Spotlight: National Geographic

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National Geographic Senior Vice President of Licensing John Dumbacher began his career in 1984 heading up marketing and product development for Disney licensee Caltoy. Four years later, he found himself in charge of Disney's West Coast licensing team, before focusing on several areas within their television and film business. Dumbacher then moved to Universal Studios to spearhead the licensing efforts for Jurassic Park sequel The Lost World. He then was recruited by one of the world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational organizations, the National Geographic Society, to act first as vice president of licensing in 1998, followed shortly thereafter by senior vice president of licensing. When Dumbacher signed on, National Geographic's licensing program was still in its infancy, but over the course of the last seven years, both he and his team have steadily built the program from the ground up.

Q: Describe your consumer products team and structure.

A: Founded in 1888, Washington, D.C.-based National Geographic Society currently reaches more than 330 million people worldwide each month through its official journal, National Geographic, as well as its four additional magazines; the National Geographic Channel; TV documentaries; radio programs; films; books; videos; DVDs; maps; and interactive media. But the business wasn't always this cohesive. In fact, the licensing business initially was handled by a New York-based division. When I came on board, National Geographic was launching a U.S. and international cable channel, and we felt it was a good time to bring the licensing business inside. Our original staff consisted of three employees, but since has grown to 18, the majority of whom are based in D.C. We also have an office in Frankfurt, Germany, that handles our European programs. Since consolidating our operations under one roof, we have grown our business from around $10 million at retail to approximately $200 million.

Our system is similar to a typical studio structure in that all teams revolve around the core business. Our program is structured around four specific areas: kids; home; travel, apparel, and gear; and member benefits. Like a studio system, we, then, as part of these groups, have an account director in charge of driving retail programs. We also have a separate staff in charge of creative and marketing, as well as a legal staff for business affairs.

Q: What programs/brands comprise National Geographic's portfolio?

A: We have developed distinct brand identities for each National Geographic program. For instance, the home program is branded National Geographic Home and features its own logo. Meanwhile, the National Geographic Travel Collection has a separate logo and brand identity. This system holds true for each area of business. However, all of our brands feature the yellow National Geographic border, identifying them as part of the National Geographic family. Ultimately, I think utilizing the appropriate brand identity, whether it's travel or home or kids, helps our consumers understand what we're bringing to the table.

Q: What have been some of your licensing/merchandising successes to date?

A: Last April, the National Geographic Society, along with IBM, geneticist Spencer Wells, and the Waitt Family Foundation, launched the Genographic Project, a five-year effort to map humanity's genetic journey. In short, it allows consumers to trace their ancestry back as far as 60,000 years via a Public Participation Kit that can be purchased online. After taking a simple cheek swab for DNA, participants can submit the sample through our secure and completely anonymous system. The sample then is sent to a lab and processed, and around eight weeks later, results are finalized. In the meantime, participants can visit the Website to see where their sample is in the analysis process. The entire program is financed by funds generated through the sale of participation kits. Though our promotional push was entirely press based, we sold upward of 100,000 kits from April through December of last year via the Web. The program marked one of the first times the consumer could participate in a National Geographic study.

The other great success we've had was the launch of our National Geographic Home Collection three years ago. We sent disposable cameras to 24 photographers and explorers and said, "Show us how you live." The results were used as inspiration for the collection. We then conducted extensive consumer research and asked what other areas should be explored. The overwhelming response was archival prints, and from this feedback came the creation of the home collection. We launched with 2,000 items and eight licensees, and quickly became the No. 1 program for Lane Home Furnishings. The reasonably priced collection remains a success, and the designs reflect an eclectic mix of global cultures.

Additionally, we recently launched a major initiative to focus on dedicated kids' programming, including several individual television properties and feature films aimed at kids and family audiences. Last year's successful feature film, March of the Penguins, is just one example of the push to establish all-family properties. We also have several television shows in the works. As we gain further traction, we plan to roll out licensing and retail programs. Though we have limited distribution at mass, many of these properties clearly have a DVD tie-in, and will be developed across all channels of distribution in appropriate categories. However, the National Geographic brand itself will always remain in upper-tier channels of distribution.

Q: What has been a successful retail exclusive or direct-to-retail deal in the past?

A: A good portion of our success comes from direct-to-retail deals. We've had a five-year relationship with Target for National Geographic-branded kids' toys that currently are sold at 1,100 Target stores nationwide. In fact, it's our only mass-market program to date. All of our other products are geared specifically for better channels of distribution. On the home side, our DTR program is handled through Lane Home Furnishings.

Q: Any co-branding deals for properties currently licensed?

A: We've explored a select number of co-branding opportunities, but they are the exception to the rule. We partnered with Kershaw Knives for a special Carabiner and Mini-Carabiner Tool, since it has an established brand in that particular marketplace. But in most cases, the National Geographic brand is all that's needed. That said, we're certainly not opposed to co-branding. In fact, we currently are in discussions with a company on the apparel side for a co-branded men's and women's apparel travel program.

Q: What new product categories are you looking to tap into?

A: We're focusing our attention on greater product depth in the women's travel arena. To date, the bulk of our program has been focused on the men's side. Beyond that, it's about further building out the success of our home and kids' collections. All of our programs are strategically structured, and we often take into account consumer and focus group studies.

Q: Since approximately one-quarter of your audience is outside the U.S., what has been your strategy internationally?

A: Our team based out of Germany has several key initiatives that mirror the four areas related to U.S. business. We have an active international kids' program, and currently are in the process of launching the home program. Our television channel was first launched internationally before debuting in the U.S. In addition, our stationery program has been successful in Europe, and is just starting to build in the U.S. Within the next year, we will announce a large program that is scheduled to launch overseas before migrating to the U.S. marketplace. For us, it's less a matter of territory and more about having the right product and the right distribution channel.

Q: What are some of the challenges you face at National Geographic, as they relate to licensing and retail?

A: First and foremost, each program has to be related to our mission: to diffuse geographic knowledge while promoting conservation of Earth's cultural and natural resources. As a result, we're focused on identifying opportunities that inspire people to understand different cultures. On the product side, it's always about innovation. Quality is something we will never mess with. But the biggest challenge is finding new and innovative ways of launching a program, while ensuring product is available at a reasonable price point. The more we understand what our consumers want, the more open retailers are to our products, which is why we spend a good deal of time working with focus groups and updating our online store. Certainly, with consolidation there are fewer partners to go to, but if you have a great program, there's always an interested retailer. Dillard's came to bat to launch our travel and apparel program partly because we offered it access to the 40 million or so names in our database. Advertisements also ran in National Geographic Traveler magazine in support of the collection. In this case, being part of a larger media organization has proven beneficial, since we then can offer promotional opportunities across our various media platforms including the consumer and curriculum-based magazines, Website, television productions, books, and cable channels, as well as access to scientific data and market research.

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