Some 1,600 exhibitors have their showrooms primed and ready with the latest toys as they wait for the more than 20,000 buyers who are expected to come to New York City for the 1997 American International Toy Fair. Increasingly, toy manufacturers and film and television studios are teaming up to develop products based on licensed properties, which now make up as much as 50 percent of all toys. Our special report on Toy Fair looks at how the studios and toy companies are working their way through these collaborations.
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Carving out a niche for toys based on animals can be a challenge when you take into account the scores of plush creatures and molded plastic figures already residing in toy aisles.
This was the difficulty facing licensor Momentum Partners and licensees Equity Toys and Exploratoy in developing products based on the wildlife adventure show Kratts’ Creatures, which airs on PBS in the U.S., on TVOntario in Canada, and in Latin America, South Africa, the Middle East, Thailand, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.
But Momentum Partners chose to take on this task only after it had focused on developing books with Scholastic, home videos with PolyGram Video and CD-ROMs with Hasbro Interactive. While toys were certainly conceived as part of the overall merchandising plan, ‘the books, videos and multimedia are very close to the core of this property’ considering the educational nature of the program, says Susan Miller, president of Momentum Partners. Momentum also wanted to give kids a long period to become familiar with the program before bringing out the toys.
Luckily for the licensor and licensees, the show has a lot of appealing attributes to work into toy lines. Its energetic creators and hosts, brothers Martin and Chris Kratt, have been avid animal lovers since their childhood. The pair travel the globe in search of creatures, and do everything from swimming with sea cows to bobbing for fish in a stream. ‘Kids want to be Martin and Chris,’ says Miller. ‘They want to go on adventures.’
Plus, kids have a natural affinity for animals. ‘The appeal of animals to kids is time-proven,’ says Miller. And the show complements children’s study of animals in school.
The ‘wacky’ tone of the show, its focus on animals and its edutainment bent attracted Equity Toys, says Gary Trumbo, the company’s senior vice president and general manager. The toy manufacturer had successfully launched products last year based on another PBS show, Wishbone, and was looking for a new edutainment property. Equity climbed on board in October 1996, about a year after Exploratoy signed on.
Momentum and the toy licensees recognized that the toys needed a hook to capture kids and to set the products apart from what exists in the marketplace.
Momentum’s strategy was to emphasize the wildlife and animals in the show, as well as the adventure and science and nature aspects.
On the wildlife side, Momentum and Equity decided on two core plush lines, as well as play sets and activity sets such as stickers and markers. While the animals have the appropriate features, their representations are not entirely realistic. Unusual animals such as the sloth, the flying squirrel and the hammerhead bat are among the colorful Kratts’ Mini Beanie Creatures. Kratts’ Feature Creatures are also exotic creatures, but each toy includes two characteristics that are distinct to the living animals the mandrill baboon, for instance, makes its unique noise and its rear end changes color.
On the adventure side, Momentum called upon Exploratoy’s 30-plus years of experience in developing science and nature products to create gear for the would-be explorer. The result is compasses and magnifiers, as well as flashlights built into toy elephants, crocodiles or scorpions.
A lot of legwork had been done by Momentum before meeting with the toy licensees. The licensor had drafted sketches of up to 70 product ideas, which the licensees fleshed out. ‘Good licensees make a licensor’s and a creator’s ideas better,’ says Miller. ‘They rely on Momentum Partners to be the experts in the overall property, and we rely on the licensee to be the expert in toys.’
Of course, the toy development included meetings with the animal and show experts, Martin and Chris Kratt. Once the licensees had concepts in mind, the brothers offered suggestions about the products and insight about the depictions of the animals. At one point, they even acted out sounds made by creatures.
No modifications to the show have been made during the toy development process. ‘We gave [the show] an eye to make sure it wasn’t un-toy-friendly,’ says Miller. ‘But I’m a believer that you don’t just insert items to make them toys. I think kids are too smart for that.’
‘We liked the way the show was going,’ says Trumbo. In the future, he says, Equity Toys’ only influence upon the program may be to suggest animals to cover.
At Toy Fair, Equity Toys is unveiling 12 Kratts’ Mini Beanie Creatures and four Kratts’ Feature Creatures. Exploratoy is introducing the Big Bug Dome, creature flashlights, an adventure pack like those worn by the Kratt brothers and a field discovery kit. Martin and Chris Kratt are attending the trade event to promote the products.
The toys are scheduled to hit store shelves in the U.S. during the summer. Equity Toys will support its lines with national television advertising.
Another five or more toys will be offered mid-summer at Wendy’s restaurants in the U.S. and Canada as part of a six-week Kratts’ Creatures kids meal promotion.