I'll never forget the Christmas my parents bought me a Grimlock Transformer. I peeked a week before I was allowed to open the gift, and had to contain an almost unbearable level of excitement for several days. I was old enough to be thoroughly impressed with a dinosaur that was also a robot, and young enough not to be jaded by the 'new' Transformers.
The Dinobots were an absurd addition to a cartoon series which, in hindsight, was just a badly scripted 30 minute commercial, punctuated by shorter but no less tempting ads for sugary breakfast cereals and bright, plastic Bigwheels bikes.
Since the eighties, this merchandising formula has endured:
- Create a core cast of toys based on standard personality types - the Leader, the Cute One, the Sporty One, the Nerd...
- Give each character a back-story, propagated through linear and interactive media.
- See if they catch on.
- If they do, add more characters (ie: more products) and license the bejeezus out of them.
- If not, retire the line and hope it catches on as a collectible or cult classic.
(If you're lucky, you can hit kids, collectors, and hipster-boy cult followers all at once, as Hasbro has done with the new My Little Pony series.)
Licensed characters vs creative toys
Nowadays, most kids have multiple touchpoints with which to engage their favorite characters. The popularity of licensed characters might imply that the average child has no interest in making her own stories and characters.
Recently, however, toys like Lego and games like Minecraft are gaining popularity over traditional licensed toys. Brands aimed at a new generation of maker-kids have a longer lifetime value than toys and games based around particular branded characters. And companies like Mattel are starting to feel the pain.
Why are licensed toys suffering? Kids quickly outgrow toys that use simple personality types to attract them. On the other hand, toys that encourage them to imagine and invent, like Lego and Meccano, can be modified and expanded over a longer period, becoming an investment of the child's time and creative energies. These toys are more likely to be passed down through multiple generations, since they are always relevant.
While prefabricated stories and personalities make it easier to jump in and play without having to think too hard, they also serve a different purpose. Much like the colors and activities we prefer, our choice of a favorite character helps shape our identity. The kid who loves Tigger best is a different kid from the one who favors Eeyore or Pooh.
Selling the sizzle is only okay for apps
There's an expression in the toy industry; 'sell the sizzle and not the steak'. As a child, I fell in love with Grimlock because of his steak (repeat: freaking robot dinosaur.) But his sizzle ruined him.
The reason toy companies have to sell lots of cheap stuff as often as possible is that when you sell the sizzle, it almost always ruins the toy. Kids quickly get bored of sizzle. They outgrow it. It never lives up to their expectations.
Discovering that Grimlock was, in actual fact, the stupidest Transformer ever created, felt like a betrayal. Grimlock's stupidity was a reflection of my taste, and since I didn't want anyone thinking I approved of a dumb character, he probably spent a grand total of 3 months in my life. My parents vowed never to buy me a transformer again, and I grew skeptical of toys with marketing stories. After all, if a freaking robot dinosaur can turn out to be an idiot, no cool-looking toy is safe.
Parents know their kids are going to get bored of cheap, licensed toys. If kids are going to get bored anyway, apps are actually a better investment. They take up less space, you can impulse-buy them from the comfort of your home, and they satisfy the need of the child to engage with their favorite character without spending a lot of money.
Grimlock was a disappointment. But there's a better way: Done right, a toy that uses data to learn from children and connectivity to allow a community is a steak that makes its own sizzle.
Self-Sizzling-Steak. It's a thing.
The future of toy marketing is Self Sizzling Steak; products that support communities focused on innovation. These customers become ambassadors for the story that sells the toys. Here are a few examples:
- Roominate, an engineering focused dollhouse construction kit launched on Kickstarter, questions gender roles and allows young girls to construct an electrically wired home.
- Super Fan Art, a website created by a partnership between Hasbro and 3D printing service, Shapeways, allows fans to print their own custom My Little Ponies.
- Littlebits is an open source electronic prototyping system that includes kits for making everything from Korg synthesizers to spaceships co-designed by Nasa.
All three of these examples have a community of customers who willingly share their own designs and ideas online, making it much easier for the companies to collect consumer behavior data after the toy has left the store. These toys' communities have a feedback loop between users and the toy - in effect, a good steak creates more sizzle by itself.
With young makers launching amazing creation products that offer better value in the eyes of both parents and children, major toy companies will continue to lose market share unless they learn to sell the steak, which in this case means selling the actual experience and long-term value of the toy. In order to do this, toy companies must use data collected by their consumers, and by the toy itself.
Successful toy companies of the future will no longer rely on sales and focus groups to design one-off, sizzle style promotions. Instead, they will support toy user communities, and create steak-story-sizzle feedback loops that will reach new audiences and promote innovative new toys. This a a radical shift in the way traditional toys are marketed, and it will be interesting to see if giants like Mattel and Hasbro can make the shift.