My Buddy, wherever I go, he goes…
It's Slinky, it's Slinky, it's fun, it's a wonderful toy…
Transformers- more than meets the eye…
Ah, the sweet sounds of childhood. Conjure up a few memories from your own and you may be able to recall a few games of tag, cardboard sword fights, and climbing the big oak tree in your backyard. But among those real life memories resides a medley of jingles from toy commercials that we all endured during the breaks between The Banana Splits, Scooby Doo, or Alvin & the Chipmunks. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in footed pajamas, we’d sing along into our cereal spoons. And when 10am rolled around, we hounded our parents to purchase the toys freshly promoted to our impressionable brains.
Without a doubt, advertising has the ability to impact our lives and minds, to drive shopping trends, and often entertain. That holds doubly true for children. Prepubescent minds are sponge-like, soaking up bits of information from all around, especially relevant and appealing information. Ad men picked up on this long ago and began marketing to them specifically.
According to the Canadian Toy Testing Council, advertising will probably be a child’s first introduction to what it means to be a consumer in the global marketplace. Children are the consumers of tomorrow and need to be provided with the necessary skills to enable them to make wise consumer decisions. Today’s children are maturing more rapidly than previous generations and thus require advertising that can keep up with the revolving trends. Which means the toy industry needs creative professionals who are in tune with developments and willing to explore new venues of marketing.
The television commercial is still the preferred method of marketing for those with large budgets and it still proves to be the most effective, but there are many other methods invoked by toy companies to alert kids of all ages to new innovative toys. Forms of toy promotion take place in retail outlets, conventions and trade shows, print and Internet media, and could even be displayed in your own home.
Put on your pajamas and pour yourself a bowl of cereal and take a look at some strategies of the biggest and brightest in the Central Florida toy industry.
Some Assembly Required
Central Florida plays home to many growing companies in the toy industry. Some have been around since the 1930s, others are new to the scene, but all of them are dedicated to promoting quality toys. As high-profile companies such as Hasbro and Mattel continue to dominate the television commercial arena, these Orlando toy makers are putting their names and products into the market with other methods.
The business of marketing a line of toys isn’t limited to consumer audiences. Before a toy even reaches the public eye, manufacturers and distributors must first entice retailers with the new products.
Greg Zesinger of Action Products International, Inc. says, “The best way to promote a toy is to get it in the hands of your retailer so they can see it and touch it for themselves. We achieve this through trade shows such as the American International Toy Fair™ and an excellent network of sales representatives.”
The American International Toy Fair™, held annually in New York, offers the opportunity for over 1500 manufacturers, distributors, importers and sales agents from 30 countries to showcase their toy and entertainment products. Store buyers for toy retailers attend these shows and decide which products will line their shelves. Essentially, the fate of a toy and its company rests in the hands of retailers because if a store doesn’t stock it, the consumer won’t see it. Stores with limited shelf space, large chains such as Target and Wal-Mart, can induce competition among toy companies to develop and present spectacular exhibits, especially when the latter currently controls one-fifth of the traditional toy market.
The purpose of Toy Fair and related trade shows is to give the store buyer a chance to handle the toy, to determine whether it fits their market, and to determine the best way to promote it in the store (i.e. demonstrations, special displays, providing reservations if the toy promises to be hot, etc). But it isn’t the only way toy companies put the word out about their products.
Zapf Creation (U.S.) Inc., the Orlando-based subsidiary of German doll maker, Zapf Creation AG, moved to Orlando to set up Zapf Creation’s North American office in 1999 with relatively no brand awareness. Today, more than 2,000 retailers sell Zapf Creation dolls across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other Latin American countries. It did so through recognizing the importance of establishing strong relationships with top retailers.
Zapf Creation achieves its continued growth goals with an integrated marketing plan. “The process for promoting a toy or a line of toys happens with a strong team of marketers, including a public relations team, advertising team, sales team, point-of-purchase design firm, distribution channel management team and support staff at the Orlando, Florida office, to work in concert to gain recognition and market-share within the $20 billion U.S. toy market, the most competitive and important toy market in the world,” says Brandie Schwartz, Senior Marketing and Sales Specialist of Zapf Creation (U.S.), Inc.
“Everything we do at Zapf Creation goes back to our mission statement of providing safe, quality, nurturing products that inspire imaginative fun to a culturally diverse audience,” adds Schwartz.
In downtown Orlando, Action Products International, Inc. focuses their attention on brand development, e-commerce strategies, and merchandising through retail packaging and point-of-purchase (POP) display systems to provide retailers with tools to efficiently present their product lines to the consumer.
Consumers often overlook packaging as a method of advertising, but industry officials agree that is it the most effective. “Packaging is the strongest form of advertising because it is your best chance to get a potential consumer to pick up your product,” says Zesinger.
Action Products, whose products include educational and non-violent toys such as including Jay Jay the Jet Plane™, Space Voyagers ®, and Climb@Tron ™, and its creative staff are very involved in the package design process. “Packaging should always be interesting to all who see it. The packaging adds value to the product inside simply by its purpose, which is to “show-off” the toy,” says Art Director Sharon Penland.
Penland describes her vision of packaging design as “basically a 3-D billboard for the toy that you’re trying to sell. I liken it to creating a sculpture. With a sculpture, the message must be communicated effectively from every angle possible. The same is true with good packaging design—it must communicate from all sides and angles to give the consumer all the information and motivation they need to buy that product.” She continues, “[It accomplishes this with] interesting features printed on it such as holographic images, die cuts, or textures.”
Penland believes in the power of package design. She states, “Whether it’s about excitement or information, toy packaging is effective in advertising its message.”
Commercials and print advertisements are great baiting tools in toy promotion, but it’s unanimous among consumers, retailers, and toy companies that walking into a store and getting the full effect of a product firsthand is the surefire way to sell a toy.
“For those who sell over the Internet, the world is their marketplace. But nothing beats actually holding a toy in your hands and purchasing it on the spot, then and there,” says Peter Nason of Marz Distribution.
Store placement is a form of toy promotion within the retail walls and often determines how well a toy will sell. Toys displayed on a rack or display near the front of the store, at the check out counter, or being demonstrated by an employee may sell more rapidly than, say an item in the back of the store, buried under a pile of forgotten mute Furbys and a My Pet Monster plush doll left over from 1987.
Store managers or owners ultimately decide where to place their stock on the floor, but display systems are left up to the toy manufacturers and distributors. Companies lacking the in-house capabilities to create complex displays turn to specialists like EBI/Exhibit Builders, a well-rounded promotion firm with expertise in many aspects including themed displays, point of purchase displays, tie in promotions as well as developing corporate toys and gifts.
Penny Morford, the CEO of EBI details the company’s purpose, “Retail outlets expect distributors to provide displays. In most cases we work directly with the distributor or the manufacturer; but remain in the loop with the retailer to determine store requirements for size, quality, receiving specifications and delivery frequency. Chain stores may want the option to co-brand affecting graphic treatment and signage.”
“A successful point-of-purchase (POP) display is an extremely valuable element in the launch of a new product; second only to the product itself. Most toy or novelty purchases are impulse purchases; therefore, the product must be seen. It must be easily accessible and positioned as close to the check out stand as possible. The POP design drives the location and ultimately the sales,” says Morford.
POP displays are commonly cardboard racks with built-in shelves and art of the featured characters and toy specs printed on all sides. Some companies will ship the display with just enough products to fill it, to prevent overstocking.
Even with the displays, some retailers have their own, smaller strategies for promoting the products within the store walls.
Colin Bowman of Notable and Notorious, a collectibles toy store in Lake Buena Vista, says, “The store is laid out so that everything is equally displayed, of course if a manufacturer makes many lines then it will appear as if he has a huge area. Our strategy is to bring other items that relate to the product ... for example, if we have items from a movie, we will have autographs, movie posters, photos etc. also for sale.”
“Our biggest way to promote items is to place it on one of our two feature tables at the front of the store or take it out of the box to let people play with it,” says Lin Hanzelko, President and Owner of Timmy’s Toy Chest in Orlando.
Distributors may encourage certain trendy toys and stores might devise a brilliant display set-up, but whether a toy sells or flops rests entirely on the shoulders of the consumer and his jingle-spouting child in tow. “Desirability comes with the public’s knowledge and recognition of an item. That’s why pop culture-oriented toys—those with a TV or music tie-in- do so well early on,” adds Nason.
As Seen on T.V.
Not every toy on the market is an original, innovative product developed from scratch by manufacturers and not every toy is presented to the consumer in a retail setting.
From cereal boxes and candy packaging to television shows and movies, toys have been used to plug other brands and products and providing incentive for youngsters and their adult counterparts to take part in pop culture trends. The Canadian Toy Testing Council reports that one of the fastest-growing advertising trends has been cross-market merchandising movies, cartoons, television shows, etc, with toys.
We have all, at some point, brought a specially-marked cereal box home, ripped it open, and dumped its contents into a big bowl (or onto the kitchen floor, little brother, and the family dog) to get to the surprise toy at the bottom. Cracker Jack has long been luring kids to its product with a decoder ring or fake tattoo nestled in caramel coated popcorn. And fast food establishments have been the front-runners in marriage of food and toys. In fact, some restaurants are successful in tying together the food, the cartoon/movie du jour, and the company behind the toy all in one promotion. But not all promotional toys are embedded amongst tasty morsels.
In recent years, the toy market has been flooded with products advertising newly released movies and hit television shows. Products run the gamut from action figures to plush dolls, board and video games to consumables. For a fan or avid collector of the show or movie, the selection can be an absolute dream. According to the co-publisher of U.S.-based Toy Wishes magazine, 2002 was a big year for film licensing tie-ins with toys.
When a product is created from a television show, film, comic strip, or beloved character, it is the result of a license (the lease of the right to use a legally protected name, graphic, logo, phrase, or likeness) purchase by a manufacturer. The idea of licensing in the U.S. developed over a century ago from the growth and popularity of comic strips. The first “licensed” comic strip character was Buster Brown in 1902, with his image appearing on games and toys. Following that launch, licensing extended to characters including Betty Boop, Popeye, and Felix the Cat. Before he had his head emblazoned on kitchenware, clothing, buildings, and corporate stationary, Walt Disney sold Mickey Mouse for $300 to appear on a school notebook.
Sometimes promotional toys aren’t related to the entertainment industry at all.
Not Sold in Any Store
Toys can turn up in the most unexpected places. Many corporations lend their logos to toys, tchotkes, knickknacks, and related products. These toys are often filed under the more professional-sounding “promotional products” title.
Pamela Grimes, co-owner and designer at Originality, Inc., a corporate gift design firm, defines the promotional product as “a marketing tool designed to get a message across- whether it be for increasing name recognition, promoting a web site, attracting visitors to a trade show booth, or even to project a certain image.”
These products—mostly common items with logo emblazoned upon them like beverage insulators, key fobs, pens, golf balls, and stress balls—are often used by corporations to promote their business brand or reward employees.
Some companies are not content to simply have their logo printed on a pre-made product and turn to companies like Originality, Inc. or Planned Biz to create specialty gifts, including toys.
“At Originality, Inc. we strive to incorporate creative concepts with our designs so that promotional products make an impact and lasting impression on the recipients,” says Grimes. “Most of the time, we gather information from our clients such as objective, company image, message, demographic information of the recipients, and budget. Based on this information, we then formulate and present several creative concepts which meet these criteria.” She continues, ““If we feel that a promotional toy best suits our clients’ needs and is the best tool to get their message noticed and remembered, we will create them.”
Robert Weiss of Planned Biz, a franchise of Adventures in Advertising shares how his company used toys in a promotional manner. He says, “One of the companies that we represent is a company called Flipdog.com, a subsidiary of Monster.com based out of Provo, Utah. They came to us and said, ‘Look, we’re going to a trade show in New York, our website just won an award from PC magazine, and we want to go to that trade show and make a real splash. Can you come up with a promotional product that we can use for press release purposes and for the trade show?’ We came up with a toy dog that is about 9 inches from nose to tail, 5 inches off the table that barks, walks, sits down, and then it jumps up into the air, does a little flip and lands on its feet. It has a collar around it neck that reads Flipdog.com. We provided about 10,000 of them, which Flipdog handed out at the show and it was one of the most successful promotions they’ve ever had.”
So, what makes a promotional toy an effective marketing tool? “The reason is that promotional products are very targeted, unlike a billboard or print and radio media. Promotional products have an endearing, long-term focus with a lasting quality,” says Weiss.
Collect Them All!
While many toy companies still compete for the attention and imagination of babes, other companies (or sections of companies) have tapped into the adult toy market. And the state of current affairs has us turning to reminders of simpler days in the form of beloved characters and classic toys. This desire to recapture youthful innocence is one of the primary reasons toy collecting became so popular.
“Nostalgia plays a big part in toy collecting. It plays on a person’s desire to remember more halcyon days and touches the hearts of those who grew up with the wonderful playthings… a blast from the past provides good escapist fare,” says Peter Nason, Director of Communications at Marz Distribution.
Marz Distribution, located in Sarasota, FL, has provided worldwide distribution to the toy, hobby and specialty markets for the past two years, carrying a plethora of licensed products from Incredible Hulk action figures to Star Wars prop replicas.
The adult collectible toy market requires an entirely different strategy and is generally accomplished through print media in collector magazines like Toy Shop and Toy Review, conventions, and package design geared to the avid collector. Greg Zesinger makes the point, “Not all toy companies are alike, nor are their target audiences. Adults, teens, and children are all attracted to different things, so you must tailor your message, artwork, and language accordingly.”
Few commercials are geared toward the adult toy collector compared to the slew of campaigns directed to kids. Even films intended for primarily adult or teen audiences (the Reservoir Dogs action figures being one exception) develop television spots depicting 10-year old arms playing with the doll or toy. Instead, adults must rely on other sources such as the specialty magazines and the Internet.
Adults also tap into their dusty memories and seek out the toys of their childhood, toys they either couldn’t afford or lost to mom-conducted garage sales. Enter the toy convention.
Toy conventions offer adults the opportunity to embrace nostalgia and catch up on the latest toy releases. Central Florida hosts several cons every year, providing local enthusiasts with opportunities to find what the retailers no longer carry. MegaCon, FX Show, Tampa Comic and Toy Convention, Orlando’s Comic Book, Toy & Collectible Show are a few of the shows hosted throughout the year.
Conventions, while not used to specifically promote a toy, do promote a sense of community amongst toy and comic collectors. Similar to purchasing a toy in the store rather than online, the personal connection adds to the experience.
“Collectors like to see new things, examine what they might buy. Often my experience is that I will see something I had not known about and this becomes my purchase. Conventions allow for conversations with others who are interested in the same things. There is also a chance to haggle over a price, which you can’t really do on eBay,” says Tim Gordon of the Tampa Comic and Toy Convention.
Nason, who also works with FX Show, adds,” It’s like actually walking into an online auction site and seeing everything offered in one location. Some people look for the hard-to-find item, while others seek out the new hot product that will be the year’s Big Toy.”
How is a toy convention different from the Toy Fair? “The Toy Fair in New York City is where all the manufacturers showcase their upcoming lines, but do not sell anything directly… only toy dealers and distributors can attend,” explains Nason.
We know the cause of collecting, but what makes a toy collectible? Greg Zesinger brings up a recurring factor in the toy industry, “Collectibility is in the eye of the beholder. For some, scarcity and low production runs might make a toy collectible. For others, painstaking attention to detail and superior sculpting/production value could make the toys collectible. It really boils down to what the consumers are looking for personally.”
Get Yours Today
As we heard from several sources, consumer desirability is the key factor in selling a toy. But it is up to the toy companies, their ad agencies, and toy stores to create desire-evoking advertisements. How they do it, though, is a constantly evolving process. “The toy industry is extremely diverse and keeping our options open allows us to accomplish more for our brands,” says Sharon Penland.
We have only pressed our noses against the surface of creative toy promotion. There are numerous tools that toy companies utilize in marketing besides packaging, commercials, and trade shows. Consider other sources of consumer advertising—catalogs, print media, the Internet, television-shopping networks… the marketing possibilities are endless.
Surely, toy marketers have the ideal careers. Even with the stress of keeping up with trends and churning out better, more sophisticated toys, these professionals are in the business of promoting fun, imagination, and youthfulness. And what could be better than getting paid to play with a toy?
Nason sums it up best, “No one has ever complained about being overwhelmed with fun. That’s what separates the toy industry from all the other industries. It’s all about the joy—100% fun.”
originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Create magazine Central Florida edition
Content on this site was originally written by Katharine Miller between 2000-2015. Many feature articles and interviews were published in print and on websites that no longer exist. Katharine is reproducing her written material here for portfolio and archival purposes only. Links and credits to clients and original publication will be included where possible.