Altruistic impulses seem to be on the rise with kids, according to a recent study from Stamford, Connecticut’s Just Kid Inc. The company’s research team found that a full 90% of US kids believe helping others is important, and 21% of the sample group said they would purchase products that donate a portion of profits to a good cause. Taking advantage of this values shift is a crop of toycos looking to boost their corporate social responsibility efforts and improve their bottom lines while doing it. And by marrying up with the right charity, one that suits the product and whose values appeal to its target demo, a number of them are finding it’s possible to empower kid altruism and continue to grow sales.
Oakland, New Jersey-based gift and plush company Russ Berrie has been making serious strides in the past 12 months with cause-related toys. It had been dabbling in one-off SKUs over the years, but Russ’s first full product range dedicated to supporting a charitable cause has proven to be something of a hit at specialty retail since its May 2007 launch. The Shining Stars line champions The Starlight Starbright Children’s Foundation, which helps kids with serious illnesses and their families cope with their conditions.
Jeff Bialosky, Russ Berrie’s EVP of sales and marketing, estimates that 15% to 20% of the company’s net sales in 2007 were driven by environmentally-friendly or charity-related products. Consolidated net sales for 2007 increased by 12.4%, to US$331.2 million from US$294.8 million the previous year.
Shining Stars plush, the company’s bestseller in the genre so far, is aimed at kids five to 12 and comes with an online access code and naming rights to a star in the night sky. More than 1.5 million kids have already registered on the site, and the product has performed so well that Russ is adopting several new causes in 2008. Just this summer, a line of oceanic plush creatures called Seapals rolled out with a pledge to donate a percentage of revenues to local aquariums. A cuddly range called Treetures, modeled after real-life tree-dwelling animals, is slated to debut later this year with proceeds going to the American Forests’ Global ReLeaf tree-planting program. And at press time, Russ was working on another, similar product that it had yet to unveil.
The key to getting kids excited about these types of toy lines is choosing a charity that fits the product and promotes a cause with which kids can identify. So how do companies go about choosing the right cause? In Russ’s case, it took about a month to narrow it down, but Bialosky felt Starlight Starbright was a natural fit for Shining Stars because of the complementary star theme and the fact that the charity also lets kids help other kids, something they are keen to do. Additionally, the L.A.-based organization already had a strong kids industry reputation. It was co-founded by
Steven Spielberg and had prior affiliations with high-profile kid-friendly companies like Build-A-Bear Workshop, Toys ‘R’ Us and Nintendo. The partnership with the International Star Registry that lets kids name actual stars was the icing on the cake that helped drive home the celestial theme of the product.
Similarly, it took L.A.-based KidsGive’s co-founders Laura Rangel and Lisa Steen Proctor an entire year to find an appropriate charity for their Karito Kids line of dolls that launched in summer 2007. It helped that they embarked on the quest with very specific criteria in mind. They were looking for a nondenominational outfit with strong philanthropic values, representation in at least 25 countries, and the ability to divert a high percentage of the donations directly back to the charity’s cause. (In other words, donated funds would not be primarily used to fund the day-to-day operations of the charity, but given directly to the kids in need.) After much homework and exploring a list of organizations under the American Institute of Philanthropy umbrella, Rangel and Proctor decided to go with Plan USA. Headquartered in Warwick, Rhode Island, this charity helps poverty-stricken children in third-world countries by getting them involved in the development of their communities; it also puts 80 cents of every dollar donated directly towards its causes.
The resulting Karito Kids line is a group of dolls that represent diversity and social responsibility. Rangel says donations generated by sales of the toys have helped Plan USA buy 15,720 mosquito nets, 1,923 textbooks, 4,630 chickens and 12 mason homes for children in Kenya, China, Honduras and Mali.
The Karito Kids line is currently sold at more than 600 specialty retailers across the US, including FAO Schwarz and Neiman Marcus. Starter kits that retail for US$99.99 come with a doll, a hardcover book that tells a fictional story about that particular doll’s country and culture, and a passport. The passport contains a code that can be entered online. Once at www.karitokids.com, kids can choose to support one of four causes and an automatic donation of 3% of the toy’s retail price is processed.
When it comes to marketing the product, Russ Berrie’s Bialosky says it’s necessary to work hand-in-hand with one’s chosen charity. For Shining Stars – which now boasts 68 SKUs and is available everywhere from mass retailers like Toys ‘R’ Us to drug store chains and hospital gift shops – Russ and Starlight teamed up with High School Musical star Corbin Bleu in L.A. The actor served as a StarPower Ambassador for the product, and Russ made a donation of US$50,000 to the L.A. Shriners Hospital for Children at a fundraiser event.
With Seapals, Russ hosted kick-off events in July at Ripley’s Aquariums in Myrtle Beach, North Carolina and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The toyco invited kids to come to the venues, learn about oceanic creatures and get passports stamped at different stations to receive a Seapals prize. The plush have sold into more than 5,000 stores across the US, and Russ has also launched versions for the Spanish, German, Italian and French markets.
Meanwhile, new players keep entering the market. Wild Republic in Twinsburg, Ohio, for one, has extended its relationship with the Australia Zoo and its founder’s daughter Bindi Irwin, daugther of the late Steve Irwin. The Irwin family remains passionate about wildlife preservation and conservation, and 8% of royalties from a new line of Bindi toys will go towards that cause. Wild Republic special projects director Kim Hammeren has high hopes for the budget-conscious Bindi dolls, figures and animal plush, which launch at all US channels of retail in the middle of this month with price-points under US$20. Notably, the Steve Irwin Crocodile Hunter line generated more than US$100,000 for the Australia Zoo in 2007, and Bindi product sales should get a boost from the young girl’s presence on Discovery Kids five times a week in her series Jungle Girl.
Hammeren says his company is getting more attention lately as more minds turn to environmentalism. At New York Toy Fair this past February, for example, he found many customers stopping by the Wild Republic booth that probably would not have crossed its threshold a few years ago.