This years American International Toy Fair, held February 20-23 at the Jacob Javits Convention Center and the Toy Center showrooms in New York, featured conservative product lines from companies both large and small. The toy business continues to face sales declines -- retail sales of traditional toys fell 3% to $20.1 billion in 2004, according to NPD Group figures released during Toy Fair -- and toy companies, in general, seemed to be opting for the tried and true.
Focus on Technology
Product categories that showed strong sales gains in 2004, the NPD Group said, were preschool electronic learning aids and youth-focused electronics. The plethora of tech toys at Toy Fair suggested this trend will continue. Several companies offered child-targeted media players and communications products, for example. Mattels Fisher-Price division released a new version of its handheld Pixter product that allows children to create their own movies from short clips of shows such as SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer. Mattel exhibited several media and communications items, including the Vcam digital video camera; the Juice Box personal media player, which can handle videogames, cartoons, videos, music and still pictures; and a cell phone for girls, marketed under the Barbie My Scene brand.
Hasbro introduced the ION Educational Gaming System, an electronic learning/handheld gaming device with software featuring animated properties such as Bob the Builder and Blues Clues, and showed its ChatNow two-way communicator and VideoNow and VideoNow Jr. personal video players. Sesame Street and several Nickelodeon properties are the latest additions to VideoNow Jr.s software line. Meanwhile, Emerson Radio launched a line of Nickelodeon-branded audio and home entertainment products, including portable CD and TV/DVD players.
Its all about having your content when you want it, said Jamie Cygielman, senior vp, consumer products, at HIT Entertainment. HITs properties are licensed to several toy companies for electronic media products, including Hasbro for VideoNow Jr., LeapFrog for LeapPad electronic books, and Vtech for the Vsmile. We want our content wherever the kids are, Cygielman said.
In addition to media products, a growing number of companies market traditional toys with a wide variety of electronic features. These include infrared communication between toys (e.g., action figures that can talk to each other), sound effects (Hasbros Star Wars lightsabers and Mattels Roboots, part of its licensed Robots line), touch-sensitive motion in plush toys (Toy Bizs Curious George dolls), and virtual environments (Mattels Pixel Chix and Bandais Tamagotchi Connection version 2).
Licensing and Co-Branding
Licensing activity for the highest-profile new properties was concentrated at the big toy companies exhibiting at the showrooms. With the exception of a few ongoing licenses such as Foxs The Simpsons, Disneys standard characters, Nickelodeons SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora, Marvels Spider-Man and Sanrios Hello Kitty, licensed products were few and far between at most of the booths at Javits, where more small to mid-sized companies exhibit.
Many of the licensed introductions this year were tied to films. Mattel showed products inspired by Foxs Robots, Warner Bros. fourth Harry Potter film (including a mini-terrarium to grow plants for making spells) and the upcoming Batman movie. Hasbro also highlighted several film-based lines, including Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Disneys Chronicles of Narnia and Chicken Little, and DreamWorks Madagascar. Toy Biz spotlighted toys tied to Curious George (which is being made into a PBS animated series that will debut after the film) and this summers Fantastic Four movie. (Several exhibitors said they had to pull Cars merchandise, tied to the Disney/Pixar film, which was deemed not yet ready to show.)
While film properties took center stage this year, several toy introductions were tied to TV series as well. Fisher-Price launched items based on Nelvanas Miss Spiders Sunny Patch Friends, Big Tents Koala Bros. and Nickelodeons All Grown Up and Lazy Town, while Mattel had Warner Bros. Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi. Playmates debuted its Atomic Betty playsets and posable plush, based on the animated series from Breakthrough Ent., while Bandai premiered D.I.C.E., a new brand developed by Bandais U.S. division that airs on Cartoon Network.
Toy Play launched a line of dolls and playsets based on Scholastics Maya & Miguel, which is being supported by promotions with organizations such as Major League Soccer (some of whose players are depicted in episodes of the animated PBS series). Leslye Schaefer, Scholastic Ent.s svp, marketing and consumer products, said the Maya & Miguel Website has generated more than 50 million page views.
Many licensors and toy makers working with TV properties emphasized the need for a good fit between the partners -- always an important factor but even more so in todays competitive TV and toy environments -- and the need to collaborate to promote a property and build it slowly. Action Products debuted a toy line tied to Taffy Entertainments ToddWorld, airing on TLC and represented for merchandising by L&G+ Licensing. We both [L&G and Action Products] have the same philosophy about growing a brand so it becomes an evergreen and not a flash in the pan, says Linda Rutherford, Action Products director of product design and development.
Other ToddWorld partners include HIT for videos and Little, Brown for books. The video packages feature a message about the books, while the books include an ad for the videos; all of HITs 15 million preschool videos will feature trailers for ToddWorld that support the books as well as the videos and the series itself. Liz Stahler, one of the principals at L&G+, points out that a new TV property can be a challenge to license unless its on a network with the highest viewership, namely Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network. Partners such as HIT, Action Products and Little, Brown strengthen a property significantly, not only because they have strong distribution, but because they have similar objectives for the property. Theyre the right partners for us, said Stahler. They really understood the brand.
One notable toy-industry trend that has strengthened this year is co-branding, the combination of a license with a well-known toy company brand name. Hasbro showed Ants in the Square Pants and the Game of Life in Bikini Bottom, both of which paired SpongeBob with long-established board games, as well as a Candyland game based on Dora. The company also promoted its Darth Tater figure (Star Wars plus Mr. Potato Head), Sorry! Madagascar, a Star Wars-branded Trivial Pursuit game and Operation: Simpsons Edition, among other examples. Similarly, Playmates married its Waterbabies line with several licenses, including Disney characters, Care Bears, Teletubbies and Nick Jr. properties.
Content is King
One development that became evident at Toy Fair in 2004 was that toymakers are increasingly creating in-, on- or off-pack content to enhance toy play. That trend intensified this year. Such content might take the form of a mini-book, comic or magazine, but it often appears as a DVD featuring a short animated episode about the toy. One of many examples this year was Mattels Doggie Day Care line, which comes with a 22-minute DVD that lets kids discover the characters backstory.
Some of Mattels Polly Pocket toys came with an in-pack DVD last year; this year, the property will be featured on a standalone disc retailing for $6 to $7. It comes with an on-pack Polly doll and pet. Meanwhile, the Hot Wheels Acceleracers brand is supported by four hour-long animated specials that will premiere on Cartoon Network and then be distributed on VHS and DVD by Warner Home Video. Webisodes will be posted online to continue the story between each special. All of the attributes of the toy line are linked directly to the entertainment.
Mattel has had great success with its Barbie direct-to-DVD productions and has three more planned for this year. Barbie Fairytopia is the first to be based on an original screenplay; the Fairytopia toy line debuted last year. Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus is the first original fairytale starring Barbie (the others were inspired by well-known stories such as Rapunzel) and the first Barbie production to come with 3D glasses for enhanced viewing. My Scene Goes to Hollywood is for older girls and is 2D-animated. (The fairy tales have all been 3D CG productions.) Mattel also is using online entertainment to further the Barbie storyline. For example, the Website tied to Mattels line of American Idol Barbie dolls has a stop-motion-animated American Idol-style contest that has received over 700,000 votes.
Several companies at Toy Fair exhibited direct-to-DVD entertainment series, many with a focus on education. School Specialties, an educational workbook publisher, launched a new series called Noodlebug, starting with four animated-and-live-action DVD titles for ages 2-5. There are also CDs available; books will follow later this year. And Rainbow Valley Fire Department is a new DVD series animated by Brain Zoo Studios. It stars Tim Conway; B.J. Thomas of Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head fame sings its theme music. The series is accompanied by toys, books and posters.
Several book publishers at the show had book-plus-DVD lines on display. And in the toy market, Fisher-Price introduced a joint venture with Scholastic called the Read with Me DVD! that uses the Scholastic Classic Video Collection as the basis for an interactive learning system. Nine book-based titles, including Where the Wild Things Are and The Little Engine That Could, are adapted from Scholastics Walden West childrens literature-based animation library.
More players are entering the already-crowded baby education segment of the DVD market. These join established players including Baby Einstein, Brainy Baby and Baby Genius, which debuted a softer animation style that Genius Products evp of marketing and production Larry Balaban refers to as 2.5D. Among the many newer brands are BabyPro, which encourages active play; Tiny Tot Sports, which markets Baby Baseball, Baby Golf and other sports-themed productions; and Zen Baby from Rounder Kids. Many of the productions combine animation and live-action footage.
The future of the New York Toy Fair is in some doubt. The toy building has been sold, meaning toy makers who prefer showrooms to Javits booths most likely will have to look elsewhere. (Some companies already rent showroom space in nearby buildings.) The Toy Industry Association (TIA) is reportedly discussing whether to move the convention out of the city, possibly to Atlanta or Orlando. The February show may even be discontinued eventually, some speculate, as the new October mass market toy show assumes more importance. The February event has been scheduled for Javits for 2006.
Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).