Evolution and revival of traditional children’s brands in Publishing

By Sophie Pullen 


The purpose of this journal is to explore the evolution and revival of three of the most popular children’s brands that started out as books. It will be discussing how Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh and Paddington Bear developed from simple children’s books into worldwide franchises, and how the brands went from simple illustrations of children’s characters to animated blockbuster films. It will also explore how the franchises have developed with technological advances and the potential the brands have for future development. Finally, if they have the ability to continue to do so well in the current overcrowded children’s literature market and how they can remain popular with the influx of characters young children are exposed to in literature from television programmes and games.


Children’s literature, franchise, brand, films, traditional, publishing, evolution, revival, adaptations, Peter Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, Paddington Bear, worldwide, character, development, Disney



In 2018 alone, a total of 20,300 new children’s and young adult titles were released, with the UK bestsellers in the top 20 including The Midnight Gang, The Wonky Donkey and What the Ladybird Heard on Holiday. The total volume sold was 16,080,617 with a value of £88,216,020 (Neilson Bookscan , 2019) in the UK alone. Children’s literature is becoming one of the hardest markets to break into, and with dominating brands such as Disney storming the market with loved classics, it is clear to children’s authors that to enter this market, you need more than just a story with some characters. With the ever-changing technology children are now exposed to, if your brand cannot reach the level of commitment Disney have with keeping up with their audience, then it will be difficult to attain longevity. Disney have continuously kept up with the latest trends in technology, starting with musical books that play sounds when you press the buttons, to the latest technology by pairing up with Google to create a read-along experience (Duffer, 2018) with sounds that play from the smart speaker; even before this they were early market leaders in the sound book industry. Disney is a dominant force in the children’s market as it is a global brand and has remained popular throughout its lifespan, showing no signs of stopping. There are several other brands within children’s publishing that have remained popular among young children. I have selected three perennially popular children’s characters and I am going to examine their evolution, to identify driving forces behind their success.

Peter Rabbit was created by Beatrix Potter. She created various stories about the mischievous animal, who often gets himself into trouble. Each of the tales she wrote about Peter and his fellow wild animals combine both adventure and a moral lesson, and are all illustrated with beautiful watercolour pictures (Lowne, n.d.). The original story was repeatedly rejected by many different publishers, so she decided to print it privately in 1901 (Armistead, 2013), until Frederick Warne & Co. agreed to publish it after its success and popularity. Warne & Co. then went on to sell 20,000 copies of the book in around three months! (Armistead, 2013) After the success of her first book, Potter was inspired to create more than 20 additional stories, such as The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher.  Peter Rabbit is now one of the world’s most licensed children’s characters and is often used to spearhead retail campaigns at Easter to promote the products and books.

Winnie the Pooh is the iconic creation by A.A. Milne, who based the character on his son (Christopher Robin)’s bear, Winnie, named after his favourite bear in London Zoo. The first book (Winnie the Pooh) came out in 1926 (Just-Pooh, n.d.), followed by Now We Are Six in 1927 and The House at Pooh Corner in 1928. Over the years, the books have been printed in 25 languages and worldwide countries. The Hundred Acre Wood in which the stories are set is based on Ashdown Forest, where Christopher Robin often used to play with his stuffed toys, giving Milne the idea for his story. Walt Disney bought the rights to Winnie the Pooh in 1966, and the first film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh became a classic and was loved by many people.

Paddington Bear was written in 1958 by Michael Bond. He was inspired by a small, lonely bear that he saw on a shelf in a department store that he bought for his wife (Scott, 2017). His first story was A Bear Called Paddington, followed by More about Paddington the following year. The stories of Paddington became very popular among young children at the time and were turned into a TV show in 1975, a series of thirty five minute videos. (Paddington , n.d.)

In recent years

In 2006, the film Miss Potter was released (IMDB, n.d.), revealing the story of Beatrix Potter’s struggles when she was writing the Peter Rabbit books. Although the film was directed at a more parental audience than a younger one, it encouraged watchers to reminisce about their love for the rabbit. The movie won an American Golden Globe for ‘Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical’ (IMDB, n.d.) and many other awards.  In more recent years, a Peter Rabbit movie was released in 2018 starring British comedian James Corden (IMDB , n.d.). The movie took a more comical take on the story, and was praised by many for its humour and animation. It did however receive criticism from some people for making Peter Rabbit too ‘rowdy’ and ‘like a frat boy’. However, the criticism did not inhibit the popularity of the film and it remained popular among the majority of its watchers, and grossed and impressive $347,134,548 in the box office worldwide (IMDB , n.d.).

Walt Disney bought the rights for Winnie the Pooh in the 1960’s for around £239m (The Guardian , 2001), and they then capitalised on their investment releasing several movies aimed at young children, such as Pooh’s Heffalump Movie and Piglet’s Big Movie. There have also been films featuring Pooh in recent years, such as Goodbye Christopher Robin which tells the story of A.A. Milne and his creation of the characters and stories, and Christopher Robin telling the tale of a grown up Christopher Robin and his rediscovery of Pooh. These films have been aimed at the audiences that would have watched or read Winnie the Pooh growing up, whether that was in the original books by A.A. Milne or in the film adaptation by Walt Disney. These films feature the original looking characters, not the redesigned ones from Disney, which prompted the release of all of the vintage looking toys that quickly grabbed the nation’s hearts. As Winnie the Pooh is still one of the most popular children’s characters to date, Disney still actively promote and license the character, and he is still used in parades and as a character meet in the various parks across the world.

There have been two new Paddington films in the past five years. Paddington came out in 2011, and was nominated for several awards, including BAFTA Best British Film and Best Adapted Screenplay, and Empire’s Best British Film  (IMDB , n.d.). It also won several awards, including Empire’s Best Comedy, Writers Guild of Great Britain’s Best Screenplay award. Paddington 2 (2017) was nominated for three BAFTA awards for Outstanding British Film of the Year, Best Supporting Actor and Best Screenplay (Adapted). It was also nominated for Empire’s Best British Film and won several International Online Cinema Awards (INOCA) including Best Picture, Best Visual Effects and Best Visual Effects (IMDB , n.d.). Both Films were highly praised online and collectively made over £350m. Paddington Bear was also used in Marks and Spencer’s 2017 Christmas advert campaign, and has become a favourite Christmas advert in recent years (Ruddick, 2017).

All three of the characters have been redesigned and rebranded to appeal to contemporary audiences. The aims of the creators are to make sure that the traditional brand values are preserved whilst revitalising the brand. The new incarnations would also appeal to the licensees, who aim to adapt the designs into merchandise and books.

The character of Winnie the Pooh became a more contemporary style cartoon animation when Disney created the film adaptation in 1966. He has become such a staple character for Disney since his makeover and is widely loved across the world. He is more recognisable in his cartoon form than as the simple drawing from the earliest books due to his bold yellow colour and red pull-over.

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Winnie the Pooh (BibliOdyssey, 2008)
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(Weber, 2015)

When the film Paddington was released in 2011, he quickly became loved by his audience. His character was not created as a cartoon but as a lifelike animation that had all the same features as a real bear, except he can smile. His lifelike appearance took three years to perfect, but it led to many awards and as a film was greatly praised by many critics for its depiction.

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Paddington Bear (R W Alley, n.d.)
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(Walmart, n.d.)

In the recent film, the way Peter Rabbit has been animated means that (out of the three case studies shown) he looks the most similar to his original drawings by author Beatrix Potter. The character is represented as michevious and playful which is how he was intended to be portrayed when he was created. It was important to portray him exactly like he was in the books as the Peter Rabbit brand is recognisable by the appearance of the characters and their personalities, whereas with Winnie the Pooh for example it was important for Disney to rebrand him and make him a more child-friendly and colourful.

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Peter Rabbit (Lowne, n.d.)
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(IMDB, n.d.)

Each new film adaptation released provides a new opportunity for the franshises to produce merchandise for the brands. Merchandise is extremely important for children’s brands as it contributes to longevity and income. Children’s brand merchanise includes toys, puzzles, games, furniture and clothing, and the most popular franchise at that time can charge premium rates. When the Paddington M&S advert was released,  stuffed toys, books and clothing was sold in store throughout the Christmas period and after. Disney use Winnie the Pooh on a substantial amount of merchandise that is sold from their stores, however the character is also often used on clothing from high street stores such as Primark. Disney take a small percentage of the profit from these clothes from these stores for rights to use their character on the clothing. Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit was the first licensed childrens character, and was heavily involved in the development and creation of all Peter Rabbit products released to the public.

Future potential

The perennial appeal of the Winnie the Pooh brand goes unchallenged due to Disney’s ability to easily continue the story in the future and to attract both young and old audiences with the films they have created. It would be easy for them to attract a young audience, as the characters are funny and colourful, and the stories are easy to understand. Winnie the Pooh has become a significant part of the Walt Disney portfolio and this franchise has the potential to keep going for as long as the Disney brand does. Peter Rabbit has remained a popular household childhood character for years, generation after generation reading the books as young children. This franchise has the potential to continue to do well due to the volume of stories Potter wrote within this world, therefore there is the opportunity to create films or short adaptations of these stories. Despite the success of the Paddington films, unless the franchise keeps up with modern day trends in technology, it will not be as successful as, for example, Winnie the Pooh. Whereas Winnie the Pooh has released separate films to appeal to adults and children, Paddington has only released one film that although it appeals to both, doesn’t engage an audience as wide as Winnie the Pooh. The Paddington franchise also dips in and out of popularity, for example it was hugely popular when the books first came out, however, until the first film came out in 2011 the brand was not as popular as its competitors.

Due to the high volume of children’s brands and characters emerging each year, the future of the staple heritage brands such as the three mentioned is heavily dependent on their ability to remain relevant in the current children’s market and how they adapt their brand to meet the needs of their target audiences. For example, the technological advances Disney are investing in with not only their literature but with their brand as a whole puts them significantly ahead of all other competitors, with a net worth of around $130 billion (Dennison, 2019).


Works Cited

Armistead, C. (2013, December 13). How Beatrix Potter self-published . Retrieved from The Guardian : https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/dec/17/beatrix-potter-peter-rabbit-self-publishing

BibliOdyssey . (2008, November 29). Original Winnie the Pooh Drawings. Retrieved from http://bibliodyssey.blogspot.com/2008/11/original-winnie-pooh-drawings.html

Dennison, S. (2019, February 11). How much is Disney Worth? Retrieved from GoBankingRates: https://www.gobankingrates.com/making-money/business/how-much-is-disney-worth/

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Just-Pooh. (n.d.). The History of Winnie the Pooh . Retrieved from Just-Pooh.

Lowne, C. (n.d.). The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica : https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Tale-of-Peter-Rabbit

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R W Alley . (n.d.). Retrieved from R W Alley Illustration : http://rwalley.com/welcome/

Ruddick, S. B. (2017, November 7). M&S ad uses Paddington Bear to attract family audience. Retrieved from The Guardian : https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/nov/07/ms-christmas-ad-paddington-bear-marks-spencer-john-lewis

Scott, H. (2017, July 3). The Origin Story of Paddington Bear. Retrieved from BrainJet : https://www.brainjet.com/new/2374000/the-origin-story-of-paddington-bear-is-an-incredible-piece-of-history/

The Guardian . (2001, March 6). Walt Disney secures rights to Winnie the Pooh . Retrieved from The Guardian : https://www.theguardian.com/film/2001/mar/06/news

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Weber, L. (2015, April 2). Disney will amke a live action Winnie the Pooh . Retrieved from Vulture: https://www.vulture.com/2015/04/disney-will-make-a-live-action-winnie-the-pooh.html