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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If you thought it took a long time to tour Mattel’s Toy Fair showroom last year, plan to stay even longer this year.
For the first time, the company is uniting products from Mattel, Tyco Toys and Fisher-Price under the roof of the Mattel building, as opposed to three separate showrooms in three different places. ‘To reorganize for this Toy Fair made a lot of sense because of the fact that we are the market leaders in several of these categories,’ says Sara Rosales, manager of public relations at Mattel, Inc.
One floor of the building will be dedicated to infant and preschool products from Tyco Preschool, Fisher-Price and Mattel’s See `N Say and Disney lines. A second floor will be split between products for girls and products for boys. Each section will house galleries for individual brands, such as a Barbie gallery, a Cabbage Patch Kids gallery and a Wheels gallery for Tyco RCs, Hot Wheels and Matchbox. Each gallery will be set off with signage, music and lighting characteristic of the brand. ‘We’re a very brand-driven company,’ says Rosales. ‘And a lot of people recognize the brands before they recognize the name Mattel. So the brand names are very prominent in each of our galleries.’
Some of Mattel’s offerings from last year will be missing at this year’s presentation. Last year, Mattel sold its sports toy division to Wham-O Incorporated in an effort to narrow its focus. The new toy company picked up such brands as Wham-O, Frisbee, Hula Hoop, Hacky Sack and the Morey and Boogie bodyboard lines. ‘We have a strategy that we really began to develop and nurture last year with the appointment of our new CEO, Jill Elikann Barad,’ says Rosales. ‘And our strategy was that we would simplify our products lines and focus on our core brands.’ Those core brands consist of Barbie, Cabbage Patch Kids, Hot Wheels, Matchbox, Tyco Preschool, Fisher-Price, See `N Say, Doodle Bear, Real Talking Bubba and the licensed Nickelodeon, Disney and Sesame Street lines.
Beyond these changes, Mattel is not approaching Toy Fair differently than previous years. Toy Fair remains as important as ever for Mattel, says Rosales. The show presents an opportunity to close sales, tout new products for 1998 and generate retail and media awareness.
For retail buyers, the show is just one of many occasions at which they see developing products. Mattel showcases its upcoming toys at its annual pre-Toy Fair event in August. Key accounts are also invited to Mattel’s headquarters throughout the year to see the progression of the toys, hear about marketing strategies and provide feedback. ‘Shelf space is limited,’ says Rosales, ‘so we need to take their input into consideration on how we can acquire that shelf space, those endcaps. . . . So there is a constant flow of communication.’
Toys themselves are becoming more sophisticated as buyers incorporate new technological capabilities. For example, Mattel Media’s Talk With Me Barbie CD-ROM and doll kit enables Barbie to talk to girls based on information that girls type into their computers. Still, these new kinds of toys are not upsetting the popularity of classic brands like 39-year-old Barbie, 30-year-old Hot Wheels and 15-year-old Cabbage Patch Kids.
Retail buyers’ interest in toys based on licensed properties has continued to grow over the last five years. ‘The entertainment properties themselves are becoming hotter and hotter,’ says Rosales. ‘The tug of war over which movie is going to dominate rubs off on the [toy side]. So there’s fierce competition there.’ Non-licensed products like puzzles and board games have a more difficult time winning shelf space in this kind of environment.
Mattel is not concerned by how this trend will affect its business. Most of its products ‘have gone through many generations of kids,’ says Rosales. And the company is also confident that its licensed lines-featuring products based on Disney’s theatrical, home video and television properties, Nickelodeon’s characters, properties such as Rugrats and activity toys such as Gak and Smud, and Sesame Street (under the Tyco Preschool banner)-will have the same kind of staying power.