Moomin Shop: Licensing and Merchandising For An Iconic Global Brand

Jonas Forth, from the official Moomins store.

Moomins are characters created by the Swedish-speaking Finnish illustrator Tove Jansson in 1945. These adorable characters have since gathered global fanfare and its merchandise became collectibles. In this episode of Shopify Masters, we chat with Jonas Forth of the Moomin Shop on the intricacies of licensing a global brand, the importance of content marketing, and the management of partnerships.

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Show Notes

Licensing and managing branding for globally recognized characters 

Felix: How did you get involved with Moonmins the brand?

Jonas: Back in 2014 I was asked to join a company, which started setting up stores for different kinds of brands. One of them happened to be Moomin. It took off, and this was sort of done as a licensing deal with the Moomin brand. When the brand saw it took off, they sort of purchased that part of the company that I had been part of setting up. Then I became part of the Moomin family, and I've been with them ever since.

Felix: How did you get involved with a company that set up stores for different brands?

Jonas: My background is in media originally. I'm a journalist, but I've always been working in between tech and content. This was sort of a perfect mix because we're very much content-driven, and the original setup for not only Moomin but the other brand that we ran, we put content first. Our initial idea was to run the store with very little paid marketing but instead do content marketing. Do content, which engages the fan base, and sort of makes them share it, engage with it, and eventually, perhaps, make a purchase. We still have the same strategy that we had back in 2014 about putting content front and center.

Felix: What is involved in setting up a business for a globally recognized character? 

Jonas: Naturally you need a licensing deal, which in many cases means you pay upwards 10 to 15% of your turnover to the brand for using it. In our case, we noticed that Moomin, which it's a fairly large brand. It's one of the top 50, 60 brands in the world, I think. We noticed that their website was built with Flash, back in 2014. It had no analytics. The name of the CEO was spelled incorrectly on the site, and we just saw that this could actually become something big. We pursued it, contacted the family that had the rights to the brand, and they said, "Give it a go".

A selection of kitchen merchandise by the Moomin Shop.
Licensing and staying true to the brand are key to managing the Moomin Shop. Moomin Shop

Felix: How do you approach them in a way that makes them want to work with you when I'm sure there have been others that have approached them in the past?

Jonas: There have been, yes. I think they went with our company was that we put the content front and center, and said that this will become the central part of their branding strategy. Initially, back in 2014, I don't think that they really understood the importance of a digital presence. During that year, 2014, they quickly realized how important it was for them to control that channel themselves. For us, it was all about sales then, and although we did a lot of efforts to further the brand, and do content, which sort of furthered the brand, it was so very much about the sales and the Moomin characters, which is the company that owns the right to the Moomin brand. They found that perhaps it would be better to have a better balance between informative content and commercial. Have a play between them, and that was a big part of them deciding to purchase the store from us.

Felix: Once you were brought into the Moomin brand, and then they bought the commercial piece of the business that you were a part of, what was that transition like?

Jonas: It was very smooth. The team that we had, we were three people, we felt immediately at home with the Moomin family. It's still a very small company. We consciously want to keep it that way. We're about 16, 17 people, including the eCommerce side of it. Mainly, we're working to further the brand, making sure that the brand is used in the right way and engage the fan base. Since we got more resources, we could do more, and we hired additional people. We've since done much more content. We doubled down on doing content after joining Moomin officially. It's been quite a trip, and the Moomin, in general, has grown tremendously. In the past 12 years, it's grown 10 fold. The ecommerce side of that has helped tremendously. 

Operating as a smaller team and leveraging outsourcing 

Felix: What kind of advantages do you find that smaller teams have? 

Jonas: We're extremely agile. We can come up with an idea on Monday, and by Friday it's implemented throughout the organization, throughout the bigger organization with our licensees. I'll mention the campaign that we're running this year. It's called #OurSea, and what we're doing is a fundraiser for the John Nurminen Foundation Foundation, and their mission is to clean the Baltic Sea, which is the sea surrounding Finland. It's a very polluted sea, and we're collecting money for it. It came about as a brainchild of the CEO of Moomin Characters, at a dinner he had with a member of the foundation. It didn't take us more than maybe a month, and then we have 50 people, licensees, large corporations, various partners sitting at the same table, coming up with ideas on what it should be. It went live about one and a half years later, as one of the largest fundraising campaigns ever done in Finland. We're well on our way to collecting the money for the cause. Moomin characters own the rights to everything connected to the Moomins. We have the capability of implementing or deciding what to do on a moment's notice.

A selection of merchandise from Moomin Shop in effort to fundraise for ocean cleanup projects.
The fundraising collection in support of the John Nurminen Foundation where proceeds go towards cleaning the Baltic Sea. Moomin Shop

Felix: Do you have a lot of partnerships to help execute on this? 

Jonas: Of course. We have, of course, our excellent partner, Rights and Brands Licensing, which handles the world-wide licensing together with agents around the world, but when it comes to the ecommerce side, we have basically outsourced anything that isn't related to direct communication with the fans, or related to the protection of the brands. We do in-house approvals and content. But automated processes like inserting metadata about the products, that’s outsourced.

Felix: How do you decide what is to be outsourced? What is that decision process like?

Jonas: Perhaps I'll just briefly share some of what the brand is based on. The brand is based on a series of books that came out between 1945 and 1975. Written by an author and illustrator artist, Tove Jansson, a Swedish speaking Finn. The fan base has sort of grown over time since the 40s, and it has a huge following around the world. The turnover, in general for Moomin, goods sold worldwide is in the range of about 800 million, so it is sort of a global brand, and there are really super fans in all parts of the world.

In order for us to be able to outsource something, anybody who works with the brand needs to have a deep understanding of what it means, about the stories, and about what Moomin is about. For example, we could outsource our support. We have a number of people attached to our support, handling orders, and answering questions that people might have, but it would be very hard for us to outsource it since anybody who answers emails for us, or requests coming in, needs to have a deep understanding of the brand. We tried to do it, but what we found is we need to have people who basically who have grown up with the stories, who can come in and really talk to us, or who had a close connection to, so that if they have 10 questions during the week. Outsourcing something like that, the call center, or a support center somewhere, we just couldn't get it to work.

Felix: Once you do decide that something should be outsourced, how do you roll it out? 

Jonas: I would say that anything that we roll out needs to have a global approach or sort of global scope, so we virtually never do anything locally. If we roll something out, it's something that has to be able to be rolled out in other countries, so it needs to scale, it needs to have economic sense. If it's something like fulfilling orders, it doesn't require specifically that you know the brand, although the ones that we work with now, they know the brand, and they were thrilled to have us on board.

The responsibilities of managing a global brand 

Felix: How do you think about how to roll something out when you support a global brand?

Jonas: When we started out, I dabbled in ecommerce. I'd consult companies on it. I never run an ecommerce company myself, and when we started, we thought, "Well, we'll go global from day one. How hard can it be?" It turned out that it's very hard from all aspects. If you look at it from a taxation aspect, or fulfillment aspect, or border checking, tolls, customs point of view, immediately when you go out of your own country. There are so many other things that come into play. We didn't take that into account back in 2014. We actually didn't start with Shopify. Shopify wasn't that well-known back in 2014. It was sort of just starting out, especially in Europe where we're located. We had a lot of requirements in terms of currencies, and they needed to be multi-language. We chose a different technology initially, which didn't scale at all. It was very high maintenance. It required a lot of development work, and it just slowed us down immensely. We tried to scale it from, for example, in Japan because Moomins has got the biggest following in the Nordic countries in Europe, and in Japan. We opened up another store in Japan and it just didn't work. We were just using all our resources, and just updating the site whereas our focus should have been in running the store, and in furthering the brand, making sales. We just decided then in 2014, and also when Moomin bought it that we will transition to a solution, which has much less maintenance, which allows us to sort of focus on the business side of it. It was still a gamble back in 2015 to, at least in Europe, to start using Shopify because I think in Finland we were probably one of the first, if not the first one to start using it. A lot of things were very Canadian or US-centric, but it paid off. It was completely the right solution for us because it allowed us to free up resources, and just focus on building the brand and building the store.

A selection of Moomin merchandise in a flat lay, complete with t-shirts, water bottles, and stuffed animals.
Going global involves many processes that the Moomin Shop had to incorporate into their store like currency, taxes, and duties. Moomin Shop

Felix: Tell us more about the content that you are creating?

Jonas: We're very heavy on text-based content. We still do traditional blog posts, and what we anticipated back in 2014, and the reason why we didn't immediately just put all our money into Facebook and Instagram advertising was that we just thought it was going to be a very crowded space, which we are seeing now, and that the prices would go up, and that people perhaps at some point would have ad fatigue. Using marketing, we see that if you use paid marketing, it's sort of use it once, and in the best-case scenario, get a sale, or maybe an email out of it, but if you do content, if you do really good, engaging content, that will pay off today, tomorrow, next year, and in five years. We've actually been fortunate in that sense because we've put so much emphasis on text-based content, and on SEO on it that about 35% of our sales come through organic search. Another 30% comes through web traffic, and then about 25% from our newsletters. These are all sort of content-driven in one way or the other. Basically, we said we were going to make two or three written pieces of content every week, which allows us to send a bi-weekly newsletter containing the best parts from the past two weeks, doing competitions, various things just to engage the fan base. We don't have a huge following on social media. It is significant, and of course, it helps, but we've never really had that as a focus. We've seen that as sort of a byproduct of just putting content out there.

Importance of engaging content and SEO 

Felix: How should people start to create content that is engaging?

Jonas: The very first thing that we did when we put our content plan in place, we read the books, and read everything we could about Moomin, and came up with 10 central values that we could create content around. The values, like universal values like family, love, adventure, and joy. We decided that all content that we create must revolve around these themes in one way or the other. In order for us to have sort of a red thread running through the whole thing. The reason why people engage with content is that there's something human, something with which you can sort of feeling a connection to, and the reason why people follow say a brand is, apart from having a fear of missing out, but having a connection with it, and having a consistent pulse from the brand. That's why it was very important that we commit to doing quite a lot of content so that people would get a feel of what the brand was because before 2014 before we started creating anything digital or content online, the brand had been defined by various other partners connected to the Moomin brand. We felt that we needed to sort of bring it back, and focus it on things which can be found in the original, the works by Tove Jansson. That's the way we thought about it, but as a general rule, in order to have followers, you need to tell them what you're all about, and stay on that narrow path, and stay true to that sort of path instead of being all over the place.

Models exchange merchandise from the Moomin Shop as gifts.
Setting core values derived from the original Moomin books laid the foundation for the content creation at the Moomin Shop. Moomin Shop

Felix: How do you make sure that you are being very clear about how the brand is represented, especially in text form?

Jonas: Well, we say no to stuff. We do try to help. A big part of our job is to help the ones who are licensing, so if I didn't say it already, we have about 750 licensees around the world creating awesome products and services around Moomin games, and theme parks, and different kinds of licensed items. We work with virtually all of them in one way or the other, but if we did everything that was requested, we would have no time to do it all, so we say no to a lot of things. If we can't craft a story around what's really engaging about the new thing, We have a saying, "A new pen, that's not news, but what is the idea behind the pen? Why would you use this pen over another one if one is branded with Moomin, and one is just a regular pen?" You need to sort of find the deeper story behind the thing that you're writing about. One example is there might be listeners who have Moomin mugs. It's sort of a phenomenon. It started in the 1990s. The oldest company actually in Finland, called Fiskars started manufacturing mugs which had illustrations of the Moomins on them. So far, about 100 of them have been created. I think it can partially be compared to collecting Starbucks mugs. These are really nice mugs, and what we always say is that we're not selling mugs, we're sort of selling a nicer morning with your children because that's a big part of why people buy the mugs because they're lovely to drink your morning coffee out of. That's the way we try to create a deeper story than just saying, "Buy a mug".

Felix: How do you manage the relationship with those who license and ensure there’s a balance of control? 

Jonas: That was a big part of creating the site, sort of give us a spine, or give us sort of one place from where to act, from where to communicate. We're not controlling the story. I think the fans actually are much more controlling the story because they're the one engaging with it, and telling it, retelling it, in the way that they want, so there are huge amounts of user-generated content being created every day. Much more than what our licensees do, but I think it took about two, three years for us to convince the licensees to work with us on crafting the messaging. It used to be, I said it used to be all over the place, and we wanted to bring it, make a narrow path, sort of bringing the focus closer to the original stories, and the values that we set out to craft content around. It's something that we discuss every day. I mean we get story ideas. We have licensees coming in saying, "We want you to push these T-shirts," and if, for example, and if we can't really craft a compelling story around that, we don't see that we perhaps pursue that, as steeply at least, maybe we do it in some other way, but the choice is from day to day. A lot of the licensees really work with us on it, and we work with finding the right audience for them. We do a lot of segmenting, and trying to find the right audience for them and working together with them on doing that.

Felix: What's the team like that creates the content?

Jonas: We have four content producers, which work with content in various forms to make videos. They go out and interview people. It varies a lot, but they're actually old friends who work really well together, both really amazing people that have been creating content for close to 15, 20 years, and really know their stuff. Of course, they're all Moomin fans themselves. Then, we have one person handling the marketing side of Moomin, sort of making sure that the right messages go out in the right channels in the right way. Three, four years back we really put an emphasis on hiring more people on the content side, and we'll probably hire more. When we started out, we would just physically have a background in journalism, and then one other person who was doing content, aside from running the store. Now, we have a much more holistic approach to the whole thing.

Felix: What are some best practices on making sure that you're creating content pieces that will actually rank in search engines?

Jonas: What we found, we work with many other brands as well through the writer agency which is our partner. What we find is that a lot of the legacy brands when they come in, they've never virtually done any content at all online. What you need to do is you need to put out something. If there is a site, put some analytics on it, and let it run for three, six months, something like that. Then you start analyzing where are people coming from? What are people interested in, just based on search keywords? Make sure that you start crafting up more content around those keywords, which bring in more people, and then you'll get more keywords to work with. Fill out all the metadata. Do the nitty-gritty work to make sure that Google indexes it correctly, headings, and having it well structured. Shopify is quite well-structured just out of the box. The same thing for WordPress or Drupal, or what you're running. This is the eternal question of how Google moves in mysterious ways, so you never really know what's around the corner. Like now, since a lot of things are search-based, or voice search-based, we try to make sure that everything is structured, like technically correctly so that you have headings, and you have paragraphs, and you have all these things so you can index it much more accurately.

Why email marketing is a worthwhile investment

Felix: You mentioned that you promote the content through your newsletter?

Jonas: We do, yes. We send it out bi-weekly. It has some great opening rate. It's about 30%. The Click-through rate is great too. It brings in about 25% of our turnover, so we put a lot of emphasis on getting more emails through Facebook leads, various places on the site, and at offline events, anywhere we can get them, otherwise, we basically have to go through Google, or Facebook, or somebody else. Newsletters allow us to have direct contact with people, and it's in a way ... It's owned media, and we're very big on owned media, and we hope, together with the other brands as well that we're working with, build more and more of our own media so we can start cross-promoting from Moomin to other brands, and from other brands to Moomin and so forth, also through the newsletter. As a general tip, a lot of people I talk with who are starting out, they're like, "Why would I do email? Isn't that dead? All the money is in social media." I'm always like, "No, every email address that you get is gold." I think we have an acquisition cost per email of about 80 cents, and we calculate that we get about six Euros per email that we send out.

Felix: When you are sending out these newsletters, it sounds like you're sending them out to promote content pieces. How do they lead to actual sales?

Jonas: I think every third newsletter we lead with a commercial aspect. The other ones are more like, "Hey, you could win five sweatshirts for your friends and you," or "There's a new theme park just outside of Tokyo." The way it's built up is that we always have on top, we have the main news story from the past week, and then two smaller ones. Then, we have three products, which we feature because every year we have about 200 to 300 new products, and so we feature, every week, three new products or the top ones from last week. Then, we also have some cross-promotion to other stories that we run, and then we have a recap of smaller stories that say we saw something really cool on Twitter or something fun on Instagram, or the New Yorker just wrote a piece on Tove Jansson, so we sort of linked smaller stories as a compilation of different small news articles in one place. We have a certain structure for the emails. People know what to expect, and to click on.

A Moomin cup held by a hand model, backdropped by the ocean.
The Moomin mugs are one of the most collected merchandise for the brand. Moomin Shop

Felix: Got it. You mentioned briefly that you also have used Facebook leads to collect emails for your newsletter. How well has that worked?

Jonas: I would say it's worked really well. I think for us on a weekly basis, I think we get maybe 500, something around that. It's highly cost-effective as I mentioned. The return on investment is like seven times, and since we have an integration, so Facebook has background integrations with various email services. The leads basically go into our service automatically. The good thing with Facebook leads is that it's able to check who is already subscribed, so it doesn't show the leads to people who are already subscribed to the newsletter list.

Felix: What are the ads for this look like? What incentivizes people to want to give their email address to join your newsletter?

Jonas: To be honest, I think we've actually run the same one since Facebook enabled it. They're characters in the Moomin story. One is Moomintroll, which is the head character, and his kind of girlfriend, Snork Maiden, and the image that we use, we've used it from the start, is them hugging. I can't quite remember what he said, but I think it says like, "Join us or join the Moomin family," or something like that and, "Be the first one to find out about Moomin news, events, and the best offers." Something like that, but we don't have AB, we just have the one message. I think for anybody who's a Moomin fan, that's about it, what they want.

Felix: Are there any apps that you use that you recommend other people check out?

Jonas: Printful is one that we use but we're not actually using it for Moomin directly on the Moomin store, but we run another store called which has other brands as well. It's also built on Shopify, and it's connected to Printful. You seldom see something work that seamlessly, and really just deliver. Basically, the store runs itself, so Printful is a print-on-demand service, which has manufacturing capabilities in I think Mexico, and the US, and Latvia, here in Europe. It just worked perfectly. It fulfills orders, they come in, they get fulfilled. The customer gets all the information they need, and it just runs perfectly. I was actually amazed when we set it up how well it plays. We basically don't touch it. We just send traffic to it, and do content for it, and then the orders just come in. Since there's no real inventory risk with it, everything is done print-on-demand. It's just a really good kind of side project for us. When we first started out with Shopify, we had a plethora of apps. You can go a little bit crazy with the apps just because there's so much of them, but the problem is what you end up doing is you create silos. Silos for reviews or let's say silos for abandoned cart emails or silos for any data you collect. We wanted to bring everything together, and we came across a company that used to be called Conversio. What it does is it brings together data from various sources, from search, or from browsing history, or from reviews, or from just purchase history, and it crafts messages which are unique to every customer or all visitors that come to the site and in one way or the other leave their email. We were struggling earlier with having a lot of different silos, and also running our newsletters sort of separate from the other functions like reviews and stuff. It just pulled that all together, and we had really good results with it. Basically, since it just runs in the background and crafts the individual emails for everybody, we just set it up, and make sure that the messages are very in line with the brand, and then just works its magic in the background. There are a lot of alternatives, Collabio, for example, but I think it's just a little bit more cost-effective for us. We've been super happy with that and coupled that with emails, we were somewhat struggling because there are so many emails that you can send out to Shopify, we struggled maintaining them, and making them pretty because if you don't know Shopify coding, actually coding the emails can be a little bit daunting. An app called OrderlyEmails which it's a huge time saver for us. It's like a plug and play email designer tool and a great value for money. I think it's like $49 one time fee, and then you just install it. You do all your emails, and that's it. It's been great for us.

Felix: What are some of your big goals for the future?

Jonas: We have great plans, not only for ecommerce. What we're doing on the eCommerce side is we're consolidating because we have other stores. I mentioned Japan earlier on. We also have official stores in China, and Korea, and in the UK, and what we're doing now is we're creating a mutual front for all of them, so moving more towards on the commerce so people will have a similar kind of experience, and can engage with all of the official online presences of Moomin in the same way, and having returned to different places. You don't have to send it back to the same place from where you got it if it would be closer to send it to another store closer by. We're in a consolidating phase right now, and sort of working more closely with the other stores. In general, for the Moomin brand, we're of course focusing on our OurSea campaign, but we have big plans. We're expanding greatly in Asia, especially in China, and we hope, so far, I mean the past couple of years we've had a growth rate of about 15 to 20% for Moomin characters, and we think that will sort of be our course in the next years as well, regardless of this situation that we have now, but it's sort of a blip, just a small blip in our history.