It's a perfect recipe for "he's so cuuuute" celebrity. Start with a baby polar bear, rejected by his mother and left alone when his twin brother died at the age of four days. Add a devoted human keeper who slept nightly with the tiny white ball of fur and fed him by hand from a bottle. Toss in a storm of outrage when an animal-rights activist reportedly called for the cub to be euthanized because it had become too conditioned to human contact. (The activist denied saying Knut should be killed.) And then put the whole drama before the world via TV cameras and incessant Internet postings.
Thus was created the phenomenon of Knut, the most celebrated polar bear on the planet. Since his birth last December and first public appearance at the Berlin Zoo on Mar. 23, Knut has become an animal superstar—and a money factory. Some 350,000 people have gone to see him at the zoo. Over Easter weekend, the crowds got so thick that visitors were limited to only seven minutes of viewing before being nudged along to the gift shop.
With visitor numbers more than twice the average, the Berlin Zoo has logged an additional €1 million ($1.352 million) in gate receipts since Knut started making his hour-long, twice-daily appearances. Add to that another €300,000 or so from sales of Knut merchandise such as postcards, key rings, and plush replicas.
Boom and Backlash
No wonder then that when the nonprofit Zoologischer Garten Berlin announced plans in late March to license the Knut brand worldwide, its thinly traded shares jumped 94% on the Berlin stock exchange. (They have since settled back some, but are still up 50% vs. last year.) Unveiling a logo of a polar bear embracing the globe with the tagline "Respect Habitats. Knut," zoo CEO Gerald Uhlich noted that most proceeds from brand licenses will be donated to nature conservation and research programs.
Inquiries already have poured in from the U.S., Taiwan, Japan, and China. One brand consultant figures revenues from Knut licensing could hit $14 million. Aside from stuffed animals, Knut candies, and packaged hotel tours, there's already a Knut DVD, plans for several Knut books—including one from Scholastic (SCHL) aimed at educating children about global warming—and talks under way about a potential Knut musical and movie.
At the same time, there are signs of a growing Knut backlash. Graffiti saying "Kill Knut" has popped up on walls in Berlin, and the zoo received an anonymous death threat in late April that forced it to beef up security. A recent poll by German opinion researcher Forsa, conducted for news channel N-TV, found just 29% of respondents were interested in news about the polar bear, while 30% said the coverage was "getting on their nerves."
The biggest worry is that Knut's cuddly charm is starting to wear off as he grows up. The German press already has announced that Knut—who now weighs more than 18kg (nearly 40 lb.)—is "no longer as cute," as his muzzle lengthens to more adult proportions and his white fur starts to yellow. The zoo's chief veterinarian figures it's only a matter of three more months before Knut is too big and strong to play in public with his keeper, Thomas Doerflein. Already, Doerflein must wear special clothes and gloves to protect him from Knut's teeth and claws.
"At one year, Knut will weigh 90 to 100kg [198 to 229 lb.] and will be stronger than a human being," says Dr. Ragnar Kuehne, curator of mammals at the Berlin Zoo. "He will still be a small bear, but with the features of an adult, such as a longer nose." Most troubling, "his cuddly appearance will be gone."
Before the window of opportunity closes, the zoo is moving fast to line up deals. First out of the gate was German plush-toy maker Margarete Steiff, which hopes Knut will become an enduring icon, like Paddington and Winnie the Pooh. The company has brought out three sizes and models of stuffed Knuts—sitting, standing, and lying down. One model will be sold exclusively at the Berlin Zoo, while the other two can be purchased in any toy store. The money raised from the Steiff deal is intended to be used to renovate the polar bear enclosure at the zoo.
Also on board is German candy maker Haribo, famous for its gummy bears, which has brought out a new line of white, raspberry-flavored candies, called Knuddel-Knut'sch, or "Cuddly Knut." The company will make a one-time gift of €5,000 ($6,760), plus €0.10 (about 13¢) from the sale of each package, for Knut's upbringing and maintenance. "We're hopeful to make this a standard product over time," says Haribo spokesman Marco Alfter. Anticipating huge demand, the company has expanded production of Knut candies from its Bonn plant to a second facility in Soligen.
Zoo authorities are trying to be careful about who they choose to work with. "Partners should be only those companies that agree with the philosophy of the zoo, which is to retain and protect habitats," says CEO Uhlich. Unfortunately, that hasn't stopped unauthorized Knut merchandise from pouring out of China.
There's also a satiric component to the Knut licensing story. Hamburg-based advertising and marketing agency Den Mutigen Gehört Die Welt has come up with a range of mock Knut products, including a version of the famous Italian chocolate-and-hazelnut spread, rechristened "Knutella." The agency, whose name means "The World Belongs to the Brave," also dreamed up a "Knutsausage" wrapped in white fur and a "Knutburger," with a layer of white fur between slices of bread and cheese. Perhaps its most irreverent prank was a concocted image of Knut as a teenage former child star, alcoholic and dotted with pimples on his face.
Still, the overall impact of the Knut craze has been positive. By drawing parallels with his wild relatives living near the North Pole, educators and advocates have used Knut's popularity to get out the message about the impact of global warming on polar bears. And since Knut showed up, baby animals born at zoos all over Germany have benefited from heightened attention and public awareness. "All of a sudden we're seeing more interest in cubs being hand-raised by keepers," says spokeswoman Antje Runge from the Frankfurt Zoo. Knut may not be cute for much longer, but his impact will live on.
For a slide show of Knut and Knut products, click here.