Snoopy for sale? 'Peanuts' may go on the auction block.

Iconix Brand Group is exploring a sale of its majority stake in Peanuts Worldwide, Reuters reports.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters/File
A float depicting the 'Peanuts' characters Snoopy and Woodstock proceeds along 6th Ave during the 89th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York in 2015.

Flagging popularity may have Snoopy in the doghouse. 

Iconix Brand Group Inc. is reportedly looking to sell off the Peanuts gang. The US brand management company hopes to pay down its debt with the profits that could be raised from the sale of its controlling stake in the world famous franchise. Shifting demographics of Snoopy fans contributed to insurance giant MetLife's decision to drop the canine mascot last year, but the beagle and his friends still enjoy a significant following around the world. 

First published under the title "Li'l Folks," the comic was renamed "Peanuts" in 1950, and ran original strips until 2000, when cartoonist Charles Schulz died. Syndicated reruns continue in newspapers to this day, and the Schulz family still owns 20 percent of the brand. 

Iconix, which also manages clothing brands such as London Fog and Joe Boxer, is mired in debt, as much as $1.29 billion as of the end of last September. The company sold its rights to flagship brand The Sharper Image for $100 million last year, and "[i]t's very possible that they would do the same with proceeds from the sale of their stake in Peanuts," said Jessica DiNapoli, corporate restructuring reporter for Reuters. 

Licensed in more than 100 countries, Peanuts still generates about $30 million in pretax earnings annually, but the brand took a big hit in 2016 when MetLife ended its 31-year relationship with Snoopy, estimated to cost them $12 to $15 million per year. The Christian Science Monitor previously reported on the sale last October. 

MetLife seized in 1985 on the nostalgic appeal of Snoopy, Charlie, Linus, and Lucy when it started to use the characters in life insurance ads, business cards, and even blimps. But warm memories of the mischievous beagle and holidays spent watching Charlie Brown specials have dissipated from generation to generation, with the disappearance of Saturday-morning cartoons, and the rise of streaming services.

While animated characters like the Geico insurance gecko continue to be popular spokesmen, MetLife’s decision to fire Snoopy represents a shift in the demographic the insurer plans to market to as cartoons take on a different meaning for a younger generation.

“The people who grew up with Peanuts, who really feel that strong nostalgia, are not the majority of people MetLife is trying target,” Breagin Riley, a marketing professor at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “The old way is just not working anymore for them.”

Joining Peanuts on the auction block may be Iconix's Strawberry Shortcake brand, a 1980s character that became popular as a doll for young girls, according to Reuters. 

But Snoopy and the gang may see new life yet. The 2015 Peanuts Movie was nominated for a Golden Globe award and grossed nearly $250 million worldwide. Furthermore, the Witness this Snoopy Museum recently opened in Tokyo, where the cute characters are especially popular. Japan is its largest overseas market, and Chinese companies are among the investors showing interest in purchasing the brand. 

This report contains material from Reuters.

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