Eight-year-old Tom Buzbee usually spends his $3 weekly allowance on the same thing, and it's not candy or pizza. He devours Goosebumps. The Englewood (Colo.) third-grader has collected most of the 49 kiddie thrillers in the paperback series that R.L. Stine has churned out for Scholastic Inc. since 1992. And Tom doesn't stop with the surprise endings. Thanks to some help from his parents, the trademark ghouls now grace his sheets and pillowcases, backpack, a flashlight, and T-shirts. "I have more stuff than anybody," he says. He also reviews books on his own Web site and watches the Goosebumps TV show every week.
Granted, Tom is something of a fanatic. But multiply him by 20 million "tweens," ages 8 to 12, and you'll begin to understand the scope of the Goosebumps franchise. Despite complaints from some parents that they are too gory, the books regularly top best-seller lists. The television show is rated No.1 in children's fare. The green-and-white Goosebumps logo is splashed on everything from sunglasses to software. A feature-length film is under discussion.
"WAKE-UP CALL." Grownups may be mystified by the appeal of the formulaic, watered-down thrillers with titles such as Welcome to Dead House and Egg Monsters From Mars. But there's a very adult sensibility behind the marketing strategy that built a kids' book series into a rapidly growing entertainment and merchandise brand. Scholastic keeps mum about the size of the business, but sources say annual sales have already shot past the $100 million mark, usually considered a blockbuster for children's products. The $3.99 books alone sell more than 4 million copies a month, and two related series with outside authors have been launched. "It'll be a billion-dollar franchise in the next couple of years," says Margaret Loesch, chief executive of the Fox Kids Network, who offered Scholastic a TV deal after watching her 6-year-old son fall under the Goosebumps spell.
The licensed toys and TV show have confounded the children's book industry, which is used to measuring success strictly by the number of books sold. Few books have made the transition from paper to TV screen, where the big merchandising bucks have typically flowed. "Goosebumps is a wake-up call for all of us to look at all of our books and see how we can expand them into a brand," says Willa Perlman, president of Golden Books children's division.
Goosebumps was an especially unlikely prospect for TV and licensing success, since the series lacks recurring characters and the story line changes with each book. But Stine, who declined an interview request, hit a nerve by mixing horror with humor. Goosebumps also has unusual crossover power, pulling in girls and boys in equal numbers at an age when boys start to shun books in favor of television.
From the beginning, Scholastic knew it had something special with the series, which it co-markets with Parachute Press, a book packager partly owned by Stine's wife. The first two books, which reached children through bookstores and through Scholastic's book clubs, quickly sold 50,000 copies each. The third, building almost entirely on word of mouth, sold 100,000. But even as sales increased, producers and merchandisers wouldn't touch it. "Everyone said books don't work on TV," recalls Deborah A. Forte, president of Scholastic Productions. Even her own staff was lukewarm. "I remember thinking to myself, `What are we going to make?"' says Robin Sayetta, Scholastic's licensing director. "There was no character, nothing to base anything on."
To give the brand-to-be a logo, Scholastic designer Sharon Lisman developed the G-splat, a white G in a splash of green. She also created a bible of designs to keep the look consistent--and to make the brand instantly recognizable. Meanwhile, to gain the trust of parents, Scholastic came up with the slogan "Reading is a Scream" and plastered it on everything. That still left the problem of a consistent character that could embody the brand. Enter Curly, a skeleton with a backward baseball cap and a bandanna. Now, he's emblazoned on products, ads, packages, and a five-foot cardboard replica that shows up at bookstores for promotions. The only place he doesn't appear is in any Goosebumps story.
Goosebumps' credibility took off in 1994 when Stine topped USA Today's list of best-selling authors, surpassing Michael Crichton and John Grisham. "Suddenly, everybody was saying, `Who is this guy?"' Forte recalls. Loesch rushed with her 6-year-old to a local store and snapped up a copy of Say Cheese and Die!, about a magic camera. "He loved it," she says. She called Forte the next day and offered a TV deal. Last November, Goosebumps debuted on Fox's children's network. It quickly became the most widely watched kids' show on TV, according to A.C. Nielsen Co., and an avalanche of licensed products soon followed.
Scholastic limits manufacturing to about 40 licensees and holds the design reins tightly to protect the brand. Retailers began clamoring for clothing for younger kids, for example, but Scholastic refused to make anything for children under 7. "Once that fifth-grader goes to the school assembly and sees a kindergartner in a Goosebumps shirt, it's all over," says Keith Harband, director of brand management.
Now the Goosebumps brand is at a critical stage: It must prove it's more than a passing fad. Since licensed properties are typically tied to a movie or event, Scholastic is trying to create something every month to keep the excitement churning. This month, Pepsi-Cola, Frito-Lay, Taco Bell, and Hershey launched a $30 million Goosebumps promotion tied to Halloween. Fox is supporting the effort with a "Halloween Fright Week" sweepstakes promoted on 55 million Frito-Lay snack bags. Three prime-time specials are planned through next May. Scholastic hopes that all the hoopla will keep Goosebumps from turning into a mere ghost of itself--a fate that has haunted a horde of kids' brands before it.