Christian producer broadens the market, rolls out toys with a message to mainstream retailers
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Visitors to mainstream toy stores since March may have noticed Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber grinning a little wider than usual. What are the VeggieTales heroes so happy about? Their owner's new licensing agreements with Fisher-Price, Hallmark, and 17 other big-name secular manufacturers, for one thing. That and the fact that their newest buddy, Lyle the Friendly Viking, sailed straight into mass-market toy stores without the usual exclusive port call at Christian-oriented retail centers (CORCs). Big Idea Productions, the Chicago-based media firm behind the wildly popular VeggieTales video series, has until now launched its products exclusively at CORCs, then included mainstream stores six to 12 months later. But Lyle, who set sail in March, changed all that. The little Viking hit mass-market outlets, including Costco, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, and Target, at the same time he arrived in CORCs. Deprived of the exclusive right to sell the newest Veggie products, some CORC owners don't care. Cheryl Greene of the Parable Group, an association of 330 independent retailers, noted that "in general the customer who buys at Wal-Mart isn't going to be the one who buys at a Bible bookstore." But CORCs with tough competitors down the street-Target, for example, which carries Lyle and other Big Idea products at a discount rate-are concerned, Ms. Greene said. Ben Howard, Big Idea vice president for core markets, said that Big Idea needed the marketing upgrade in order to compete with "companies that have millions of dollars to market, and have their own TV network and are in theaters." With plans for TV shows of its own and a feature-length animated movie in the last stages of production, Mr. Howard said Big Idea's goal is to penetrate the general culture with its Bible-based products. Videos and toys with a Christian message should be jostling for kids' attention on mass-market store shelves, Mr. Howard emphasized. He envisions a stuffed Larry-Boy on shelves alongside toys like Poo-Chi the Robotic Dog, and horrifying ones like Resident Evil action figures, and believes that VeggieTales can stay true to its Christian roots while competing for shelf space with mass-market toys. But Vermont toymaker Dave Pagani is skeptical. "When they talk about 'joining the mainstream,' what they mean is that the message of the Bible has been watered down to where it is not offensive to unbelievers," said Mr. Pagani. "Just another bunch of licensed characters skipping along from Genesis to Revelation." Mr. Pagani calls licensing, the practice of forging agreements with a range of manufacturers for products tied to a popular character, "a destructive force." But Mr. Howard says people don't buy products; they identify with brands. Thanks to Veggie-Tales's 19-firm licensing bonanza, the celebrity-vegetable brand is sprouting on party supplies, backpacks, coin purses, T-shirts, sticker books, photo albums, pencils, and erasers. "This is driven by kids' love of Bob and Larry," he said. "We hope it leads more and more people back to the videos, to the message .... How cool that Fisher-Price, one of the world's biggest toy manufacturers, is producing a toy tomato that tells children God loves them."
-A.K. Palmer is a book editor and freelance writer in Southern California