Although toys are the marquee product at the American International Toy Fair, they are really just the focal point of a much larger panorama of marketing strategies, entertainment programs and emerging cultural trends that are on display at the annual event in New York City. Toy manufacturers are now closely associated with a variety of other industries, from production studios to marketing companies to ad agencies and retailers. As a result, Toy Fair has become a kind of bellwether of upcoming trends and a place where a wide cross-section of people come to shop not just for toys, but also for insights into what’s new and hot.
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For its first five years, Trendmasters went to Toy Fair diligently displaying its products in clean and organized retail patterns that demonstrated the depth of its product line.
As the company ascertained that Toy Fair was evolving from a sales event into a marketing event, it realized that neatly displaying products would not be enough to get attendees talking about its product line. So away went the ordinary and in came the theatrics, and in the process, the nine-year-old St. Louis, Missouri-based company took a major step to becoming one of the key players in the toy business today.
‘Three years ago, we made a decision to present Trendmasters in terms of what it could do, develop and conceive of, rather than just what it had done,’ says DeWayne Booker, senior vice president of marketing for Trendmasters. ‘We decided to present the line in a theatrical way that would inspire trust and confidence in what Trendmasters could deliver. People started asking, `Wow, who is this company?’ We’ve been the same company all along, but now we present the way we think, not just the lines.’
This year, Trendmasters comes to Toy Fair as the master toy licensee for two of the most highly anticipated action movies of 1998: New Line’s Lost in Space and Columbia TriStar’s Godzilla. Its showroom will comprise 3,000 to 4,000 square feet.
Since most buyers have made the majority of their ordering decisions at the various pre-Toy Fair events held by toy manufacturers, Booker believes that they come to this market to gain confidence that the manufacturer has a marketing plan to drive toys off the counter.
In its showroom, Trendmasters strives to create environments that are less a presentation of actual merchandise and more a showcase of themes, ideas and innovations that demonstrate that the company understands what kids are looking for. Booker calls it the ‘we get it’ idea-that Trendmasters knows what’s hip and cool in the schoolyard.
Creating a theatrical presentation makes a statement to Toy Fair attendees about the company’s commitment to its product line. Trendmasters feels it is not only being judged for its current product, but is being evaluated by potential future licensors and buyers who want to know how innovative the company is in product development, marketing and advertising.
For Godzilla, that means working with Sony Signatures to create buzz for the toy line for the much anticipated, monster summer hit. Trendmasters is only allowing people with a specially issued swipe card to enter the showroom in order to protect the new image of Godzilla from being made known to the general public before the movie debuts in late May. Security will be posted around the Godzilla room and the press will not be allowed to enter.
Aside from its licensed product, Trendmasters has high expectations for a new girls line called Dream Garden, which features numerous play opportunities for young girls.
The confluence of representatives from entertainment, licensing and retail gives Trendmasters the opportunity to sniff out new trends that may trickle up over the next few years, from new statements in fashion and entertainment to retailers’ take on the buying patterns of consumers.
Although Toy Fair is no longer the decision-making market it used to be, and despite rumors that one or more of the big toy companies may pull out of the market, Booker doubts that any company would risk not participating in the future. ‘I don’t know how Toy Fair could become less important to a company. If you are going to be a player in the industry, you have to be recognized for your creativity and your passion at Toy Fair. If you pull out, you disappear, and people start to wonder about you. You end up spending all of your time explaining why you didn’t go.’
The consolidation of the toy business from both the manufacturers’ side and the retailers’ side has made Toy Fair more structured and less entrepreneurial than in the past, in Booker’s eyes. ‘Consolidation is bad for people who want to sell ideas, and for the buyers, because there are fewer and fewer places to get new and exciting products.’ This is especially true in the boys area, where Booker says it is very difficult to launch a non-licensed brand because sales of boys action toys are so heavily driven by entertainment-based properties. Smaller companies with a passion for a product drive the innovation of non-licensed breakout toys.
Trendmasters tries to keep that entrepreneurial spirit alive in its own product design as it moves from being a small company into a prime player in the industry. ‘We think of ourselves as an innovative company that does unique breakthrough toys that fit play patterns that boys and girls are accustomed to and will recognize the value of.