Nickelodeon has a new secret weapon to capture kids whether or not they watch cable TV.
Earlier this year, the kids' giant signed a deal with teenage Dance Moms dynamo JoJo Siwa, whose signature colorful bows have found a place in the hair on the heads of millions of girls. Her anti-bullying song "Boomerang" has also become a huge hit and launched her career as a singer.
Siwa, who arrives with a huge social media following, has already begun appearing on TV with Nickelodeon, picking up a Kids' Choice Award in March. She's guest starring in a bunch of Nick series, and the network is producing a docu-special about her, JoJo Siwa: My World, which is scheduled to air Aug. 12 in primetime.
Nickelodeon is also counting on her to help conquer the retail space, where SpongeBob SquarePants has been holding down the fort for years. Live events are also being planned. Consumer products and experiences are key parts of plans to turn around Nickelodeon's parent company Viacom.
Last week, Siwa celebrated her 14th birthday at a Walmart near the huge chain's headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Walmart has begun rolling out a barrage of products featuring JoJo—and her dog BowBow—licensed by Nickelodeon's consumer products group.
The full line, announced Tuesday, includes bows and other things to wear, plus art & crafts, cosmetics, costumes, party goods, publishing and stationery. There's a JoJo fashion doll from Just Play and a line of dancewear from Danskin, which is that brand's first-ever cobranded collection for kids.
Siwa says she's "super excited" to be working with Nickelodeon and attended the network's upfront presentation in New York in March.
"It's really cool we could do a deal with Nickelodeon because obviously, who doesn't watch SpongeBob," she told Broadcasting & Cable. "I know I used to watch Drake & Josh and iCarly. Even when I was little I remember watching Dora. There are just so many fun memories I have about watching Nickelodeon and now I get to work for Nickelodeon and with Nickelodeon. It's awesome."
A New Generation
For Nickelodeon, having a brand ambassador who isn't homegrown is unusual. But these are different times and a new generation of kids.
"We're excited about JoJo because right now in the world of kids the two most important groups of people that matter the most to them are their parents and social influencers," said Pam Kaufman, chief marketing officer for Nickelodeon and president of Nickelodeon consumer products.
"We were obviously looking for talent that was in that space. Also, we wanted to have a person that could represent our brand and go places," Kaufman said. "From a consumer products perspective, we saw a big void in the marketplace in the teen and tween aisle from a live-action perspective and we felt we could fill that."
At a time when cord-cutting is hurting the growth of distribution revenue across the industry, adding more consumer product revenue would help Viacom. Nickelodeon's product licensees also tend to advertise on the channel, boosting ad revenue.
Nick has usually created its own intellectual properties and its own kid stars, from SpongeBob to Nick Cannon, who grew up on the network. Taking on an already popular brand, like Siwa's, is more like what Nickelodeon did in revitalizing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, Kaufman says.
Importantly, Siwa fits the Nick brand. "Since meeting her we feel like she's someone who could have grown up on Nickelodeon," Kaufman said. "She's really close to her parents. She has a great message about anti-bullying. She's very funny. And yes, she comes with a big following, don't get me wrong, but we're still really proud and we've quickly integrated her into our platform."
Kids who watch YouTube know Siwa. Her YouTube channel has more than 526 million views. She also has more than 5.6 million followers on Instagram, 10 million followers on Musical.ly, and 273,000 Twitter followers.
And now she endorses Nickelodeon. "It's really kid friendly, and all their shows are hilarious and all their casts are genuinely really nice kids," she said. "It's a really fun place for kids to be and kids to watch, and I love it."
A Head for Business
Nickelodeon's grown up business partners seem to be embracing Siwa as well.
"We have party wear and bows on the floor now. Those launched [last week] already," said Matt Duhon, merchandise manager for toys at Walmart, U.S.
Duhon said the in-story birthday party was a great opportunity to celebrate an occasion that's very important to her and give a chance for her to celebrate that and meet some of her fans in the local area. She will also get the chance to introduce the doll this fall. "We think her positive message can really resonate with our customers so we're excited about the opportunity."
Nickelodeon introduced Walmart to Siwa at Toy Fair earlier this year. "I was so impressed. A firm handshake. She looks you right in the eye. Very easy to strike up a conversation. I came away from that very impressed by her personally and thought that this was definitely something we need to go after and find ways to bring this into our assortment in store and offer it to our customers," Duhon said.
Nickelodeon's line of Siwa products will be in more than 700 Walmart stores by July, and by August it will spread to more than 3,000. Siwa's bows have been available in Claire's retail outlets, but now Walmart will be stocking an assortment of 64 bows, including some that are exclusive to Walmart, at a retail price of $5.47. The JoJo doll, which plays her song "Boomerang," will be featured in those stores in a prime location, but first they're being offered for pre-sales online, something the retailer does only with products for which it has high expectations. The dolls will be exclusively available at Walmart in July, before being sold at other stores.
Working with Siwa should help keep other Nick products on retail shelves. "Nickelodeon has been a great partner for us. And it's been wonderful working with them and JoJo throughout this entire process," Duhon said.
Siwa seems almost overwhelmed with the number of products she'll have her name on.
"It's crazy. It's literally unreal," she said. Her favorite? The bows, she said, adding, "but there are a lot of other really cool things." She hasn't licensed a food product yet, but she thinks it would be fun to have a cupcake mix and frosting. Or her own Kraft Mac & Cheese shape.
Nickelodeon has also already been able to plug Siwa into sponsorship programs for Toyota during the Kids' Choice Awards and for Universal theme parks.
"We are thrilled to have JoJo Siwa with us for the grand opening of our Volcano Bay water theme park," said Donna Bates, senior VP of marketing & communications at Universal Orlando. "Universal Orlando Resort is all about providing the next level of fun family vacation, so JoJo is the perfect person to help us celebrate this exciting addition to our resort experience."
"I believe that there are a lot of opportunities for JoJo in the promotional space," said Kaufman. "I'm hoping this puts JoJo on the radar for more CMOs who want to reach this audience."
Siwa says it's been fun for her getting to appear on various Nick shows including Make It Pop, The Thundermans and School of Rock and becoming friends with their casts.
She'll next be seen on the channel in Nickelodeon's Sizzling Summer Camp Special, a variety show featuring favorites from Nick shows performing in sketches and musical numbers, airing June 4.
Siwa is currently working on her special, which will recount key moments in her life leading up to a concert at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. The June 3 concert will be taped for the special and will feature the song "Boomerang" plus new songs "Kid in a Candy Store" and "Hold the Drama."
She says the special is going to be "really big and really fun" but can't share details. Viewers will "find out what I do in my personal time. It's random little things that you might not know."
Kaufman says one thing you should know about Siwa is that she's a very hard worker. She's in the Nick sweet spot now, but if this long-term deal works out, she could be associated with Viacom's MTV someday.
"I've accomplished so much, and I'm only 14. It's amazing," she said. And when she grows up? "I want to be like the next Britney Spears," she said. "I want to do acting and singing. I just want to be in the business, in the Hollywood business. Movies would be fun. Maybe I want to do what no one's done before. I'm pretty good at doing what no one's done before."
While what she's doing is fun, she doesn't expect it to be easy, and she isn't counting on luck.
"Coming with what I do there's also worry and there's stress and you do have to work very hard," she said. "People look at my job basically and they think that it's so easy. But what they don't understand is that it's very fun and you get a lot out of it, but at the same time it's hard work. People just expect that it's easy and that it's just luck. It's not luck. Luck isn't even a thing. It's when you work hard. People in the business, I have actually gained a lot of respect for because now I know how hard they work."
Nick will be able to help her in the music business. It made stars out of the band Big Time Rush. And it has Nick Radio and a Nick music channel.
In addition to signing JoJo Siwa, Nickelodeon signed a deal with her dog, BowBow. "She's a real girl with a real dog and we know how kids feel about their pets so BowBow's also being integrated into the plan," said Kaufman.
After checking with a publicist that it's OK to talk about BowBow's deal, Siwa confirms that "what we're doing with me with Nickelodeon is all brand-new, never-been-done before. And the same for my dog. It's crazy. There's going to be JoJo stuff. BowBow stuff. JoJo and BowBow stuff. Like it's crazy," she said.
What's BowBow going to do with her money?
"BowBow is going to buy her owner some nice things. BowBow does work very hard, and she's very smart, and she's a very good dog, so she does get spoiled," Siwa said. "She gets treats, she gets people food, she is, if you ask me, a very spoiled dog. But I think in our house one day, when we get a nice, cool house out in California, I think BowBow's going to have her own room."
Here's the complete list of JoJo Siwa products licensed by Nickelodeon:
* Accessories from ABG Accessories (headwear and cold weather), Accessory Innovations (bags and backpacks, headwear and cold weather), Accutime Watch Corporation (watches), FAB (bags and backpacks), Fantasia Accessories (hair accessories and jewelry), Global Design Concepts (bags and backpacks), H.E.R. Accessories (bows and jewelry), Jacmel Jewelry Inc. (costume and fine jewelry), Pan Oceanic (Sunglasses), and Starlight Accessories (sunglasses),
* Apparel from Freeze (t-shirts), Bentex (t-shirts and sportswear), GBG (sleepwear) Handcraft (intimates), High Point (Hosiery) and Mad Engine (t-shirts and sportswear)
* Arts & craft from Spin Master's Cool Maker line (bow maker and accessory pack)
* Cosmetics from GBG
* Costumes from Rubie's
* Dance and Athleisure wear from Danskin
* Direct to retailer exclusives with Justice (apparel and accessories)
* Dress up and role play from Just Play
* Electronics from iHome (karaoke machine, headphones, microphone, selfie stick)
* Fashion dolls from Just Play
* Footwear from ACI
* Games and puzzles from Cardinal (Dance Dice and Bust a Bow)
* Home goods from Jay Franco (bedding, room décor and throws)
* Party from American Greetings (greeting cards), Decopac (photocakes) and Unique Industries
* Plush from Just Play
* Publishing from Abrams (interactive journal, craft book and photographic book) and Bendon (tween activity book)
* Subscription box from CultureFly
* Stationery from Trends and Tri-Coastal
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Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.