First and foremost, the most successful toys act as powerful catalysts that help children transform, either in reality or through fantasy. Tinkertoy construction sets, for example, transform kids into builders. Crayola crayons transform them into artists. And Star Wars figures transform them into Jedi Knights. Through effective use of unique physical features, play patterns and story elements, these toys do a superior job of bringing out latent personas that already exist within kids by adhering to seven principles. Though these seem simple enough, they are often ignored.
The first principle of the blockbuster toy formula is to satisfy children’s deep emotional needs; these include self-esteem, appreciation, mastery, creativity, control, silliness, beauty, power and love. Astute toymakers start with an emotional need that their predecessors and contemporary competitors have ignored or trivialized, and then build toy features and play patterns that satisfy it. Cabbage Patch Kids offered adoption certificates and one-of-a-kind dolls that tapped into kids’ yen to nurture and take on a mothering role.
But true blockbuster toys go the extra distance to also satisfy parents’ emotional need for their kids to be happy, successful and healthy, find love and develop normally. For years, Fisher-Price has helped parents inspire their children to have fun while discovering the world around them with a wide range of toys including the Classic Corn Popper, which provides visual and auditory ball play, and Elmo’s Cell Phone, with which kids learn cause-and-effect lessons by pushing various buttons.
Tapping into trends
Many blockbuster toys align with significant historical events or societal trends. G.I. Joe was introduced at a time of war, Monopoly during the Great Depression, Erector Sets coincided with the emergence of industrialization, and the Barbie Doll launched just as women were beginning to feel more empowered. Today’s trends include children’s greater awareness of the world, their growing maturity and patriotism, the explosion of new technologies and sciences, and multi-tasking.
Standing the test of time
Blockbuster toys are often regenerative and designed to be easily reinvented. Barbie, as we know, has been revamped each year to reflect girls’ changing aspirations. When little girls wanted to be nurses and stewardesses, Barbie took on these mantles too. And as girls broadened their career aspirations to be doctors, pilots and even the U.S. president, so did Barbie. This served to refresh the brand, reflect trends, and encourage girls’ dreams. The toymaker must ask: Can my new toy idea be easily reinvented over the long term by connecting with changing pop culture or trends? Too many of today’s toys seem to be built for the moment, not for the ages.
Grassroots marketing brings the toy experience home
Blockbuster toys often have significant and playful marketing efforts that help bolster their popularity and earn them a place in the kid consciousness. Competitive championships helped the Frisbee achieve respected professional status, while country-wide tours let kids develop a more robust relationship with Power Rangers. Smart marketing helps children experience an aspect of the toy in ways the toy itself cannot deliver.
Sowing the X-factor seeds
When it comes down to it, some toys reach blockbuster status simply because of the ‘X-factor.’ This is an unforeseeable and unprecipitated event, such as when Rosie O’Donnell fawned over a Tickle Me Elmo doll on national television. Though these boosts are random and unpredictable, toymakers can lay the right soil for the X-factor to take root – by sending the product to execs at newsworthy promotional venues or influential celebrities, for example.
Blockbuster toy executives must also be storytellers. Whether developing a doll or a skateboard, toymakers must include a compelling back-story that imbues their toy ideas with the kind of purpose (the goal of the story) that flows into compelling characters, features and play patterns. Star Wars, Beyblade and Bionicle stand out as excellent examples of how powerful this element can be.
Finally, as categories are overlapping at an unprecedented rate, today’s toy executives must give their products more than one purpose. Great examples of this include PEZ dispensers (both candies and toys), Klutz (books with play activities) and Street Flyer Retractable In-Line Skates (athletic shoes that come equipped with drop-down wheels).
All of these factors combine to make a package that can transform children in wondrous ways, satisfy their needs, and maintain maximum play value in the face of changing societal mores. Blockbuster toy executives know how to effectively apply these core qualities and make this transformation possible.
Gene Del Vecchio is a youth marketing consultant and the author of Creating Ever-Cool. This column features excerpts from his most recent book The Blockbuster Toy: How to Invent the Next Big Thing, which was published by Pelican Publishing last month.