Brands: Incorporate digital or face desertion

It's no secret that play is heavily influenced by children's access to portable digital devices, but the depth of its impact may be surprising.
April 11, 2016

In our February/March article, “Moving beyond pink and blue,” we shared how a more gender-neutral approach can lead to cross-category success for children’s IPs. This month, we discuss another significant factor in the creation of cross-category juggernauts—developing content, products and experiences based on how kids play and expect to be entertained today. Namely, children want a blend of digital and traditional fun, served up on demand, anytime and anywhere they may want to play.

This is no small task for brands. Kids’ attention has never been more splintered. A winning brand needs to not only compete with other kid properties across multiple categories in order to fulfill traditional and digital entertainment needs, but also must address kids’ desires for varied experiences from a brand that fits with every aspect of their lifestyle and evolving play patterns.

Children’s play is a rapidly changing landscape, and one that is having a significant effect on IP success. Kids’ play habits dictate the places and forms that IPs must address in order to remain relevant to kids. It’s no secret that play is heavily influenced by children’s access to portable digital devices, but the depth of its impact may be surprising.

Kids’ access to computers, tablets and smartphones from a very young age is changing how, when and where they expect to interact with brands

In a typical week, only slightly more than half of children ages six to 12 (53%) play with non-digital toys, a figure now equaled by the number that play games via an app on a weekly basis. As a result, traditionally focused IPs must incorporate digital experiences. Consider how American Girl expanded beyond dolls and DVDs to include app-based games featuring popular characters, as well as sound-effect apps that can enhance offline play. Likewise, digitally based IPs need to offer offline options to contend with this new balance of play, such as Minecraft’s partnership with LEGO to deliver physical toys that mimic the building challenges in the app.

Kids’ access to computers, tablets and smartphones from a very young age is changing how, when and where they expect to interact with IPs. If they love a property, they see no reason why they should have to limit their interaction with, say, the TV screen. In their minds, they should be able to engage with that same property in real life, on their tablet, on the web, and on their phone. Having become so accustomed to on-demand access to their favorite entertainment, kids are frustrated when they can’t have the IPs they love when and how they want them. This makes it imperative that a property is available across platforms from the start in order to become a true juggernaut.

The influence of digital entertainment has affected the tenor of play as well. In 2009, 57% of kids said they pretend or imagine in a typical week. That figure has now dropped to 45%, no doubt due to the more prescriptive nature of digital play that has infiltrated kids’ lives. Parents know they are fighting an uphill battle to reverse this trend and to nurture freeform creativity and imagination in their children. They’re looking to innovative IPs to help them, increasingly turning to properties that offer a blend of physical and digital products that can fulfill both passive and active entertainment needs. After all, if a child is passionate about the app, they will quite likely embrace the companion book or puzzle, as Rovio discovered with its range of Angry Birds offline products.

While children have come to expect a range of physical and digital products from a brand, they also want a blend of the two. As true digital natives who have had access to technology from birth, children easily and seamlessly move between physical and digital play—so much so that they see no reason why physical and digital shouldn’t be one and the same. The toys-to-life category took hold with the popularity of Skylanders in 2011, Disney Infinity in 2013 and LEGO Dimensions in 2015, each combining two popular play patterns—collecting/playing with action figures and mastering video games.

But while products like Skylanders and Disney Infinity bring together offline and online play, they don’t happen simultaneously, and they don’t address parents’ wish for more types of play that encourage their children to use their imaginations as well as their bodies.

Launched at the tail end of 2015 as a partnership between Disney and Hasbro, Playmation toys consist of wearable devices that let children act out the adventures of their favorite characters and level-up as they complete missions. The devices register motion and speed and provide sensory feedback for kids. The system communicates with an app so kids can track their progress as they defeat bad guys and earn access to new missions. This is an area ripe for exploration in which IPs expand to deliver on new play patterns and engaging, immersive scenarios for young fans to interact with their favorite properties and characters.


Take note—this is only the beginning of the toys-to-life trend. As the costs of virtual reality systems drop, and the level of technology improves (see Microsoft’s HoloLens that can project virtual reality onto any space), kids are closer to realizing the dream of hanging out under the sea with SpongeBob SquarePants or running amok with the Minions. Children are eager for play that envelops them and gives them a visceral connection to their favorite properties. Being able to foster such a connection makes this a space that ambitious IP owners can’t ignore.

As a cross-category presence has become increasingly important for IP success, it’s also evident that any brand sprouting from any category can become a future juggernaut. Today, Disney wouldn’t launch a new movie franchise without planning to offer offline and digital components to further the property.

The same should be true for IPs emerging from other categories. Angry Birds became a sensation because Rovio grew the brand beyond its humble beginnings as an app to include clothing, toys, board games, and even a theme park. Few companies would have thought that an app could grow to become such a successful IP until Rovio proved it was possible.

Because the next big IP can come from any category, established ones are facing growing competition from all sides. Properties are vying for supremacy in a time when a brand based on plastic building blocks can become a film sensation and a simple yellow sponge can launch a 17-year (and counting) franchise beloved by kids and adults alike from just the small screen.

It’s possible in the next year or two that we could see a top property spring from a social media channel or messaging app—after all, characters from Line, a popular messaging app in Japan, now have their own animated series.

In fact, social media has emerged as a key platform for IPs. As proven by top-performing brands like Minecraft, social and “smallest screen” entertainment can be highly compelling and can drive peer-to-peer growth. Cross-category support for a property should include a social entertainment component to achieve saturation. A key factor in Minecraft’s rise has been videos posted by talented players on YouTube and Vine. These inventive players have become “celebrities” in young fans’ eyes.

They are especially influential among tweens, who follow them in droves on social channels and also attend meet-and-greets to see them in person. As players’ profiles rose to the top of YouTube and Vine, more kids latched on to the game, wanting to play and be part of a cultural moment.

One can’t overestimate the impact that social media can have on growing a property, from unboxing videos featuring Marvel action figures and Monster High makeup tutorials, to toy and movie reviews from young critics like EvanTubeHD, IP successes are based on creating a community of fans. In a sense, they’re all playing together and fueling each other’s love of the brand, and social media plays a huge role in creating that notion of togetherness in the modern era, even for the youngest of fans.

Seeding social channels also helps brands to continually offer new content—another key to success. Minions, for example, has not only been featured in a new movie about every two years, but it has also been featured in any number of videos—both official and fan-created—on social media. This keeps the brand fresh in kids’ eyes and maintains their interest between major releases of films or new lines of toys.

The IP space is particularly volatile, with brands just as likely to experience a rapid rise to the top as they are to suffer a quick decline. This was the case with Frozen over the past two years. It was 2014′s breakout hit and number-two property. But in 2015, it lost the largest number of Kidfinity points among all 283 brands included in the annual Young Love study.

To maintain a strong position with a fickle young audience, brands need to keep a close eye on the cultural cues and trends that impact adoption—from new play patterns and shifting gender norms, to social media’s influence and parenting styles. These factors have just as much effect as characters and content in determining the next big cross-category hit.

Wynne Tyree is the president of Smarty Pants, a youth and family research and consulting firm. 

About The Author
Wynne Tyree is the founder and president of Smarty Pants, a youth and family market research and consulting firm. She is also a leading authority on kids’ digital engagement and IP development. Contact Wynne at



Brand Menu