Before creating Cogno, Stuart developed educational and fun products for families by publishing a parenting magazine and other content-based pieces for young families who purchase 12-15 million McDonald’s Happy Meals every week. He orchestrated integrated promotions for the 11,000-restaurant McDonald’s system, one of which was publicly recognized by the First Lady and by the Secretary of Education. He negotiated national media and marketing agreements with Fortune 500 Companies including General Motors, McDonald’s, and Procter & Gamble, as well as with the Department of Education, the U.S. Postal Service and not-for-profit agencies. He has consulted in marketing, business strategy and branding for organizations such as Clear Channel Communications, and led a consulting team to reform the U.S. Postal Service’s strategy and branding for its primary online presence,
Years of effort have gone into the creation of Cogno – would you say it represents the essential ideas you’d like to offer readers? Or have you only scratched the surface?
I think the stories and games accomplish the central mission as they stand, because the mission is to inspire kids to think critically and imaginatively. Every product we created hopefully delivered on this. But, in terms of the “world” of Cogno… the depth of plot, the richness of the characters, and all the future possibilities, we’ve only scratched the surface of that potential. In a sense, I consider the characters and stories the engine, because they are what engage children and make them want to come back again and again. So the engine has a lot of miles left on it, but it will always drive a vehicle that embodies the mission.
Do you consider Cogno an entertainment property that teaches or a teaching property that entertains?
Definitely the former. I made a decision at the outset that I wanted Cogno to be a household name. I wanted children to think about Cogno as fondly as they think about Star Wars or Harry Potter. To do that, it needs to be entertaining first. Only if it entertains and engages are we allowed to tickle their brains into action. Plenty of products need to lead with education, but they require a more captive audience to ever be more than a niche success.
What are the greatest challenges in bringing a property like Cogno to market?
Two things: Distribution of product, and the chicken/egg of success and licensing. Distribution is increasingly difficult without tie-in to an existing property (TV, book, etc.). So for a property that aspires to be its own multimedia brand, it’s a daily battle to get distribution. The key is to lead with a product or two that are strong enough to sell themselves, or to have big money to splash a first success. We led with a $30 board game. We should have led with books or a $10-29 game. We spent two much time on a product with a non-mass price point, and slogged it out in specialty stores and with independent reps. Second, there is the chicken/egg: Our plan is to license the IP for various categories, and we worked to create reach to customers and enough sales to break through the barrier to our first licensee. The 2009 downturn made licensing even tougher than it already was. If I started over I would have started with books/stories, built a following, then licensed the books to a publisher (or today, perhaps self-publish), and look to license the characters for a TV show. Let games follow later.
You’ve meticulously planned and executed so much material for Cogno – do you see the adventures continuing?
Absolutely. Fortunately our purpose and mission are more timely than ever. Stimulating kids to use their imagination and even to love science is a great and growing need. And as evidenced by the Marvel Comics movies, Harry Potter, etc…. character brands are still huge and powerful vehicles. Every time someone involved in the creative or entertainment world sees Cogno, it piques their interest. We will have partners create new products in the categories of books or mobile apps, likely, and hopefully give Cogno a new start. All the IP was hibernated and is ready for re-animation someday!
When you first got the idea for Cogno, did you have any idea that, years later, you would still be developing material and markets for it?
While developing of the first board game prototype, I envisioned the multi-media character brand vision. I worked in consumer branded products for young families, so I knew how big these things can be. I tried to close my eyes to the immense hurdles farther down the road and took it step by step. Sometimes I wish I had failed faster and redirected the marketing away from games at retail sooner, but I love that we’ve built this crazy-big foundation of content, products and characters. It hurt me financially but the experience was like nothing else! So, I guess I hoped I would be doing it the rest of my life and be sitting at my version of Skywalker Ranch, deciding which license to grant next … and more importantly, have impacted and inspired millions of kids to use their noggins and in the process, rebrand science for the next generation. I haven’t yet given up that dream.