When Sydney Wiseman walked out of New York’s Javits Center for a short break during Toy Fair 2020, only weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world forever, she checked her phone andwas shocked.
“I had 267,000 notifications on TikTok,” WowWee’s VP of brand development and creative strategy recalls. “I thought, ‘What is happening?’”
The notifications were reactions to a TikTok featuring WowWee’s new Power Treads line, which was debuting at the show.
Through the magic of video and social media, the robotic racing brand had gone viral.
In that moment, Wiseman realized a powerful new force for all toy companies had been unleashed—one that touches multiple
areas, including research and development, marketing and retail.
Launched in 2016 by China-based DanceByte, the short-form video app TikTok now boasts approximately 700 million daily users in 155 countries, and more than a billion videos are viewed there every single day. It’s the world’s most downloaded app, and is currently said to be worth somewhere north of US$60 billion.
These are gaudy numbers, but perhaps the platform’s biggest impact lies beyond them. The key to TikTok’s success is the deep connection the app’s algorithm nurtures with its predominately young audience (50% are in the 18-34 demo), facilitating an unprecedented real-time conversation between creators and their audiences.
WOWWEE AND ZURU
“Our biggest buzz is now our TikTok,” says Wiseman about the impact the platform has had on WowWee in the two years since her phone exploded on that fateful February day.
WowWee quickly set up unique TikTok channels for each of its brands, including Squishy Little Dumplings (28,000 followers) and Got2Glow Fairies (35,700 followers). As well, Wiseman has her own personal channel with approximately 67,000 followers.
All the channels have been successful in cultivating the WowWee brands and creating new touchpoints for consumers and retailers alike.
Of course, WowWee is not alone. Another toyco that has enjoyed tremendous growth over the last couple years, at least partly attributed to TikTok, is ZURU. The company was an early adopter of the platform. In 2019, ZURU created dedicated channels for its Mini Brands (1.1 million followers) and has since followed suit with X-Shot (155,200 followers) and Bunch O Balloons (98,300 followers).
“None of our competitors were on it yet,” says Henry Gordon, ZURU’s global marketing director. “So it was a huge opportunity for us.” ZURU’s Mini Brands channel currently boasts three billion views on TikTok, but directly quantifying the platform’s power is difficult.
“It’s impossible to say exactly how TikTok has helped some of these bigger growth brands because every brand has TikTok now,” says Juli Lennett, VP and industry advisor for US Toys at The NPD Group. “But it’s pretty clear that a company like ZURU has been really successful on the platform.”
Over the past two years, toycos have invested a lot of research and imagination into creating and maintaining relevant TikTok channels. Wiseman describes a steep learning curve as WowWee’s marketing team first learned how to effectively navigate TikTok’s enigmatic digital contours.
“Understanding your audience is maybe the biggest trick,” she says. “The algorithm can be finicky. Sometimes a video you posted a week ago will suddenly get a million views, and you just wonder why.’”
Despite extraordinary success on the platform, Gordon says it took some time to understand the ins and outs of TikTok.
“It was a lot of trial and error,” he says. “We did a lot of research into the trends and watched a lot of videos.”
The company now earmarks about 30% of its marketing spend for TikTok and has a dedicated team developing content and monitoring trends.
While TikTok recently expanded its platform to allow for video uploads of up to 10 minutes in duration, toy companies are generally looking to upload videos that top out at around 30 seconds.
“You have one to two seconds and then [the viewers] are gone,” says Gordon. “The hook is so critical—it has to grab the audience because before you blink, they are moving on.”
Lately, a popular trend is an auto-tuned voiceover that greets the viewer as a video starts.
Other keys to success include what Gordon calls the “scrappy look,” a DIY aesthetic that differentiates ZURU’s content from slick advertising campaigns that are often unsuccessfully grafted onto the platform by bigger brands.
“It has to be shot on a phone,” he says. “Consumers don’t want to see something polished with great production values. If they think it looks like an ad, they won’t engage with it at all.”
It’s important for new users to understand the criteria for a successful TikTok and exactly how to leverage it. NPD’s Lennett says breakthrough videos can be seen as a contributing factor to a toyco’s bump in market share. However, sometimes a runaway success can backfire.
“Once a video hits a million views, I find it expands beyond the audience of who is going to purchase [the product],” says Wiseman. “Then the comments start to have less relevance.”
She described a recent Twilight Daycare video that garnered a relatively modest 50,000 views but also elicited 1,200 comments.
“That’s not up there in terms of views, but the engagement was amazing,” she says, adding some of the 1,200 comments were used to assist her team in refining aspects of the product’s design before release.
ZURU employs the same engagement calculus when it evaluates its popular X-Shot channel. The channel currently has only about 20% of the subscribers of NERF’s channel—its chief competitor in the category—but that raw number only tells part of the story.
“Our brand has a million more likes,” Gordon says. “So the engagement on X-Shot is amazing. It’s the most-engaged-with toy property on the platform.”
Both ZURU and WowWee have learned that sometimes an exuberant response to a video comes with unintended consequences.
“Once we had Amazon call us and ask, ‘What is happening?’” says Wiseman, describing the “horse-before-the-cart” problem that arises when products teased on TikTok are not yet ready for retail.
It’s a tricky balance between at least having a landing page for people who want to find out more information, and firing up demand
“Sometimes I have jumped the gun and promoted a product that isn’t really available yet,” says Wiseman. “You have to be
mindful of that.”
Besides perfecting the timing of video releases and product availability, leveraging the power of TikTok also takes time and dedication. It’s a hungry platform with a voracious appetite for new content.
“I’m good for a video a day, but you have to upload more than that to maintain popularity,” says Wiseman. “So our marketing department is dedicating more and more time to it.”
ZURU is meeting this appetite for content with a dedicated TikTok staff, feeding the platform 20 to 30 unique TikToks every week across all of its channels.
Despite a reputation for reticence towards new marketing ideas and product proof points, retailers have also become entranced by the dominant video platform over the past two years.
“I had a retailer meeting recently, and they said, ‘Oh, we all follow you [on TikTok],’” says Wiseman. “It’s now the talk of toy retailers.”
Gordon concurs, adding that US retailers have been faster to adopt TikTok than their European counterparts, but global retailers in general are now getting on board.
“We’re seeing uptakes of two to three in terms of rate of sales for our products on the platform,” he says. “For us, that’s a proof point we can take to retailers.”
One retailer that has realized the power of TikTok is Massachusetts-based Learning Express Toys and its 90 franchises. Each location now has its own TikTok channel, and the results have been overwhelming.
“We have doubled sales since the pandemic with half the marketing spend,” says Meghan Thompson, Learning Express’s marketing manager, adding that while it’s impossible to draw a direct connection to TikTok, the platform is obviously a contributing factor.
“Our franchise in Birmingham, Alabama has 2.6 million subscribers,” she says. “It’s now a major part of our marketing.”
Where this is all going is hard to predict. However, ZURU has started to look at TikTok as more than just a one-way street; what moves the needle on the platform is now informing the development of new toy concepts and designs.
Gordon says ZURU is actively harvesting trend data and using it to develop new products.
“We have 10 products we are developing now that are specifically derived from TikTok trends,” he says, adding it’s too early in the process to share details. “It has been a huge opportunity and it just keeps growing.”