A problem of licensing

Thai characters today pack a punch. They are greater in number, more appealing, stylish and more modern than in the past. But even though the digital design sector has grown, retailers continue to rely on imports when it comes to using characters to symbolise or promote their products.

Growing up, Onmadee Purapati recalls, there were only Japanese cartoon characters available in Thailand. “They were everywhere. People from my generation really liked them,” she says.

Today, Onmadee heads an animation studio and is a mother of two children, who are still addicted to Japanese and American characters.

In the last few years, the landscape has begun to change, as more and more local designers filled in available space on Line.

Stickers, with their cute characters ad funny captions, now come in all shapes and sizes. Some possess very sweet, girlie qualities, while others are more boyish and have a darker, biting edge.

“Line stickers are an effective and inexpensive way to build your brand when you are launching a new character,” says Onmadee — whose animation studio introduced Rudolph The Awesome, a roguish, mischievous dog — two years ago.

But for most creators, Onmadee included, making the jump from designing Line stickers to producing merchandise has proved more difficult than it previously seemed.

Existing brands are reluctant to purchase licenses for Thai characters or use them to promote their own products.

“They think it’s safer if they go with Disney, Marvel or Sanrio characters,” she adds.

As a result, Thai designers have few channels to promote their characters and become known to the public.

Line is one way; producing prototypes for your own merchandise can be another — if you can bear the costs, Onmadee adds.

“It’s a lot of work,” she says. “You have to find your own manufacturer for each type of product you want to make. You have to invest, too.”

For the moment, Rudolph The Awesome appears on mouse pads, pillows and school supplies sold through a Facebook page.

But as the character is starting to attract customers abroad, Onmadee finds it a shame that Thai retailers don’t pay more attention.

For the past two years, she has taken part in licensing fairs and exhibitions, alongside other Thai character designers.

Together, they have successfully set up Thai pavilions and booths at Hong Kong and Japan licensing events, with the support of the Thai Culture Ministry.

“Maybe our characters will need to become famous abroad first, before Thai retailers’ interest is piqued,” Onmadee argues. “That’s often how it works in this country.”

Even Kris Nalamlieng, managing director of 2Spot Studio — whose flagship character, Bloody Bunny, is a success locally — agrees.

“More than 90% of the character consumption in Thailand is of foreign characters,” he says.

American characters take up a large chunk in the market, while Japanese characters come a close second.

With a Bloody Bunny-themed coffee shop and store in CentralWorld, he is in direct competition with the similar spaces for Sanrio or Rilakkuma.

Thai children become accustomed to foreign characters through media and television, with most local channels airing Japanese and American cartoons.

In other Asian countries, governments are more protective of their local products, Kris adds. China only airs Chinese-produced cartoons, while Malaysia has a 50% quota for local production.

“Their policies protect and support local creators. Ours do not protect us and only support us intermittently,” he says.