With the bidding for plum kids’ film and TV licenses ostensibly the purview of large, well-heeled toy corporations, many small toy companies are effectively shut out from using entertainment as a marketing vehicle to help promote their toys to the public. For at least one toy company, though, the Internet is enabling it to bypass these conventional channels of entertainment distribution by going direct to consumers with programming that supports its product lines.
‘All of our toys are character-based, but if nobody knows what their stories are, and the company’s not out there pushing them by spending hundreds of millions of dollars, then the toys won’t get kids or the parents’ attention. The Internet has given us a platform to present our own characters with our own stories,’ says Jeff Roda, VP of Rumpus Toys. The New York City-based Rumpus, maker of Gus Gutz and Harry Hairball, started offering short computer-animated cartoons based on its toys on its site rumpus.com in September, and currently produces shows for five of its toys, including Science Freaks, Eggles, Sally Satchel, Monster in My Closet and Space Puppies. According to Roda, the company plans to add another six cartoons by early June, including its first long-form animated feature, entitled Herschel Hopper: New York Rabbit.
‘It’s cross-marketing, in a sense. We want the cartoons to drive retail sales of the toys, but we also want the toys to promote the cartoons,’ says Roda.
All of the cartoons, which Rumpus creates in-house using a staff of six animators, are produced with the Flash animation program, and can be viewed by downloading a Shockwave 4.0 plug in. Most cartoons are about three to five minutes in length and feature educational content with a high degree of interactivity. For instance, in one of the episodes, starring the Science Freaks, the toy-characters get lost as they’re walking to school. Along the way, one of the toys, the limb-challenged Foothead who sounds like Tattoo from Fantasy Island, finds a compass [tk]. Soon after that discovery, a screen pops up offering viewers the option of a) learning the steps involved to create a home-made compass using a bowl of water, a needle and a magnet or b) continuing with the main narrative to its conclusion. All of the cartoons provide a variation on this format, giving kids some control in viewing programming in the order, and at the pace, of their choosing.
‘We think it’s better than children’s television, because there’s no set schedule, and there aren’t a thousand commercials to deal with. It’s interactive in a way that television isn’t,’ says Roda.
While the Net’s interactive capabilities are impressive, the ability of Web programming to drive sales of product remains largely unknown. Furthermore, whereas the Web may offer Rumpus unlimited access to showcase its programming, producing that content isn’t cheap. The cartoons Rumpus created for its site, according to Roda, cost between US$5,000 to US$10,000 per minute. Compared with the costs for a Rumpus Toys commercial, which ran for two days on a cable affiliate in the Pittsburgh area last December, producing the animation works out to be only marginally cheaper, says Roda.
There’s also the challenge of trying to attract an audience to the site. Roda wouldn’t divulge the number of hits rumpus.com receives per month, adding only that the site’s traffic has increased significantly since it started offering the cartoons. Anthony Adorno, of Media Metrix which measures site traffic, says Rumpus didn’t appear in its most recent report, published in November. Web sites don’t generally register on Media Metrix’s radar until they draw a minimum of 100,000 unique visitors per month.
Because Rumpus doesn’t have the funds to do a lot of off-line advertising, Roda says the company is relying chiefly on its toys’ on-pack pitches to direct kids to the site, links with kids educational site MaMaMedia and plenty of word-of-mouth initiatives to raise awareness. Once Rumpus gets kids to come to the site, Roda says it tries aggressively to keep them coming back. After kids sign up with its kids club, Rumpus sends them a toy, a wallet, and a novelty book for free. The site also allows kids to play games and send e-cards to their friends for free.
But does the kind of programming and the promo goodies Rumpus offers on its site have any currency with retailers? Not necessarily. ‘I wouldn’t say we would be more inclined to purchase product from a company based solely on the entertainment they offer via their Web site, but to the extent that it complements the company’s overall marketing strategy we might give it some more consideration,’ says John Reilly, a spokesperson with KB Toys.
While Roda is confident its cartoons will make its toys more palatable to consumers and by extension, store buyers, he also believes they will help to increase Rumpus’s on-line toy sales. Currently, Rumpus sells its entire line on rumpus.com, and in April, with Herschel Hopper, the company will try selling its first Web exclusive toy. In a bid to increase orders for the movie, Rumpus will offer consumers the doll US$12 and will include the movie New York Rabbit for free, or shoppers can order the movie seperately for US$3.
‘With Herschel, we wanted to add an element of exclusivity to the toy, and see how it plays out. It’s very experimental for us at this point,’ says Roda.
Notwithstanding all of the Web programming Rumpus is creating for its toys, the company isn’t giving up on old media altogether. According to Roda, Rumpus recently signed on with Hollywood talent agency CAA, which is currently pitching co-pro partners on developing TV shows around its toys, such as Eggles and Monsters in My Closet.