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Toycos scope out gender crossover opps to maximize market reach

Like the store aisles in which they're stocked, boys toys and girls toys have traditionally existed on separate planes that have almost never intersected. And while it's true that the fundamental play values the two groups demand from their toys have remained largely unchanged over the years, toycos are increasingly discovering products that they have been marketing to one sex that may, in fact, work for both.
April 1, 2002

Like the store aisles in which they’re stocked, boys toys and girls toys have traditionally existed on separate planes that have almost never intersected. And while it’s true that the fundamental play values the two groups demand from their toys have remained largely unchanged over the years, toycos are increasingly discovering products that they have been marketing to one sex that may, in fact, work for both.

‘Up until kids reach school age, they will play with toys marketed to either sex for the most part,’ says Marianne Szymanski, president of Toy Tips, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based firm that specializes in toy market research. But once they’re in school, she says, boys and girls usually want distinctly different things from their toys.

One company that’s hoping to break through this gender barrier in the six-plus age bracket is Trendmasters, which will release Storm Angels, its first girl-skewing squirt gun, this spring. Though manufacturers working in the water gun category have traditionally focused their marketing efforts at boys, Trendmasters is convinced that there’s a large contingent of trigger-happy girls that could represent a viable target.

Focus group testing conducted by the company strongly indicated that girls would buy a squirt gun that was designed just for them, says Trendmasters’ VP of boys toys Brian Weinstock. To make Storm Angels palatable to girls, the company has selected a hot pink color scheme and tweaked the design for girl use. Requiring less pumping force to reach maximum pressure, Storm Angels are also smaller than the boy-skewing guns Trendmasters releases under its Storm brand.

According to Weinstock, the fact that toycos have chosen not to market squirt guns directly at girls is an oversight that typifies how the industry sometimes generalizes about which toys can work for girls. ‘For a long time now, girls have been telling anybody who’s willing to listen that they’re excited about more aggressive play patterns,’ he says. ‘Look at the success of Spy Kids last year. That was a huge movie, and one of its main characters is a little girl who kicks butt. Girls like that stuff a lot, but the toy industry has a hard time embracing this shift, especially the retailing community.’

Though he fully expects stores to stock Storm Angels in their squirt gun sections, Weinstock believes the way the retail environment is currently configured deters many toycos from taking a risk and creating items that transcend society’s gender expectations for toys. ‘It’s hard to find a home on the shelf for an item that twists the conventions of what’s a girls toy and what’s a boys toy,’ he says. ‘There’s no section in most stores for Radically New Product Concepts.’

While it does pose some risks, there is a tremendous upside for toycos who can successfully translate a boys toy for girls, or vice versa. Trendmasters’ Rumble Robots toy line, which grossed US$100 million last year, grew out of discussions about developing a boys version of Furby-like dolls from the ’90s called Wuvluvs, which girls would nurture until they laid eggs. ‘We said ‘Hey, boys like to raise and nurture combative toys–let’s do fighting robots,” says Weinstock. ‘It’s not as simplistic as saying that what works for a boy will work for a girl; you’ve got to try and embrace areas of play that are undercapitalized.’

Positioning a product the right way is the key to launching a winning toy that explodes previously held notions about the boundaries for boys and girls toys, and perhaps no company has been more successful in this area than Hasbro has been with G.I. Joe. As hard as it may be to fathom today, leading up to the toy’s 1964 launch, there were pockets of resistance at Hasbro and among retailers about the line’s prospects.

‘[Mattel's] Barbie and Ken had arrived a few years earlier, but not many boys bought Ken dolls at the time, so naturally some people questioned whether boys would buy into G.I. Joe,’ recalls Don Levine, former executive VP of Hasbro and creator of the toys. ‘Once we realized [that semantics were an issue], we made sure that our sales and marketing people never called G.I. Joes dolls. They were action-adventure figures for boys, and if I caught anyone calling them dolls, I made sure G.I. Joes weren’t shipped to [their accounts],’ says Levine. And the rest is toy history.

This year, Hasbro is trying its luck with a boy-targeted Easy Bake Oven called Queasy Bake Oven, which it developed after research showed that boys were playing with the girls toy. Though the play value of Queasy Bake is the same as its feminine counterpart, Hasbro has taken very careful steps to make it boy-friendly as far as aesthetics go; the toy is black and green and features recipes for gross-sounding foods like Larva-licious Cocoon Cookies and Oldy Moldy Cake.

The stakes involved in gearing your product marketing at one gender and potentially excluding 50% of the kids consumer base can be high, and one company that has experienced the gamble to some degree is Toronto, Canada-based Spin Master Toys. Spin Master’s relaunch of Shrinky Dinks last year was incredibly successful by any definition; in fact, during the Christmas rush, at least one retailer was airlifting the product in at its own expense to meet consumer demand. But executive VP Ben Varadi feels the company lost out on boys sales because it targeted its marketing chiefly at girls, relying on data gleaned from the toy’s first go-round that suggested Shrinky Dinks had an 80% girl and 20% boy consumer base.

Varadi believes the girl/boy split today is more like 60/40, so this year, Spin Master will release a boy-targeted Shrinky Dinks oven that will feature action-oriented licenses for Spider-Man, The Simpsons and Monsters, Inc. In addition, the boy product will be blue instead of purple, and its packaging will highlight creative projects other than the jewelry and room decorations that appeared on last year’s product.

In addition to Shrinky Dinks, Varadi points to Spin Master’s Air Hogs planes as another toy that confounds commonly held beliefs about what girls and boys will play with. The toyco’s Australian distribution partner recently ran a mail-in contest offering kids the chance to win an Air Hogs plane by answering a question correctly. Roughly 20% of entrants were girls, which is more than double the percentage of girls that Varadi thought were playing with the toys in the first place.

‘The truth is there are probably a lot more crossover opportunities than anyone realizes,’ says Varadi. ‘For example, even though we know girls play with cars (evidenced by the success of the Barbie car and the Polly Pocket car), there’s never been a girls die-cast car. We’ve debated internally about doing one, but nothing’s come of it so far. Ultimately [in these cases], it’s a question of whether anyone will step up and take a risk.’

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