Fingerlings: Too Much Monkey Business?

The New York Times: The Fingerling is “a five-inch monkey that grips your finger with its legs and arms, as it babbles, blows kisses and blinks its eyes. Cradle a Fingerling in your hand and it drifts off to sleep. Press the Fingerling’s head and it passes gas. Created by the Canadian company WowWee, the Fingerling has been anointed one of this year’s hot toys for the holidays, a designation that most toymakers only dream of achieving.”

“How the Fingerling reached this tipping point — when suddenly millions of children cannot do without a $15 farting monkey — is the story of a promising idea’s going viral on social media, a large retailer’s savvy pricing strategy and the science of managing scarcity … This past week, Fingerlings were out of stock on Walmart’s website, while parents complained that they had been snookered into buying counterfeits … WowWee says it did not intentionally create the shortage. But whether by design or happenstance, there is no question that scarcity fuels a toy’s mystique.”

“WowWee had originally planned on selling the Fingerling for $20, but the giant retailer was insistent: About $15 was the magic number … When Fingerlings hit stores across the United States in August, Maya Vallee-Wagner, 7, was overcome with emotion … Her father … shot a video of his daughter’s reaction in the toy aisle of a local Target and sent it to WowWee … (which) posted it on the company’s Facebook page, and it went viral … The video was a marketing coup, just as WowWee was launching its social media push — an effort that in many ways resembled the rollout of a Hollywood movie. Gone are the days when a toy company could simply blitz Saturday morning cartoons with ads.”

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‘Unboxing’ is the Holiday’s Hottest ‘Toy’

The Wall Street Journal: “Taking a cue from the YouTube phenomenon known as unboxing—viral videos in which people theatrically unpack hot new products— companies are churning out tiny charms, stickers and golf-ball-size critters, all tucked away inside layers of plastic. The mystery objects have become one of the hottest categories of toys this season.”

“Unboxing videos, also big with technology and fashion reviewers, have become a key way children learn about new toys, and their popularity has grown exponentially in recent years. A recent search for “toy unboxing” on YouTube, a unit of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, brought up more than 12 million results.”

“Australia-based Moose Toys, maker of the popular Shopkins grocery-store figurines, launched its Pikmi Pops in September. The toy, a plastic lollipop-shaped container, hides ‘mystery items’ such as stickers, lanyards and charms … Each of Spin Master Corp.’s Hatchimals Surprise, released in October, holds plush twin critters in a single egg that cracks open after being cuddled.”

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Disney Brings Its ‘World’ To Retail

The New York Times: “Quietly, like a mouse on tiptoe, Disney overhauled its retail store at the Northridge Fashion Center mall in late July. Out went the twisty Pixie Path aisles, the ornate displays, the green walls and the color-changing fiberglass trees. In came a movie-theater-size screen, a simplified floor plan, white walls and more items for fashion-conscious adults … the Disney Store here was a prototype, and the company has been monitoring sales and consumer feedback as it prepares to revamp its 340-store chain.”

“The redesign makes Disney’s stores a bit more like Disney’s theme parks. For instance, daily parades at Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Florida will be streamed live to those colossal video screens. During the parades, store personnel will put out mats for shoppers to sit on and roll out souvenir carts stocked with cotton candy and light-up Mickey Mouse ears. The screens could easily be used to stream other events, such as red carpet arrivals for Disney movie premieres. That kind of programming could bolster foot traffic, and thus sales — while also turning the stores into a more potent promotional platform for Disney’s films, television shows and theme parks.”

“As it attempts a new mall strategy, Disney is also remaking its e-commerce operation. ShopDisney.com is replacing DisneyStore.com. The new site will have a less cluttered look and a vastly expanded assortment of designer merchandise aimed at adults (Mickey-themed Ethan Allen furniture and a $350 Siwy denim jacket with Minnie embellishments will be on offer). The site will also stock more items that previously were available only in stores inside Disney theme parks.”

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Porky Pig: The Anti-Mickey

The Wall Street Journal: “There were essentially two modes of expression in the Hollywood studio cartoon: the Disney style and that of Warner Bros. Disney strove for believable narrative and overwhelming naturalism—even in a fantasy like his 1937 milestone, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ Conversely, the Warners style, which is often conflated with that of Avery, its most innovative director, came to mean uproarious, fast-paced and often transgressively violent humor in which characters frequently violate the fourth wall and confront you with their artificiality.”

In 1935, “Warners released a cartoon called ‘I Haven’t Got a Hat’ introducing a group of animal schoolchildren, and the one who began to attract notice was a certain pig with a speech impediment. Within a year, he was starring in his own series of shorts, and before 1936 was over, Porky Pig was rapidly becoming the embodiment of a whole new kind of animated film. … By 1938-39, Bob Clampett had become the dominant directorial influence in Porky’s career. On his watch, Porky became considerably cuter, thanks equally to Mel Blanc, who now provided the pig’s voice and made the stutter more adorable than grotesque.”

“Clampett’s characters are like cuddly, bouncy balloons being manipulated by a maniacal genius … Clampett seems determined to contrast exaggerated cuteness with even more extreme violence, as if throwing a hand grenade in the middle of a Disney Silly Symphony.” By 1943, “two characters had already succeeded Porky as the studio’s biggest breadwinners, Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny. As popular as Porky had been a few years earlier, he was essentially a passive character—like Laurel & Hardy, things happened to him. He couldn’t compete with the brash, aggressive stars of the World War II era, like Bugs and Daffy, who belonged to the age of Abbott & Costello.”

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The Future of Toys: Dual Play

The Wall Street Journal: “Digital offerings aren’t threatening to wipe out physical toys anytime soon. Kids ‘are still reading books, still using Legos, people are making a place for physical toys,’ said Judy Ishayik, owner of Mary Arnold Toys, an independent toy shop in Manhattan. But, she said, ‘there’s more dual play,’ where physical toys are paired with a digital component. She pointed to Crayola, owned by Hallmark Cards Inc., which rolled out an app that turns coloring-book creations into animated online representations. Hasbro Inc.’s Love2Learn Elmo app provides children with a way of interacting verbally with their Elmo dolls.”

“Play on touch-screen devices outranks all other kinds of play in frequency—including with blocks, board games and puzzles—according to a 2014 survey by New York research firm Michael Cohen Group of 350 parents with children age 12 and under.”

“Some of Lego’s recent woes are because toys tied to movies have underperformed retailers’ and manufacturers’ expectations. Lego products tied to last year’s ‘Star Wars’ movie, ‘Rogue One,’ didn’t generate the same excitement as had the prior installment, ‘The Force Awakens,’ which was the first ‘Star Wars’ movie in a decade … Another big bet that didn’t fully deliver: the company’s second movie based on its toys, called ‘Lego Batman. Toys ‘R’ Us Inc. said toys tied to the movie missed sales goals, even though Lego spent heavily to try to boost interest.”

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Augmented Reality Retail: Last Jedi ‘Treasure Hunt’

The New York Times: “Disney is billing a new entertainment experience as a free ‘treasure hunt’ for ‘Star Wars’ fans … Some 20,000 stores in 30 countries will offer an augmented reality event that will allow participants to uncover ‘Last Jedi’ characters.”

“You download the ‘Star Wars’ smartphone app and head to the mall. Participating stores … will have a placard on display that says ‘Find the Force.’ Point your phone at the placard with the ‘Star Wars’ app open. One of 15 ‘Last Jedi’ characters, including two never before seen, will appear in the room. They might even talk. If you come back the next day, the same display will reveal a different character.”

“The app allows you to take photos of the characters, record videos and share the experience on social media. Anyone who does so via Twitter or Instagram … is entered in a sweepstakes. The grand prize is attending the ‘Last Jedi’ premiere … The effort illustrates what it now takes to generate excitement at traditional retail outlets, many of which have been struggling as online shopping continues to soar.”

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Retrocycles: How Indian Throttles Harley

The New York Times: Harley-Davidson “now faces perhaps its most trying challenge in decades. Polaris, an established American company with manufacturing know-how and a revered motorcycle brand in Indian, is quickly making big strides … Indian’s sales grew 17 percent in the second quarter of this year, while Harley’s sales shrank nearly 7 percent. Overall sales for large-displacement bikes, the kind that Harley specializes in, shrank 9 percent in the second quarter of this year.”

“The rebirth started well, with attractive bikes earning positive reviews from enthusiast publications … All Indian motorcycles are built in Spirit Lake, Iowa. While its bikes like the Scout and the just-released Scout Bobber are aimed at younger buyers, most models revel in heritage, with styling and names that hark back to the company’s prewar glory days. They represent, as Karl Brauer of Kelley Blue Book, an auto research firm, put it, ‘a cool theme married to a modern chassis’ and particularly appeal to buyers with a ‘what have you done for me lately’ outlook on brand loyalty.”

“Inevitably, Indian’s retro approach makes the brand a head-to-head competitor for Harley-Davidson, offering bikes in the touring, cruiser and midsize classes as well as the popular bagger category, or bikes carrying saddlebags but not the full windscreen and gear of a long-distance touring machine … To be sure, there is little chance that Indian will run Harley-Davidson out of business anytime soon. Harley’s sales last year, some 260,000 motorcycles worldwide, generated revenue of $6 billion.”

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Kronkiwongi: How Lego Fans Fandom

Fast Company: “In a presentation at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity on Sunday, Lego’s senior global director of social media and video Lars Silberbauer, broke down how the brand built and approaches that strategy … The two pillars of the brand’s social strategy are based on two core human social needs: the need to play and build together, and the pride of creation … By facilitating, supporting, and promoting the efforts of its fans, Lego amplifies their passion to a global audience, further fanning the flames of fandom everywhere it goes.”

“Silberbauer outlined three examples of how they do this. The first is through a competition called First Lego League, a Lego robotics competition that’s not run by the brand at all, in which up to 70,000 kids worldwide against each other in building Lego robots that can solve challenges. Second was the crowdsourcing platform Lego Ideas, where the brand invites people to propose and build new Lego sets. Like a branded version of Kickstarter, aspiring Lego designers have to get 10,000 supporters for their projects in order to be considered.”

“The third example was the Kronkiwongi Project.” Silberbauer explains: “The insight behind it is that 98% of us were creative geniuses at age three, but the challenge is that only 2% of us retain that level of creativity. With this project, we wanted to reveal and celebrate, not that we get less creative, but the amazing openness and creativity that kids have. So we asked kids from all over the world to tell us what a Kronkiwongi is and to build one for us.”

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Movies & Toys: Box-Office Bingo

The New York Times: “With the decline in DVD sales speeding up and the box office stalling on a global scale — even as movies become more expensive to make — studios like Warner for the first time are looking to merchandise as an engine. Film companies will release 25 movies with toy tie-ins this year, according to Bloomberg analysis, up from roughly eight annually in the past.”

“More than ever, consumer products are influencing moviemaking decisions — namely, sequels and more sequels. Retailers are more willing to devote shelf space to tie-in products when there is already proven interest … the opportunity is too great for studios to pass up, and Exhibit A is Disney. Over the last five years, operating income at Disney’s consumer products and video game business has roughly gone from $1 billion to $2 billion … Disney is the world’s No. 1 licenser, with themed products generating $56.6 billion in retail sales last year.”

‘It is not a coincidence that Warner, Universal and 20th Century Fox have turned to Disney veterans to invigorate their merchandise divisions.” Pam Lifford, the president of Warner Bros. Consumer Products, “spent 12 years at Disney Consumer Products, leaving in 2012, when she was an executive vice president … Jim Fielding, former president of Disney Stores Worldwide, took over consumer products at Fox in January. Vince Klaseus became Universal’s consumer products and video game chief in 2014 after a long run at Disney.”

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Pie Face: A New Era in Toymaking

The Washington Post: “Pie Face, a game in which a dollop of whipped cream is served up from a plastic “throwing arm” to someone who has positioned his face in its path … was the single best-selling item in the games category in 2016 and the fourth best-selling toy overall, according to market research firm NPD Group.”

“Pie Face is a symbol of a new era in toymaking, one in which social media is allowing the industry to marshal you, the everyday shopper, to become a product’s most powerful advertiser. And its mega-popularity has helped fuel a flurry of action from toymakers to create games that offer a ‘shareable moment’ — a brief visual morsel that parents and grandparents will post on Instagram or Facebook and that teens will put on Snapchat or YouTube. It’s a new breed of toy that can’t just be fun for players in real time. It has to be demonstrative. Performative, even.”

“Social trends go boom and bust at warp speed, and so toymakers say that they have to move at a breakneck pace to capitalize on them. Such was the case with Speak Out, another Hasbro creation. In this game, players wear a mouthguard-like plastic mold that stretches their faces to look cartoonish and makes it hard to talk. Players must say a phrase to a partner and get them to guess their garbled words. The idea for it was sparked by Web videos of people putting in dental mouthpieces and getting the giggles when they tried to speak clearly.”

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