Gateway, Nickelodeon brand PCs with cartoons

In another sign the beige box is a dying breed, Gateway and Nickelodeon enter into a broad marketing agreement that will put cartoon characters Blue Clues and Rugrats on Gateway's PCs.

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Christmas shoppers may have more difficulty than ever choosing that holiday PC, but not because of the geek factor.

In another sign the beige box is a dying breed, Gateway and Nickelodeon today entered into a broad marketing agreement that will put cartoon characters Blue Clues and Rugrats on Gateway's PCs.

The deal marks a growing trend away from the traditional beige box to colorful or character-branded computers as PC makers look for new ways to generate interest and sales.

Apple Computer kicked off the "no beige" craze more than a year ago with the Bondi Blue-colored iMac. Apple later added five fruit flavors, and more recently, Graphite. The stylish all-in-one designs wooed consumers and helped make Apple cool again, said PC Data analyst Stephen Baker.

Although Apple set the standard for style, cross-branding is a more recent, and potentially bigger, trend, analysts said.

"Partnership seems to be the really big thing now," said IDC analyst Roger Kay. The first stage, said Kay, was the bundling of Internet access and cash rebates to be more competitive. "The hardware is commodity enough that differentiation needs to come along other lines to boost sales, and this is the next big wave," Kay said.

For instance, Mattel announced in August it would produce Barbie and Hot Wheels PCs for kids in conjunction with Patriot Computers. Mattel and Intel also have announced plans to develop a line of interactive toys under the brands of both companies.

Another company, PlanetFX, has sewn up the exclusive online rights to Gumby, Pokey and other classic cartoon characters and will develop Internet content around them, according to financial backers.

Barbie may have been first to market, but Rugrats may have better longevity, analysts said. "Mattel is not gender neutral," said Technology Business Research analyst Lindy Lesperance. "If you've got two kids, you're most likely not going to buy two PCs. So which do you buy--Barbie or Hot Wheels?"

Rugrats or Blues Clues will appeal to either gender, making them better buys for many parents, Lesperance said.

The deal between Gateway and Nickelodeon is perhaps more significant for another reason: It brings together two successful consumer marketers.

The agreement extends beyond the PC itself to further target Gateway's consumer audience. Nickelodeon will get space in Gateway's 238 Country Stores nationwide, and Gateway's commercials will appear on select Nickelodeon shows. Gateway will also participate in a Nickelodeon 90-city Blues Clues tour with show promotions and advertising for its Country Stores.

In addition, Gateway recently entered into a massive co-marketing alliance with AOL under which AOL will invest close to $800 million in the PC maker.

Blues Clues and Rugrats commercials will debut Thanksgiving Day during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade telecast.

PC Data's Baker, for one, isn't wholly convinced the branding strategy will generate a lot of sales.

"For Gateway, it's probably not going to cost them a hell of a lot of money to take advantage of all that market presence that Nickelodeon, Blues Clues and Rugrats have," Baker said. "Gateway is just looking for new ways to add a little interest. It's not like it's on the shelves at Toys 'R' Us, so it's not at the level of impulse sales."

As other PC makers consider similar moves, trendsetter Apple is sticking with its stylish and colorful approach. But even Apple acknowledges that what's in the box is most important.

"You're going to spend much more time interacting with the screen, looking at it from that perspective, than looking at it from the side," said iMac product manager Craig Michaels. "You have to give a great experience day in and day out. That's how people recommend."

Still, Michaels sees that improved performance overall means customers need to worry less "about megahertz or the hard drive. For the first-time computer user, style on the outside and on the inside is what really sells it."

Gateway steered away from a "colorful computer" strategy similar to Apple's because the majority of its customers are used to beige and off-white computers. But branded character computers are different.

"This makes PCs even more fun for kids to use," said Todd Bradley, senior vice president of Gateway's consumer division. "They are a big influencer, and lots of parents are making the investment in children early on from a technology viewpoint."

Gateway will be promoting special Blues Clues and Rugrats versions of its all-in-one Astro PC, but the characters will be available on any Gateway model. Enhancements include a special keyboard, mouse and decorative border. Gateway will also bundle four Blues Clues and Rugrats games with each PC.

The basic Blues Clues and Rugrats models come with a 400-MHz Celeron processor, 64MB of RAM, an integrated 15-inch monitor, 4.3GB hard drive, 40X CD-ROM drive, integrated speakers, four USB ports and 56K modem for $899.

Gateway will start taking orders Wednesday and start shipping Nov. 29.

One question remains: As the Pokemon craze is at an all-time high, with a new movie in theaters now, how long is it before someone does a Pokemon PC?