16 March 2016
Russian Bear Resurgent as YouTube and Merchandising Phenomenon
Russian cartoon Masha and the Bear tipped to be new Hello Kitty with lucrative licences on offer.
Global success in online animation is not necessarily the first thing you associate with Russia. Nevertheless, an iconic series produced by Animaccord, a Moscow-based animation studio, has proved a worldwide hit, prompting comparisons with Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty and even leading to suggestions that Russia might have more to export than just natural resources.
The series, entitled Masha and the Bear, has proved an internet phenomenon, clocking up more than one billion hits on YouTube – a level of exposure usually only reserved for frowning cats or a new Adele video. It has not been an overnight success, however, with the series taking three years to break the one billion barrier. It is now said to be both the only cartoon and the only Russian video to have achieved such a landmark level of exposure.
Even more remarkably, its success is not just down to viewers from its home country. According to YouTube statistics, it regularly attracts hits from as far afield as the US, Australia, the UAE, Germany and Malaysia. Comments left on the site show that viewers' response has veered from dismissing it as "too Russian" to simply adoring it. Following the news that it had passed the one billion mark, the subsequent publicity saw the series notch up an additional 100 million viewers in just three days.
For Russians, it has been seen as part of the country's reemergence on the global stage, a successor to the international esteem already accorded to the Bolshoi Ballet and Stoli (Stolichnaya) vodka. Already, many of Europe's leading department stores and toy outlets are carrying a range of Masha and the Bear-themed merchandise. Such items have even been spotted on the shelves of the Kauf Galleria, one of Berlin's leading department stores, while a number of Australian internet forums are said to be dedicated to news about the series. To date, it has been translated into some 25 languages and broadcast by more than 100 channels globally.
The success of the series, though, has been a long time coming. The idea was first pitched in 1996, but it wasn't until 2009 that Masha and the Bear made its debut on Russia's Channel One. Its global popularity, though, has been driven by the internet and the nature of the programme itself. Typically, every episode only features the two title characters and very little dialogue, ensuring it can be appreciated by a truly global audience.
Currently, its high level of YouTube traffic alone sees Animaccord benefit to the tune of some US$1.5 million a month. This, though, is but a small proportion of the income generated by the series, with much of it being channelled through the sales of related toys, stationery, clothing and other goods. In total, the value of the brand's global merchandise sales is expected to top US$300 million this year, resulting in a net income of US$15 million for its rightsholders.
The global success of the series has had a surprisingly huge impact in its home country. Well beyond the business community, many Russians are now challenging the orthodoxy that the natural resources sector is the sole fundamental of the country's economy, believing that it has more to offer than just its huge natural gas and crude oil reserves.
In the short-term, though, the success of the series has also triggered keen interest in the licensing sector. With the popularity of the programme seemingly assured for several years, companies in Southeast Asia might do well to get in on the ground floor of this latest media phenomenon. There are also said to be Asian broadcast rights up for grabs.
Leonid Orlov, Moscow Consultant