Consumer Products

The tale behind the toy finds a new niche beyond the tube

A couple of years ago, Bob Thompson, manager of character and story development for London, England-based Create TV & Film, watched as two seven-year-old boys sat in the lobby of Lego's U.K. headquarters playing with what was then the company's three-month-old Bionicle line of construction toys. When one boy corrected the other about the gender of one of the brand's six original characters - a fact that was pretty arcane at the time - Thompson couldn't help but relish the moment. 'It proved the story was not just accessible, compelling and multi-layered, but it was penetrating, and best of all, it had playground currency,' he says. 'I knew then that we'd made the jump.'
November 1, 2003

A couple of years ago, Bob Thompson, manager of character and story development for London, England-based Create TV & Film, watched as two seven-year-old boys sat in the lobby of Lego’s U.K. headquarters playing with what was then the company’s three-month-old Bionicle line of construction toys. When one boy corrected the other about the gender of one of the brand’s six original characters – a fact that was pretty arcane at the time – Thompson couldn’t help but relish the moment. ‘It proved the story was not just accessible, compelling and multi-layered, but it was penetrating, and best of all, it had playground currency,’ he says. ‘I knew then that we’d made the jump.’

The jump Thompson is referring to is the very connection he had been hired to create – a background story that was both easily accessible and detailed in a way that would ensure a solid kinship with the brand for kids who delved deeper. The surprise? This particular back-story, extensive as it was, was delivered to its target audience without the now-typical TV or film vehicle to back it up.

Welcome to the new back-story. Back in the mid-’80s when advertising regulations loosened up for toy marketers, TV programming quickly became the top engine driving toy sales. But not every toy can support a TV program. While there will always be properties like SD Gundam Force (Bandai), which launched a spin-off show on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block this fall, many toys rely on package art and a few 30-second spots to provide context for play scenarios. These days, however, toycos are getting more strategic in their back-story delivery, using the Internet, direct mail and grassroots marketing efforts to set up the toy back-story like it was already part of a current hit TV show or film.

No surprise, then, that Lego hired Thompson, with his background at Create TV & Film, specifically for the Bionicle project. ‘We thought that we were going to promote this property as if we had a movie,’ says Brian Bowler, assistant manager of marketing programs for Lego, adding that all the marketing support for the brand has revolved around its story line.

In the nine months prior to the toy launch in June 2001, story teasers were strategically doled out on the Bionicle website, and users could explore the Bionicle legend through interactive games that opened up more of the mythical island. ‘We put kids right into the story and let them experience it for themselves,’ Bowler says, adding that the site averaged 700,000 visitors per month in the first half of 2003.

Additionally, a mobile tour featuring pick-up trucks outfitted like the unique Bionicle canister, traveled across the U.S. and Canada to introduce kids to the story. The launch was also supported by print, TV and in-theater advertising, the latter initiative a first for the company. Currently, Lego has a deal with DC Comics to produce and circulate a bi-monthly book featuring the Bionicle story line to 1.5 million Lego Club members.

But the goal was not to simply blanket the market with the story. According to Thompson, the Bionicle world is designed to be just as constructible as the toy. ‘We took the idea of an episodic story line, but then chose not to play it out in any single medium,’ he explains. ‘We would take that story and scatter it like a paper trail through different types of media. That’s what makes it cool for kids. You can always know more.’

But this type of storytelling doesn’t come cheap. Lego initially hired a team made up of four creative types – with passions ranging from mythology to surfing – specifically for the task, and the Lego marketing department devoted serious resources to the brand. ‘Lego executed its most aggressive cross-functional marketing approach ever,’ says Bowler, adding that the effort needed to be aggressive in order to deliver a consistent message across all platforms.

The company didn’t go into it blind, however. Several previous Lego products – specifically Throwbots and RoboRiders – also followed the quick-build format and featured more personality and a brief story line on-package. Throwbot Flare (2000), for example, was one of the first Lego toys with heroic characteristics – he flung discs with his flexible tail, had protective wing shields, and zipped between meteors. Focus groups indicated that children reacted positively to the idea of a story, and the product lines performed better than anticipated at market, with follow-up research showing higher frequency of purchase for Throwbots than for other Lego lines.

But Bionicle has blown those early results out of the water. According to industry tracker the NPD Group, three Bionicle sets made it onto the top-10 list of 2002′s best-selling building sets. And the Bionicle Tahu Nuva set is ranking third for year-to-date (August) 2003, behind Lego’s NBA Challenge and Star Wars Mini Collector sets.

Thompson says the first Bionicle DVD, Bionicle: Mask of Light (released in September), produced by Create TV & Film, Miramax Films and Buena Vista Home Entertainment, was much easier to make given that so much of the back-story information was already in place. Because each Bionicle story lasts for a fixed period of time and the creative team works so far in advance (it’s currently working on the 2005/2006 story), it’s simply a matter of making sure the productions come out in time, he says.

While TV and film have traditionally been the most effective media for bringing a toy to life, toycos are starting to recognize that there are ways to sidestep the arduous and expensive feature film process, and still get across the same level of storytelling by packing video product in with the toys.

Bandai, for example, is including five-minute sneak-peek videos with products in its Strawberry Shortcake line, which relaunched in December 2002. One of the top toys of the ’80s – in five years, the Kenner line sold 25 million dolls and 35 million accessories to the tune of $1.2 billion in sales, according to brand marketing manager Holli Hoffman – the strawberry-scented doll and her friends have been rejuvenated for today’s kids. While the ‘sweet best friend’ positioning is the same as it was in its heyday, the rag doll appearance is no more, and her dress-and-bonnet get-up has been replaced by a more modern pair of jeans and a sun hat. The shift away from stitching and yarn hair to making Strawberry Shortcake more like a real person allows for greater freedom with the story line, says Hoffman, as a rag doll is somewhat limited in its adventure-seeking possibilities.

The doll was originally launched with TV spots, a mall tour and some videos, but today, there’s an increased payoff to providing more on the entertainment front.

Along with two DVDs from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment (Berry Merry Christmas and Get Well Adventure, released last month), the brand features an on-line Friendship Club where users can explore Strawberryland, play games and download screensavers. A storybook section allows users to find out more about the character – where she lives (in a giant strawberry), who her friends are (Ginger Snap, who lives in Cookie Corners), and what she does for fun (visits places like Honey Pony Pastures and Cakewalk). The site garnered 35 million hits in its first six weeks and boasts 75,000 members, almost a third of which are over the age of 13.

New York-based Toy Play is also banking on nostalgia to hit with moms and kids when it re-introduces Hallmark’s Rainbow Brite line of dolls next spring. In this case, however, no changes are being made to the original doll, according to Jonathan Breiter, VP of new business development. In fact, Toy Play is including an in-pack DVD of one of the line’s original eight episodes, which were produced by DIC Entertainment in 1983.

‘Quite frankly, a lot of kids are going to learn the story from their mothers,’ says Bill Sullivan, director of Kansas City, Missouri-based Hallmark Licensing. However, releasing some new DVDs – which the company is working on commissioning – will further enhance the play experience, he says.

According to Toy Play marketing manager Dara Treu, the company plans to use a commercial to highlight Rainbow Brite’s heroic positioning. Produced by Posnick and Kolker, the spot will air in mid-February, opening with a scene from the original animated series that features a black-and-white world from which all color has been drained. A new ‘Rainbow to the Rescue’ song plays while the spot shows old footage interspersed with children playing with Rainbow and some of her friends.

Currently, Rainbow Brite has no official Internet presence, though there are some fan sites devoted to the colorful doll. Toy Play may create a website in the future, as well as adding some software to its licensed product line.

While back-stories can greatly enhance a toy’s play value and level of market awareness, Isaac Larian, president and CEO of North Hill, California-based MGA Entertainment, offers this caveat: The best back-story in the world won’t do much good if the product itself is shoddy. Too often, he says, back-stories are just hype in disguise, which makes it more likely a child will be disappointed with the actual toy.

Research into how girls were playing with MGA’s line of Bratz dolls revealed that each girl adopted a different play pattern and gave different personalities to the characters, so a too-detailed back-story would have limited the toy’s play value, says Larian. It’s a potential hazard MGA will be particularly conscious of as it co-develops a 65-minute Bratz direct-to-video with Montreal, Canada’s CinéGroupe. The DTV’s launch date is set for sometime in Q2 2004.

Although MGA is mindful of boxing in its consumers, the company did relaunch its website with more interactive content in September, and so far, its limited back-story strategy seems to be working. NPD’s year-to-date fashion doll sales put Bratz SKUs in four of the top five spots.

Gender does indeed make for very different requirements when it comes to back-story elements. Girls tend to be fascinated by social play patterns, while boys are obsessed with good-versus-evil scenarios. Mattel kept these gender tendencies in mind while developing its line of My Scene dolls for tween girls. According to director of marketing Debbie Haag, My Scene has evolved from a simple story line featuring just three teenage girls to include a whole tribe of friends, each with a very unique personality. Madison is all about shopping, for example, while Chelsea is the ultimate, artsy bohemian. Back-stories are critical frameworks that allow girls to structure their play, says Haag. They set up an environment in which girls can act out their teen fantasies, while also providing product ideas that tie into each doll’s personality.

Haag says content is mainly delivered via packaging and the line’s extensive website (www.myscene.com), which is promoted on-pack and in commercial spots. The site features games, diary entries and a ‘zine section that allows members to exchange opinions, check out their horoscopes and take quizzes. There is also an area where users can view short animated scenes involving the characters (the girls shopping and eating out, one of them developing a crush on a boy, etc.). Some of these shorts were used in the company’s launch commercials, whose cliffhanger endings were resolved on-line.

The most difficult part of this strategy, according to Haag, is staying consistent across all media. ‘Kids are really savvy, and they notice discrepancies in personalities,’ she says. ‘Our challenge is to deliver what girls want and keep them wondering what’s coming next.’

Creating a back-story that will appeal to both genders can be challenging, as DSI Toys is finding out with its DJ Skribble Spinheads line of musical figures. ‘If you don’t present a back-story, you’re leaving the child completely to his or her own devices without any story-line support,’ says Joe Whitaker, president and CEO of the Houston-based toyco. ‘A back-story is not only useful – it’s imperative.’

The line was developed featuring both male and female figures, and each of the eight Spinhead characters has its own look that typifies a particular musical genre. The back-story – provided on packaging, in cross-selling brochures and on-line – ties the genre to where the character grew up and the reasons for liking a certain type of music. For example, Rya hails from Kingston, Jamaica and grooves to reggae, while rapper Daze is from Detroit.

In addition, the company has signed on real DJ personality DJ Skribble to star in TV spots inviting kids to visit www.spinheadsworld.com. On-line, kids can enter Club Spin to find out more about the characters, pick up spinning tricks and sign up for an e-mail newsletter.

The marketing program also includes a DJ Skribble bus tour this fall to 16 major cities across the U.S. Using a celebrity will further enhance the back-story potential, says Whitaker, adding that there’s a chance future story lines will feature DJ Skribble interacting with the Spinheads.

Though Whitaker says spinning is largely a boys hobby, music and funky figures tend to appeal to girls, which may explain why early results show that one of the two best-selling figures is Adel, a girl.

DSI is not ruling out a film or video tie-in for Spinheads sometime in the future, and Whitaker says that having a solid back-story in place could make that leap much easier. ‘If lightning strikes, you want to already be ready with the bible for the entertainment version.’

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