Last year, the It's Happy Bunny brand nabbed the International Licensing Excellence Award for Best Art Brand Licensing of the Year, from the Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association (LIMA).
We caught up with Benton in his Michigan studio to find out how he turns his cartooning skills and clever wit into a top-selling licensing property.
I knew I wanted to make a living out of what I loved to do when I realized that I could get regular work. In seventh grade I made a few bucks illustrating for a little newspaper, and that was regular enough for me to realize I could make a job out of drawing.
The rewards of owning your own company are that you make all the decisions. You live by your wits. There is an old chestnut: 'Nobody enjoys the hunt more than the fox.' I've always thought that was an appropriate way to think of self-employment.
The best marketing campaign so far has been diversification of the consumer base. I work in many different areas and try to create things for many different consumers. The 'width' this adds to my brand(s) is invaluable. The It's Happy Bunny brand extension breakdown totals in the hundreds. Some are for the elementary age market, some are for the tweens, and we even have brand products geared for the adults such as our new men's gift brand, and some for younger women at Icing by Claire's (a North American and European fashion accessories store). The reason we have so many [brands] is really critical, it takes a while for an intellectual property to get up to speed, and it takes a while to know if it's going to actually be profitable. Since it takes such a long time just to get a consumer spark, while you wait for that one you might as well get started on the other brand.
It took about three years for the It's Happy Bunny brand to catch on. I would show up at trade shows and people would say, 'Hey that's cute—kids are gonna like that.' But we just thought, 'Yeah, it's cute, but are kids going to think it's funny?' Hot Topics (a mall-based retailer in the US) was the first retailer that got It's Happy Bunny out, and other manufacturers caught on. But again, it had to take some time. It's like wine, you can have a vineyard, you can have the grapes, but if you don't have patience, you're just in the grape juice business.
The most exciting thing I'm working on now is a TV thing and I'm starting another book series this winter that I think is going to be a blast.