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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Bandai is beefing up its presence in the U.S.-enhancing its toy development, entertainment and sales efforts stateside. For the company, which is headquartered in Tokyo, Japan, and produces its toys there, these moves are designed to raise its profile among U.S. retailers.
‘We will continue to focus on our historically strong entertainment relationships, and grow the number of lines we offer,’ says Brian Goldner, executive vice president of sales and marketing. ‘In addition, we’ll offer more U.S.-based development of entertainment properties and toy lines.’ Bandai’s recent deal with Saban, awarding the toy maker the master toy license to Mystic Knights, one of Saban’s heavily promoted ‘Big Four’ shows, is a prime example of how the company is putting that mandate into place.
Just months before Toy Fair, the company brought 85 percent of its sales force in-house. Goldner made the change to enhance the company’s ‘ability to communicate directly with field [sales executives] about our marketing objectives, and to respond to buyer feedback.’ The in-house sales team will also be better prepared to handle Bandai’s burgeoning toy line, and will ensure a more open dialogue between the toy maker and top retailers.
Packing more clout than ever at this year’s Toy Fair, Bandai, like all toy makers attending the show, expects increased challenges. ‘I think that buyers are conscious of the increased number of properties in a small shelf space. And there are a lot of new property people who can focus on new kid-related entertainment properties coming in,’ says Goldner. ‘Buyers think about how they’re going to manage all those properties.’
Goldner says buyers expect a multidimensional presentation when they arrive at the showroom at Toy Fair, and it’s up to the toy maker to demonstrate ‘how this line will come to life for kids.’
‘It’s an opportunity to influence them, to raise the specter of a toy line-to increase positioning and share of mind versus other companies,’ says Goldner.
The success of these efforts can’t always be measured in immediate sales, he notes. ‘At this time, buyers are finalizing plans. It’s not the time to go to shop, because they make most commitments in the spring. What they have in mind are plans for fall.’
As for ongoing presentations at the showroom, Goldner says Bandai has always focused on their major brands at the show. ‘We show all aspects of the entertainment experience for kids. You have to fully exploit market promotion plans for each of those brands, so that everyone understands the efforts we’ve made to make the property top of mind.’
Presenting new and fresh approaches can attract attention, but there are also risks. ‘Buyers try to apply what they know about this property, like historical performance, competitive products and strategic application, to what they’re trying to achieve.’ Bandai makes off like a bandit in this regard, according to Goldner, because its main focus is on the highly proven male action figure. Even so, buyers have to be convinced that a line can break through the clutter in the marketplace.
‘It all goes back to the job of impressing upon them not only how the brand will exist at retail, but how the line will feed the minds of kids,’ says Goldner. ‘How will kids find out about this brand?’
One new product to be introduced by Bandai at Toy Fair is DigiMon, an ‘original digital monster’ that is a spin-off of the overwhelmingly successful Tamagotchi. The toy is an interactive, handheld virtual monster encased in a rectangular housing that hangs on a key chain. Like Tamagotchi, DigiMon must be hatched and then fed, properly nurtured and trained to gain strength and battle other DigiMon. The new product, according to Goldner, is a prime example of how Bandai can adapt a Japanese-originated toy concept based on U.S. marketing and research to reflect ‘a Western viewpoint.’
Other products Bandai will showcase at Toy Fair include Tamagotchi Angel, Forest and Garden models; BeetleBorgs Metallix; and Power Rangers in Space, a new twist on the Power Rangers toy line that is expected to grow sales by 15 percent.
Of the company’s overall philosophy for 1998, Goldner concludes, ‘We will continue to drive our [Japan-originated] Power Rangers roots, but go beyond our Japanese roots to bring in new development.