Kidding the world: behind Beano Studios' plans for world domination

Dennis the Menace, one of the most enduring characters of the Beano stable

With its pivot from publisher to media platform, has 80-year-old kids’ comic The Beano future-proofed itself for the next 80 years?

For eight decades, the pages and panels of The Beano have delighted and entertained kids across Britain.

The weekly comic book celebrates the rebelliousness, mischief-making and cheekiness of childhood, standing out against rivals on the newsstand with a mob of beloved characters like Dennis the Menace (no relation to the US comic which shares the same name and birthday) – a wild-haired nightmare child and patron saint of class clowns the world over – and catapult-wielding disturber of the peace Minnie the Minx.

Now the masterminds behind the mag are aiming far beyond its heartland of the newsstand. “We’re unashamedly on a mission for world domination,” Iain Sawbridge, chief marketing officer of Beano Studios, tells The Drum.

The launch of Beano Studios, a new production studio tasked with taking the Beano brand worldwide, two years ago has paid off in spades. The company’s flagship property, animated series Dennis and Gnasher: Unleashed, launched as the highest-rated show on the BBC kids’ channel CBBC, while live-action magazine show So Beano will soon launch on pay-TV provider Sky’s children’s channel Sky Kids.

As it pushes forward with brand partnerships, further live-action shows, an engaged online community and one of the best consumer insight machines in the business, The Beano is stronger than ever.

More than the studio’s current run of hits, Sawbridge says it’s his team’s knowledge of its audience that has enabled recent success. “Understanding kids is at the heart of everything we do.” He explains that The Beano now relies as much on digital analytics and consumer insights as it once did on its rogue’s gallery of cartoon characters. “It’s not led by character, it’s led by trends. It’s about what is going on in the playground right now and we spend a huge amount of time understanding our audiences and then making content really quickly and responsively off the back of that.”

Beano Studios’ in-house trend whiz is head of insight Helenor Gilmour. Despite the brand’s enviable levels of awareness among kids and parents, The Beano’s legacy affords no advantage with the ‘Generation Alpha’ target audience – children born after the advent of the iPad in 2010. According to research from media regulator Ofcom, the way these youngsters view media is increasingly fragmented with almost half regularly using tablets and smartphones alongside a varied diet of TV, games consoles and laptop usage. Gilmour says: “They have no heritage when it comes to media, they simply go where they want to go. They can tap into the world at the swipe of a finger.”

To keep on top of the latest trends, Gilmour’s team speaks to a ‘trendspotter’s panel’ of a dozen children aged nine to 12 across the country each week. “We’ve gathered over 350 hours of qualitative insights from those kids,” she says, “and the data from that is fed back to the team on a weekly basis”.

All staff at Beano Studios take part in its outreach program, visiting schools across the UK to run lessons and meet their audience face to face. “They get to understand what they like, their vocabulary, understand what trends are cool,” she says.

The focus on deep audience understanding has allowed Beano Studios to build up a highly engaged community among its young readers. Packed with interactive video, web games, quizzes and comic strips, Beano.com is the fastest-growing kids’ website in the country, providing its audience of under-10s with the kind of content this always-online generation has come to expect.

Sawbridge explains further: “When you take a traditional publishing brand into an online environment, you can’t just whack it on there. You’ve got to think about how your audience engages with things. It’s about understanding the essence of that connection and being experts on how kids engage in digital environments.”

The Beano’s ability to stay ahead of trends and truly engage with its audience – Sawbridge and Gilmour point to Beano.com’s embrace of Fortnite months before it broke through into the mainstream consciousness – has helped its pitch to commercial partners.

Sawbridge is particularly proud of a team-up with another beloved UK brand, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. The partnership enabled the animal shelter to push its microchipping campaign across print, online and social under the aegis of The Beano, including a two-issue story in the print edition of the magazine where Gnasher – Dennis the Menace’s untamed mutt – went briefly awol before getting a microchip of his own. “They’ve got a message they want to get out there about microchipping, and we’ve got Gnasher. It’s a match made in heaven,” he says. Plus, Gilmour notes, “kids love dogs”.

Another brand partnership, this time with mental health charity Young Minds, has taken the brand into more serious territory. “It came to us because, although it is an incredible organization and it understands both kids and mental health, it was struggling to understand how to engage kids directly in digital environments,” says Sawbridge. “It came to us to understand how kids are interacting in that space, and what content they’re engaging with. And because we have the content studio, we can make the sort of content kids are consuming, and do it way that is engaging and treats a serious subject with humor.”

According to Sawbridge, the studio’s work with brands doesn’t stop at these natural partners, and the company has been working with a range of brands from the worlds of sport, financial services and entertainment. “Our mission is to make the world think more kid,” he says.

Beano Studios’ affinity with consumer insights now informs every aspect of its content. While Dennis the Menace once roamed the streets with spray-can and catapult in hand, you’ll find his modern incarnation fighting off robots and finding common ground with hacker classmates. Gilmour says Beano.com is tailored to match the schedule of the school year – “We understand the rhythm of their lives,” she says – with content specially prepared for exam season and the back-to-school rush.

Meanwhile, So Beano – which aims to combine the kid-friendly vibe of YouTube with short animations and the anarchy of classic Saturday morning TV – will be available on-demand and on linear TV, in line with the expectations of its viewers.

The studio’s attention to detail and hard work is paying off; at the time of writing, Dennis and Gnasher: Unleashed has already debuted across 16 territories, including all the major European TV markets, and enjoys a 26% audience share on CBBC. Even the print magazine is growing, with numbers up for the past five years according to figures from UK circulation verifiers ABC.

Gilmour suggests that Beano Studios’ pivot from publisher to media platform has future-proofed the brand. “We’ve had 80 years of being a comic and we’ll spend the next 80 years as a multiplatform entertainment brand driven by kids’ insight and understanding.”

It seems even dogs as old as Gnasher can learn new tricks.

To find out more about the world of marketing for and with kids, grab a copy of The Drum's November issue, where we learn about the trials and tribulations facing a generation growing up in today's pixelated world, the value of the 'kidult' market, and discover what children really think of advertising.

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