LOS ANGELES — Strawberry Shortcake was having an identity crisis. The “it” doll and cartoon star of the 1980s was just not connecting with modern girls. Too candy-obsessed. Too ditzy. Too fond of wearing bloomers.
She is not the only aging fictional star to get a facelift. An unusually large number of classic characters for children are being freshened up and reintroduced — on store shelves, on the Internet and on television screens — as their corporate owners try to cater to parents’ nostalgia and children’s YouTube-era sensibilities. Adding momentum is a retail sector hoping to find refuge from a rough economy in the tried and true.
Warner Brothers hopes to “reinvigorate and reimagine” Bugs Bunny and Scooby-Doo through a new virtual world on the Internet, where people will be able to dress up the characters pretty much any way they want. American Greetings is dusting off another of its lines, the Care Bears, which will return with a fresh look this fall (less belly fat, longer eyelashes).
And 4Kids Entertainment, which licenses the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, will revive them next year in new video games, where they will have more muscles and less attitude.
Even Mickey Mouse is getting an update, although the Walt Disney Company is still mulling what tweaks to make.
“I love classic Mickey, but he needs to evolve to be relevant to new generations of kids,” Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, said in an interview.
Reinventing these beloved characters without inflicting indelible damage is one of the entertainment industry’s trickiest maneuvers. Go too far, as Mattel did in 1993 when it gave Ken a purple mesh T-shirt, a pierced ear and the name “Earring Magic Ken,” and it can set off a brand crisis on a global scale.
Done correctly, it can be incredibly lucrative. Mickey Mouse produces an estimated $5 billion in merchandise sales every year. Strawberry Shortcake, even in her diminished state, has generated $2.5 billion in revenue since 2003, according to American Greetings.
If the classic characters look less stodgy, the companies hope, they will appeal not only to parents who remember them fondly, but also to children who might automatically be suspicious of toys their parents played with. For parents, nostalgia is considered a bigger sales hook than ever because of the increasingly violent and hyper-sexualized media landscape.
“It’s a terrible world, and modern parents are trying to cocoon their kids as much as possible,” said Alfred R. Kahn, chairman of 4Kids Entertainment, which also manages franchises like Pokémon and the Cabbage Patch Kids. “What better way to protect them than wrapping them in nostalgic brands?”
Mr. Iger talks about the need to balance “heritage and innovation.” For Mickey and other Disney characters, one method is to keep the core attributes of the characters the same, but to update the world in which they live. For instance, Disney is updating Toontown, the section of Disneyland that Mickey calls home. One plan features an old-fashioned trolley, but Mr. Iger is not sure that is a smart idea. Will modern children know what an old-fashioned trolley is?
Warner Brothers, by contrast, is leaving the styling decisions up to the customers, some of whom were weaned on virtual worlds like Disney’s Club Penguin (where they can, say, dress a virtual penguin in a pirate costume and make it dance). At KidsWB.com, which is rolling out a revised site over the summer, the studio will let people customize Looney Tunes characters as they see fit.
“You want a dark, Goth version of Tweety Bird? Have at it,” said Lisa Gregorian, executive vice president for worldwide marketing at Warner Brothers Television.
New media applications have created opportunities that companies did not have before, Ms. Gregorian said. And one reason the characters bring in so much money is that their owners have pumped them out all over the place: on direct-to-DVD movies, television programs, toys, clothing, video games, furniture and even live stage productions.
There have been some noteworthy misfires. Warner Brothers has struggled to make the Looney Tunes crowd relevant to modern children, introducing futuristic-looking versions of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in a new television series in 2005. But many parents hated the “Loonatics,” which had mohawks and menacing eyes.
Earring Magic Ken is the industry’s nightmare. The character, who had blond highlights in his hair and a leather vest, drew howls from consumers, who did not see him as a realistic boyfriend for Barbie. Ken was already coping with arched eyebrows over his sexual orientation, and he seemed to have come out of the closet — something that Mattel most definitely did not intend.
Most of the brands getting a makeover are from the 1980s. Licensing experts say they perceive a subtle psychological game at play, an attempt to hit the nostalgia button on a generation of young parents just as they start to feel their first twinges of middle age.
Playing up nostalgia, of course, has long been one of this industry’s favorite gimmicks. But this time, companies have an added incentive from the sour economy. Chains from Wal-Mart to Toys “R” Us are less likely to take a shot on untested product lines during weak economic times — especially because efforts to create new characters have had mixed results in recent years, said Christopher Byrne, an independent toy consultant.
The same for TV networks. As new cartoon series flop, familiar names start to look like a good bet. Witness “Angelina Ballerina: The Next Steps,” a new animated show based on the popular children’s books, which will begin this fall on PBS Kids.
For American Greetings, updating Strawberry Shortcake was about leaving the troubles of the modern world behind and playing up a fantasy angle, said Jeffrey Conrad, the company’s head creative designer.
Artists produced nearly 400 drawings depicting new looks, then American Greetings asked licensing partners for feedback. With the drawings hanging in a single room, he told focus group members to put Post-it notes on the 20 that they liked. “We refined it from there,” he said.
On top of her new toy line, Strawberry Shortcake is getting a new computer-animated movie and a new TV series, starting next year. This time, in keeping with contemporary nutritional concerns, the franchise will downplay the sugary dessert theme and move, as Mr. Conrad put it, “fruit-forward.”
“It’s also about creating a cohesive line,” Mr. Conrad said. “We’re downplaying characters that were part of Strawberry’s world but who didn’t immediately shout out fruit.”