How Today’s Modern Toy Makers Get Through to Your Kids

It takes a lot more than a 30-second spot during Saturday morning cartoons to create buzz these days.

by John Patrick Pullen
Originally Published: 

Once upon a time, you could make a killing in the toy industry with little more than a googly-eyed rock, a 30-second television spot, and a catchy little jingle. But much like your childhood Madballs collection, those days are gone. No longer are they’re just three major television networks that everybody watches or only two blockbuster kid movies released per year off which to sell accompanying toys. Now there seem to be as many toy lines as there are Pokémon, and companies have been forced to develop new strategies to get their products noticed.

“We are raising a generation of kids that are very, very savvy about marketing,” says Chris Byrne, content director for Toys, Tots, Pets, and More (TTPM). They skip commercials on TV and YouTube, they’re connected to social media (even though they shouldn’t be), and they don’t fall as easily for crappy toys. So, how then do modern toy companies grab kids’ attention and inevitably, their parent’s hard-earned money? To find out their secrets, we asked several industry experts the same question: “Exactly how do you generate rabid demand for a new toy?” Here’s how they do it.

Step 1: Create a Great Toy

This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s true. “If you don’t have a great toy,” says Isaac Larian, CEO of the MGA Entertainment, and the guy behind one of this holiday’s biggest hits, L.O.L. Surprise, “no matter how you market it, it will not sell.” In fact, making a great toy is more important now in the age of Amazon than ever before. “The barriers to entry are really low so if you can get a toy produced,” he adds. “You can sell it on Amazon Marketplace, regardless of whether a buyer at a store has taken it.” Cutting out the middleman not only pads the bottom line, but it also frees up money that toy-makers can then use to market their toys to kids with targeted online advertising.

Step 2: Build the Buzz

Back in the day, a few well-placed ads before, during, and after The Smurfs could line a toy company’s pockets for the season. Although even then, there was a huge word-of-mouth component to marketing toys. Kids had to see those commercials and then talk about the toys at school. And that’s not really much different from today.

“One of the primary motivators for demand is word of mouth — and that’s been true really since kids started playing with toys,” says Byrne. What’s changed, however, is how word of mouth is initiated and then sustained. “Today, that word of mouth is generated a lot by YouTube and social media and kids sharing online with other kids,” he says, rather than dishing in a schoolyard. He cites the Rainbow Loom as a great example. A colorful, rubber-band craft kit for kids, the Rainbow Loom first got popular at summer camp. It didn’t catch fire, however, until after kids started sharing their creations on YouTube. “The tactic hasn’t changed, but the media has,” Byrne says. “It really is still very much about kid-to-kid communication for a lot of these things.”

Step 3: Flood the Airwaves and the Internet

Despite its antiquated technology, television is still a vital part of promoting a toy. Not all kids are surfing the internet, and you want to cover your bases. “If you have the budget, some level of TV is still important,” says Byrne. “You don’t really know where all the eyes are and trying to catch them everywhere is key.” That said, many kids are increasingly online thanks to their parent’s cord cutting and that poses a particular challenge for marketers. Simply, YouTube and web video has created a fragmented media market where kids are their own programmers. Not only are there a lot of online personalities to follow but “[kids] are going to watch what they’re going to watch when they want to watch it,” says Byrne. “And they’re going to most likely watch it on mobile.”

In order to grab kids’ attention online, toy companies need to create some pretty gripping marketing materials. One way to do that is by working with influencers. These online personalities can range from your standard issue Kardashian to some 11-year-old in Omaha who does toy reviews on his own YouTube channel. For example, the 6-year-old star of YouTube channel Ryan ToysReview took down a cool $11 million last year alone.

A lot of influencers will simply feature toys that they think are cool, while others get paid a hefty fee for their endorsements. The reason they can command big dollars is, of course, because they bring a built-in (and receptive) audience right to the toy maker’s front door. Take, for example, Wowwee’s Fingerlings Friday campaign. “We filled a whole bunch of piñatas with Fingerlings, and then organized a coordinated campaign where influencers videotaped themselves bashing them” says Davin Sufer, Wowwee’s chief technology officer. “The Fingerlings came out in their packaging, and then they unboxed them. Each influencer did this in their own way and some really awesome videos came out of that.” Which, it’s safe to say considering how popular Fingerlings were the past Christmas, were seen by a lot of kids.

Step 4: Get Social

Children under 13 are not supposed to be on social media, but that doesn’t stop some toy-makers from marketing their products there ⏤ just don’t expect them to admit they’re targeting underage Instagrammers. “We really don’t market on social media to children under 13,” says Larian. “But I think kids are watching it with their parents. That is what we see happening.”

Byrne agrees that social media is a big part of toy companies marketing mix. “It’s interesting because most of these sites are not designed for kids under 13,” he says, “But many kids under 13 use them.” It explains why, if you’re a parent, you might be bombarded by ads for fidget spinners every time they check your news feed. And Facebook, for its part, isn’t exactly shy about toy-related companies advertising on the site ⏤ despite the company’s position prohibiting users under age 13. They’ve even published a success story about a toy store that lifted its sales 20% in four weeks through video ads and promoted posts.

Step 5: Land in the “Top” Lists

While the Sears catalog may have gone the way of the Yellow Pages, there are still some printed promotional materials left, and toy companies jockey for position in them. The modern-day equivalent of those long-forgotten mailers are the top toy lists put out by magazines, websites, and research firms that not only denote critical favorites, but also sales darlings.

“The catalog’s been displaced by these ‘Top 10’ lists or ‘Hottest Toy of the Year’ lists on every site or every publication,” says Sufer. And right now, there’s no more popular list than Amazon’s Top 100 Holiday Toys. This year, the list was announced in August — which helps explain why Christmas keeps coming earlier every year.

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