2024 for apparel, confectionery, stationery and home, targeting adults and juniors.
Lastly, the Canadian kids’ network YTV turns 35 years this year, and if you grew up in Canada during that time, you almost certainly were glued to the TV watching this channel. Our first YTV x Retrokid collaboration a couple of years back performed exceptionally well, and back by popular demand we are delighted to be launching our third release, in celebration of YTV’s 35th Anniversary!
And how do you weave the careful line between retaining the original appeal and revamping them for a modern audience?
While nostalgia brings in the generational following and viewership, the older kids today who drive merchandise decisions don’t necessarily care what their parents watched when they were kids. We have to win them over from scratch as to them, these are brand new properties. So, as we look to reboot brands, we view it from this lens, the kids lens who perhaps never even heard of the series.
For Hardy Boys, for example, we worked closely with Hulu & YTV to create a quick-paced mystery series tweens would want to binge watch, and ensuring the plots and content was as contemporary as possible while still taking place in the 1980s.
How do you curate trends, for example, social media etc?
Trend forecasting is something we like to monitor and track. Luckily we have an internal research team that does some of this but outside of this, the industry does a great job at identifying and sharing emerging trends through industry articles, trend reports, and panel discussions at trade events.
Recently there has been a great trend towards ‘kidulting’ and do you feel this resonates?
I think ‘kidulting’ is actually evergreen, but only being labelled now as it’s something that people are openly encouraging. I think everyone does some form of ‘kidulting’ from simple things like eating ice cream out of the container while watching TV to swinging on the swings in the local park to buying toys with the intent of playing with them. With things like Pokémon Go and Lego sets for adults, we’re starting to and will be seeing people engage with play more and showcasing it more. It’s a way to relive happy childhood memories and a great way to escape reality and stress and who wouldn’t want that?