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Estates

Ruth, Ross & Rogers: America’s Top Personalities

Contact the editor at karina@plainlanguagemedia.com

Americans can’t seem to get enough of the three R’s—Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), The Joy of Painting’s Bob Ross, and the host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers. They’re calm, they’re kind, and they’re what we need right now.

First things first, let’s not take this out of proportion. All together, RBG, Bob Ross, and Mister Rogers are responsible for roughly under $100 million in retail sales of merchandise a year, both officially licensed and otherwise. Meanwhile, retail sales of licensed goods based on estate properties grew 1.6% in 2017 to reach $2.33 billion, according to The Licensing Letter.

The biggest driver behind the growth of the three R’s is young 20- and 30-somethings, who are “rediscovering” the classic, collected composure of another generation of public figures. To an extent, the Boomers who grew up with Bob Ross and Fred Rogers are helping drive sales, but they are primarily contributing to driving awareness of their legacies.

Incidentally, all three regularly feature(d) on public access television: Bob Ross and Fred Rogers have enjoyed record-setting runs on PBS (as well as Twitch marathons), and RGB shows up on C-SPAN in her capacity as a government employee. Perhaps this is a sign that “The Most Patient Man on Television,” Steve Scully, will be the next big breakout celebrity.

“We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.”

The Bob Ross estate owns and manages his intellectual property and directly handles merchandising of branded oil paint and related painting supplies as well as a certified painting instructor program. (Ross never made money directly from his PBS show; instead, he made a living giving lessons and vending the aforementioned supplies.) For other merchandise, the brand is represented by Firefly Brand Management.

The Bob Ross program currently counts 50 licensees. Most reported brisk sales in the last fiscal quarter of 2018, following a strong year boosted by cross-collaborations with Deadpool 2 (starring fan Ryan Reynolds). Of the three celebrities featured in this story, TLL expects the Bob Ross to have the least dramatic jump in licensed retail sales in 2018—of course, its starting point is also higher.

“You’ve made this day a special day, by just your being you.”

Fred Rogers Productions handles the legacy of Mister Rogers, including the development of new properties like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood for the newest generation.  Brand Central represents the brand in a separate, adult-oriented program counting 30 licensees, with four recently signed (stay tuned for a separate announcement in TLL’s Deal Sheet). Last year marked the 50th anniversary of his PBS show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and saw a Netflix documentary that boosted listed sales in 2018.

This year, Mister Rogers is getting a Hollywood treatment from America’s dad, Tom Hanks, who portrays him in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, to be released in theaters in November. Note that the production company wasn’t granted any merchandising rights (only promotional), but that current and new licensees (including for publishing) are planning on releasing new lines based on classic assets and timed to the release.

“So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today but for tomorrow.”

On the other hand, Justice Ginsburg has no official licensing program but has decided not to enforce her right of publicity—that is, she is happy to allow merchandise bearing her likeness or name to be sold without any restrictions.

RBG-themed merchandise is out-selling similar politically-themed goods featuring Donald Trump and other public figures. TLL estimates that such RBG-themed goods generated approximately $20-50 million in retail sales in the U.S. in 2018. But she is also incredibly polarizing—a Washington DC-based artist noted that her RBG-themed greeting card, pin, and sticker collection sells well in more politically-charged cities like DC and Portland, but doesn’t have immediate traction elsewhere.

One company’s experience merchandising RBG-themed goods was described to us by Jethro Heiko, Co-founder & CEO of Common Practice. Of the company’s pins featuring RBG’s Banana Republic bib necklace, affectionately known as her “dissent collar”: “Justice Ginsburg received one of the first Dissent Collar pins we made, and she sent us a lovely note in return.” The company donates 50% of profits; Heiko adds, “while we would love to have an official arrangement with Justice Ginsburg, as a justice on the Supreme Court, she is not allowed to endorse any product that raises money for charitable organizations. We do our best to choose the organizations that we support in the spirit of RBG’s life-long commitment to equality and justice.”

As for the original bib: Banana Republic reissued the necklace at the beginning of this year (it was discontinued sometime after 2012 and this is the second time it’s been reissued), and is donating 50% of the proceeds to the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. Note that since the U.S. doesn’t recognize broad intellectual property rights in fashion designs, the garment itself is not protectable.

“You’re fired.”

Incidentally, TLL estimates that the three Trump brands—the Donald J. Trump Signature Collection, Trump Home, and Trump Select—cleared around $5-10 million in licensed retail sales in the U.S./Canada in 2016. Today, that figure is less than $5 million.

In its heyday (that is, before Trump-branded goods were pulled from the shelves of biggies like Macy’s), the brand made a bit more—anywhere from $10-20 million in licensed retail sales. The Ivanka Trump brand did quite a bit better.

“I paint my own reality.”

To be clear, RBG is far from the only woman for whom merchandise is demanded. On top of a broader, generic demand for science and engineering-themed merchandise is layered a growing awareness of the role of previously overlooked women and a need to celebrate them.

An incomplete list of the women whom we have witnessed grazing merchandise such as stationery, pins, decals, and stickers (not books): Jane Austen, Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, Alice Ball, Grace Hopper—and, of course, artist and activist Frida Kahlo. Interestingly, while Frida imagery abounds on art and stationery, other broader categories of merchandise are slow to follow (but we’re keeping an eye out!).

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