The family that revived The Chipmunks into a billion dollar brand

NPR has a great show called How I Built This where host Guy Raz talks to people who created successful multi-million dollar brands as they tell the story of how they did it. Most of the episodes are very good. This one about The Chipmunks characters was of particular interest to me since I always wondered what was going on with that brand as early as 8 years old when I was trying to figure out the corporate structure and mechanics of how to build my own empire of cartoon characters – back in an age with no world-wide-web with any helpful information on it, I had to fill in a lot of the gaps on my own. Some of the things I would try to figure out along these lines were:
-What’s up with the Padding Bear stop motion animation shorts? They don’t appear to be American-made. How old are the books and how old are these little stop motion movies?
-Dr Seuss cartoons – The Grinch, The Lorax, The Sneeches – these arent episodes in a series, they’re all – what? – specials that aired on tv whenever a deal could be made? So Dr Seuss would just have a successful book and then be offered to make a tv special half hour animation of it? or how did that work?
-Peanuts – “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “Snoopy Come Home” were staples in my childhood but these too were specials just made from the newspaper comic strip? How does that work exactly?
-The Chipmunks – I was familiar with The Chipmunks Witch Doctor song and their Christmas song (“I still want a hoola-hoop”) as a kid and I knew both were old 50s era classics by the context they were presented on tv and radio so I knew their 1980s Saturday Morning Show and related media (an animated Christmas Special that preceded the series and an animated Chipmunks Movie that was a longer version of the Saturday morning show) were revivals of a sort. But how did these characters resurrect after having no public presence for 30 years? Then when all Chipmunk media died in the early 90s – why? Where’d they go?

The Chipmunks have made 2 comebacks experienced in my lifetime. The first obvious one I just detailed and their confusing fizzle from the public until 2007’s live action Chipmunk movie and its sequels – including the much derided “Sequeakual” – which have spawned new cartoons and more movies and made the characters Billion dollar money makers. The episode’s description summarizes: 

Years after his father created a hit singing group of anthropomorphic rodents called The Chipmunks, Ross Bagdasarian Jr. made it his mission to revive his dad’s beloved characters. Over the last 40 years, Ross Jr. and his wife Janice have built The Chipmunks into a billion dollar media franchise – run out of their home in Santa Barbara, California.

Knowing that the Chipmunk revival was a son juicing up a creation of his father and working hard to build it into something was the draw of the tale for me. Kids of mine reading this in the future: please revive my stuff! Run with it. Work hard at it. Go be Bagdasarian Jr’s with my shiz.
Hearing them tell their story also makes the Saturday morning cartoon more touching. It always excited me and was one of the first themes I downloaded to my 2nd generation iPod in the early 00’s but hearing the tale of how a husband and wife were shopping the Chipmunks wherever they could and working day and night to make them what they became brings new energy to the lines of the theme song hailing their comeback. “Watch. Out…. CUZ HERE WE COME… it’s been awhile but, we’re back with style”… Go get em, Alvin.

It’s also especially rewarding to hear Dave Seville himself tell all these stories – as not only is Bagdasarian Jr the voice of Dave in those 90s cartoons, but his Dave voice is his natural speaking voice without change to the good-hearted-overworked-slightly-neurotic-but-optimistic cadence I felt in every line of David Seville on the show and now from the real-life Chipmonks manager, Ross Bagdasarian.

The podcast fills in these blanks and more and I learned the corporate treachery and screwovers the couple went through who own and have dedicated their lives to the Chipmunk characters, and that they evidently went to court over The Squeakual being such a piece of garbage (since the court case was settled with terms that they not talk about it, you don’t get any juicy details in the podcast or anywhere else online except for that it seems that there was an issue over not paying royalties or profit shares of some kind that the Bagdasarian’s were entitled to, and that the family was unhappy with the writing quality over their characters and sued for future control over how they’re treated. I think that’s what I gleaned from the vaguely worded articles I read on the subject, anyway).

Listen to the How I Built this episode with Ross Bagdasarian Jr. and Janice Karman through your podcast app (if you listen to podcasts at 2x the speed like I do) or play it below:

Bonus romper clip: At the end of every episode they have a postscript titled “How You Built That,” featuring a shorter version of the main show that focuses on a new or recent Startup instead of an iconic brand or long standing successful business as is the normal spotlight of the show. The postcript for the Chipmunks episode above is how Daniel Clark-Webster and his three friends came up with RompHim – a company specializing in male rompers.

Disney issues curious promotional art for upcoming Star Wars Land

As if you haven’t heard: The Walt Disney Company is adding a Star Wars Land to Disneyland. They’re doing so by clearing out some super outdated “old west” style attractions that no one has given a crap about since 1969 and replacing them with the space-themed goodness that modern minds crave.

A long-overdue updating of a long since stagnant portion of significant land area of the Disneyland park + utilization of the Star Wars intellectual property recently acquired by the Walt Disney Corporation isn’t anything strange.

What’s odd is the promotional art for it… Who would have guessed that it would look anything like this?:

The promotional art Disney has released for Star Wars Land is curiouser and curiouser, lacking any of the Death Star or Corusant style metal-tech seen in Tomorowland (where the Star Wars themed ride Star Tours still resides) and going instead for organic earthy representations of tall treehouse style towers (the likes of which we’ve never seen in any Star Wars films) bordering open courtyards with aliens milling about.

A zoomed out version of the same location shows the area to be a city among cliffs with termite hive style spires protruding from a decidedly singularly themed location – again – with style and architecture not present in any of the mainstream Star Wars media.

With all the planning that goes into such a major and permanent design, it makes one wonder what the thinking was in creating this specific look. Disney Chairman Bob Iger said of the unveiling, “We are creating a jaw-dropping new world that represents our largest single themed land expansion ever. These new lands at Disneyland and Walt Disney World will transport guests to a whole new Star Wars planet, including an epic Star Wars adventure that puts you in the middle of a climactic battle between the First Order and the Resistance.”

Star Wars Land will appear to mostly manifest its 14-acre footprint in currently non-attraction utilized land on the theme park property and only replace Big Thunder Ranch, Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue, Big Thunder Ranch petting zoo and Big Thunder Ranch Jamboree. Since 10 out of 10 people reading that didn’t even know any of those things were things in Disneyland, I’d say it was the right choice, even though it’s interesting to see Disney pull a corporate version of the plot of Toy Story (Read: “Strange Things are Happenin” to Fronteirland).


Finally, someone gets electronics storing travel clothes right

I’ve been underwhelmed with similar “pockets for your electronics” clothes items that think they’re amazingly clever for including basic additions to normal fashion that would have been cool at the turn of the millennium but 10+ years later are yawn-worthy. Like – oh, you have a blazer with an oversized pocket to put an iPad in? okay I guess. A hoodie with a cloth tunnel to feed your earbuds wire through? eh… not really interested.

Finally it appears that someone has assembled all the right nooks and cubbies into normal looking neutrally stylish clothes.

The crowdfunded campaign on Kickstarter sought $20,000 and currently have almost $8 Million in pre-ordered sales so I’m not the only one who thinks they did something right.

From a marketing perspective, the campaign does what I have been saying needs to be done for utility clothing items like this and that is to bill them as utility items with demonstrations. Too often these types of products try to be stylish first and “look how you can fit stuff in it” second. That’s lame. People will buy a hoodie with a million secret compartments for the million-secret-compartments and then it looking and functioning nice will be secondary – not the reverse scenario where a new non-label hoodie is in need and “oh look, it has unconventional pockets…”. Billing itself for travel is key to the success. Travel makes us feel helpless, unprepared, and cumbersome in our availability of stuff we want on our person. I have a somewhat similar product design going through a review process currently making a similar utility appeal. These things have a subconscious super hero feel to them: sit in comfort with your built-in neck pillow reverse airbag, lower your eye-mask like Iron Mans face plate, whip out your drink from your Batman utility pocket, and pop in your ear buds from within your Captain America helmet. The video does a great job of showing off ease and function in an “always be prepared” style of Awesome.

I laughed out loud at that zipper pen stylus scene tho…

“looking for one of these?… *gets laid immediately*”

It also looks like this kind of techno dance music is the go-to score for crowd funded tech. It’s fun and gets you excited by strategically rolling out the features at a linear pace that tells a story and reels you in with the perfect “but wait, theres MORE” info-mercial tactics. The Lily cam I bought (see: pre-ordered) a few months ago hooked me with the same hypnotizing must-havezes.

This Exists: Rush Limbaugh now selling bottled tea

I… don’t know how I should feel about this. My gut reaction is to deride this some how but.. other than finding it too expensive ($2 a bottle), it looks fine for what it is. Political personality seeks to cash in on current political movement he agrees with by selling product tie-in. Sounds legit. it’s just… so… dude… Tea party Tea? Rush Limbaugh Tea?… ug….

My next reaction is guilt that I was predisposed to hate on this seemingly legit product rollout. In fact, I’m such a jerk that after being unable to find any holes in this on my own, I actually went searching for criticism of this new venture to spark alive whatever part of my brain was failing on this. So far I’ve only found similar “wow…this is silly” surprise commentary and over-the-top cynicism that rests entirely on the old Marxist meme of everything that earns a profit by definition cheats the consumer and/or anything right wing is nothing but wicked corporate greed. Yawn…

The conservative movement is primarily a means by which the wealth of rabid right-wingers is redistributed to celebrities. Sometimes the money comes from billionaires, who know exactly what they’re buying when they fund advocacy groups and think tanks, but the whole scheme is basically powered by regular right-wing folks who are kept riled up and angry enough to keep sending checks to frauds and buying books full of alarming lies.

Limbaugh is donating a percentage of the profits to a military charity, but isn’t misleading with his sales pitch. If you watch the video of his announcement on the show, he has no shame about this being a for-profit venture which just happens to have a charity component as opposed to the other way around. Bill O’Reilly, on the other hand makes no money on his endless streams of merch, donating 100% of the profits to charity.

So as long as the buyer isn’t being duped and as long as the product is of average (or better, one hopes) quality, then there’s really nothing wrong with this and haters have no valid argument against it beyond “this is silly”, which it totally is, but whatever. You’re gonna tell me Lady Gaga merch isn’t silly?

Selling overpriced versions of every-day products with celebrity branding is a fine American tradition that serves both the enthusiast/fanatic consumer and the economy. It is the business model behind every single celebrity perfume (Michael Jordan, Kim Kardashian, 50 cent, Britney Spears, Ashton Kutcher, Jessica Simpson, Tiger Woods – just to name a few). Stores can’t keep Justin Bieber nail polish on the shelves (I know. I’ve checked), and that is pretty much the epitome of the “what product does our fan base use that we can sell them by putting this name on?” marketing strategy.

Limbaugh plays this with a straight face, lacking any ironic or self deprecating tells that he realizes this is silly, leading me to believe he doesn’t, which is partly what makes me confused on how I should be feeling about this.

In contrast, Bill O’Reilly has admitted that he finds almost all of his Factor Gear products to be utterly ridiculous and often laughs when giving his sales pitches of them. That’s the way to do it… be self aware, be shameless about pushing it, and donate the proceeds to charity. It’s one of the reasons I own a “The Rain Stops Here” O’Reilly Factor umbrella (among other fine items. not kidding).

Limbaugh is doing parts of that here, so whatever. I approve. I won’t be buying any, but I approve.