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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Mattel Media is coming to its third Toy Fair with positioning that has remained consistent since the software publisher began business in 1995.
‘We’re brand builders,’ says Pamela Kelly, vice president of worldwide marketing for Barbie Media, Mattel, Inc. To date, the company has released CD-ROMs based on Mattel’s well-established Barbie and Hot Wheels brands; a licensed Clueless CD-ROM; Talk With Me Barbie, a CD-ROM and doll kit that enables Barbie to communicate with girls based on information that they type into their computers; and a Hot Wheels mouse.
Being a brand builder means that Mattel Media’s products are not subject to sways in consumer interest in the same way that a licensed property is. For example, says Kelly, Barbie Fashion Designer topped software sales chart in 1996 and again in 1997. ‘It’s not relying upon a movie, and it’s not only hot when the movie’s out,’ she says. ‘But rather, it’s evergreen throughout the entire year.’
The long-standing popularity of its evergreen brands allows Mattel Media to approach Toy Fair confidently. ‘We’re in a unique position that we’re the number one publisher in the kids category. So we have a very good relationship [with retailers].’ At press time, PC Data figures showed that Mattel Media was the top kids entertainment software publisher. Kelly also considers Mattel Media to be a ‘very sophisticated’ marketer. Starting with its first titles, the company has supported its products with a full slate of promotions and television advertising, and has directed its advertising straight to kids. Therefore, retailers look to Mattel Media to ‘continue that strength’ with new products for the coming year.
Mattel Media will be unveiling many new titles at Toy Fair, of which only details about Barbie Cool Looks Fashion Designer have been revealed. The sequel to Barbie Fashion Designer incorporates recommendations received from girls, such as the addition of Barbie’s friends Kira, Teresa and Christie and a broader range of everyday wear for the dolls. As well, all images now appear in 3-D, Barbie and friends model their outfits in several different environments, not just a runway, and girls can design, print and assemble items for themselves as well as the dolls, such as a teddy bear and a coin purse. The Windows 95 CD-ROM will be targeted at girls age six and older, and will be available next month at an estimated street price of US$44.99. Television advertising and promotions will support the release.
While Mattel Media’s business is software, the company benefits from Mattel’s toy distribution because the majority of its titles are based on Mattel toys. Kelly believes that Mattel Media may be ‘the only publisher [whose products are] exhibited in the toy aisle at retail outlets.’ For this reason, Kelly regards Toy Fair as equally important to the annual software trade show, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3).
At the retail level, the biggest change for software publishers has been the increasing support from retailers for girls software. This holiday season, a number of outlets designed displays for girls products, and Computer City has created a permanent space called Just For Girls. Kelly forecasts that retailers will continue to introduce ways that make it easier for consumers to shop for girls titles. ‘I think consumers are going to dictate how the stores evolve,’ she says.