Mention the name ‘Smurfs’ to a North American, and the likely reaction would be the summoning of a rather distant memory of white-capped, elfin creatures who merrily went about their business in some kind of fairy tale village.
But while the recollection today among many might be little more than that, the memory is most decidedly still there, a brand image that remains alive and, even more importantly for Toronto-based Irwin Toy, continues to carry with it a very positive association.
Irwin, the toy-maker whose current line-up includes the master licence for products derived from such successful kids television series as ReBoot is about to bring the Smurfs back to life in North American toy stores, backed by a full-scale national television advertising and promotional campaign.
‘We believe the timing is perfect for a relaunch of the Smurfs,’ says Irwin senior vice president Scott Irwin.
The idea of a Smurfs revival in North America developed out of talks between Irwin and Toy Island, a Hong Kong-based toy-maker. Toy Island had approached Irwin last summer to see whether Irwin was interested in providing North American marketing support for a new line of Smurf toys.
Toy Island, which also manufactures RoboCop and Rupert the Bear products among others, had created a series of Smurf spin-offs featuring molded plastic Smurf characters with articulated arms and legs.
In addition, Toy Island had created a line of accessories and playsets related to these new Smurfs.
‘This (articulated limbs) had never been done with Smurfs, and we became very excited about the notion of bringing them back,’ says Irwin.
The Smurf phenomenon began in Europe in 1958 as a comic strip. The happy tales from Smurf village made their way into comics and story books across Europe, and its first animated film in 1975.
Throughout Europe Smurfs are as popular today and as prominent in European toy stores and promotional tie-ins as they ever were.
By contrast, Smurfs have virtually disappeared from the North American market. They made their debut in the U.S. in September 1981 when NBC began airing the first of 256 episodes it had ordered from Hanna-Barbera. Smurfs took North America by storm, then faded in a peaceful exit after an extraordinarily lucrative run.
The Cartoon Network has continued airing the show in off-peak time slots, but otherwise the Smurfs have been on commercial hold in the U.S. and Canada.
This is about to change.
‘We couldn’t believe, when we looked into it, that it had been so long since Smurfs were here in North America,’ says Irwin.
‘Yet the characters are timeless. There’s nothing that would date them. They have no clothing style set in time. They really are a timeless fairy tale.’
The Smurfs were a bit of a fairy tale story for the manufacturers and retailers who supported the products as well. By some estimates, Smurfs generated more than $1 billion (US) combined retail sales during their best year.
‘Some toy lines, when they have run their course, end up leaving a retailer, or a manufacturer-or both-with some inventory. A toy line that might have a wonderful ride up, can often have a powerful ride down in terms of mark-downs or close-ups,’ says Irwin.
‘In the case of Smurfs, everyone seemed to have played it perfectly. They (Smurfs) didn’t come to an abrupt end. They came to a very soft landing, leaving all parties happy and satisfied. That’s probably one of the reasons why you can’t pinpoint when they went away.
‘Some propertities have a very clear life span, say, six months, when they rise in popularity then die when the novetly factor has worn off and there is nothing of substance to sustain them.
‘Smurfs aren’t that kind of product. There are Smurfs groups on the Internet today, which makes sense when you realize that the 10 year olds of 15 years ago are the 25 year olds who are on the Net today,’ Irwin points out.
Irwin spotted a couple of other trends in the marketplace that made him feel that backing the Smurfs was a pretty safe bet.
‘The timing looks good. For one thing, we’re coming off a year in which there was no big licensing success. Retailers and manufacturers all invested heavily into new concepts and, by and large, were disappointed
‘Now we’re heading into Toy Fair ’96 with another 50-or-so licences that are being touted as the next best thing. And retailers are being asked to make decisions based on TV shows that haven’t been on air yet and movies that haven’t even been made.
‘And people are trying to make up their minds on the basis of whether they are looking at another potential Batman, or another Waterworld. Who knows?
‘Retailers are understandably heading into this year with a somewhat jaded view with respect to new licences.’
Irwin says he thinks Smurfs might also fit into what he describes as a pendulum-swing back to the revival of old hits. Irwin pioints to the successful rerelease of such old-time toy favorites as Stretch Armstrong and Creepy Crawlers as examples.
‘Manufacturers are going back into their archives looking for what worked before.’
A key element of the Smurfs toy line that made the products such a success 15 years ago-and which maintains their popularity in Europe-is their collectability. There are a couple of hundred tiny Smurfs that people can buy. Collectors went mad over the characters, picking up a Smurf with a tennis racket to go with the Smurf with a shovel or the one reading a book so they could make up their own Smurf villages.
‘The category was definitiely collectability,’ says Irwin.
Before going ahead with his North American game plan, Irwin went beyond the limited product line tied up by Toy Island and purchased licensing rights to vinyl miniatures as well as plush toys. Smurf licences are controlled by the Brussels-based company, IMPS.
‘If we were prepared to put all this promotional and marketing support behind the Smurfs we didn’t want someone to be able to ride on our coattails. We really wanted to control the licence,’ says Irwin.
Throughout the late summer and early fall, Irwin met with European licensees and lined up agreements to represent their products in North America. ‘It meant we could take product off their tooling and be in business right away,’ says Irwin.
At the same time, Irwin presented the idea to a number of major retailers and became even more encouraged by their responses. ‘We’re getting good support for early delivery. They all want to test it,’ says Irwin.
The next step was locking up the Smurfs television series for Canada. The show has already been playing on the Cartoon Network in the U.S. Irwin hopes that next fall, when the Cartoon Network is expected to increase its penetration of U.S. households from its current 23.6 million to 35 million subscribers, it will have the effect of a relaunch of the Smurfs.
For Canada, Irwin has purchased 65 episodes of the show and expects to have a broadcast deal signed soon for a spring air date.
‘The show, like the toy line, has a timelessness about it. It also fits in with the current interest in non-violent programming, yet it has an element of excitement about it. And there are other positive apsects, as in the fact that the Smurfs are all blue in color, which gives the show a multicultural element. Everyone can identify with them.’
Irwin will be introducing more than 200 of the Smurf miniatures, available on blister cards or in counter displays. As well, 12 animated Super Smurf figures and six action figures will be available, along with three traditional Smurf cottages.
Five Smurf playsets include an animated figure, and four diecast vehicles with Smurfs are part of the line.
The preschool category includes a Talkin’ Flip Phone and three Smurf ‘n’ Talks. In plush, Irwin is offering an assortment of 9- to 12-inch Smurfs and a 16-inch Berry Lovin’ Baby Smurf with color change and sound.
The next piece of the puzzle-the one that Irwin is still working on, and the piece that would make the picture perfect, he says-will be lining up a fast food or packaged goods promotional partner. ‘That,’says Irwin, ‘will be the icing on the cake.’