Predicting What's on Santa's Sleigh

By Gray, Robert | Marketing, December 16, 1999 | Go to article overview

Predicting What's on Santa's Sleigh


Gray, Robert, Marketing


Toy-makers are having to keep up with kids' sophisticated tastes.

Few would have predicted that an alien inhabiting an egg filled with slime would be one of this year's big hits. Or, for that matter, that miniature Pokemon monsters would have such huge currency among children.

With Christmas just over a week away and huge rewards if a manufacturer hits upon this year's craze, identifying what will appeal to children remains an imprecise science, if such as process can be called science.

The kids' sector is also adjusting to the impact of computer-based toys, where sales are outstripping traditional games. Only last week, Hasbro announced that it was cutting 2200 jobs and closing its Kent factory to focus on software and electronic toys.

The hit-and-miss nature of the business adds a certain frisson to toy manufacturing and distribution. There are three main ways in which toys are discovered and developed.

First and foremost is licensing, where products tie in with movies or children's TV series.

Second comes sourcing from suppliers around the world.

Finally, there is product that has been created, either by specialist toy inventors or by in-house R&D teams, or less frequently by the public. The Tamagotchi cyber-pets were the brainwave of a Japanese housewife.

Fantasy element

According to Paul Jones, deputy editor of trade magazine Toy Trader, half of all toys sold in the UK are licence-based and that proportion is growing.

"It's important to sign the big licence deals to gel with children's fantasies," says Emma Carle, Tiger Electronics PR and promotions manager. Tiger has done well with non-licensed products in recent years, in particular Furbys--a skilful combination of cuddly toy and electronics that have been hot this year and last.

But it also has products under licence from Barbie and this year's collectable craze, Pokemon.

While Pokemon may come and go, Barbie is one of only a handful of toy brands (alongside Action Man and Lego) with real staying power. Link Licensing managing director Claire Denny says there are 80 Barbie licensees across numerous product categories and attributes the brand's success to the fact that it is highly targeted at three- to eight-year-old girls.

But licensing, says Denny, is not easy. "Of all the properties that start life, few make it onto the shelves. Licensing is getting harder because of competition and retailers are finding it hard to pick the winners."

The massive success of Teletubbies merchandise surprised many who had felt there might not be huge demand for products from its preschool age audience. What helped the phenomenon hugely was the BBC's decision to commission 200 episodes. With the programme on every day, awareness was not a problem.

A similar approach has been adopted by the BBC for The Tweenies. Although its licensed product is not shifting in the same volumes enjoyed by Teletubbies in its prime, it is still performing well.

Movies, especially kids' blockbusters from Disney and Warner Bros, are probably the most high-profile source of toy licences. But even here, there are plenty of risks. Jones says: "You've got to be wary with licences because you need the product to back it up. There have been examples of big films that have just failed to take off. Godzilla, for example, didn't do nearly as well as expected. And, while Star Wars has been big, licensed toy sales haven't been as huge as many thought."

But more innovative licensing can pay off. One of the big hits of the moment is the board game based on the ITV quiz Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, which games company Upstarts licensed from production company Celador. So successful has the game been that Upstarts has struggled to meet demand - leading to shortages of a key toy in the run-up to Christmas. This follows in the footsteps of past culprits such as Buzz Lightyear and Power Rangers. …

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