Following up on why there won’t be a “next” Pokémon GO, as if there hasn’t been enough written about it:
- Book and toy as well as mass merchants and other specialty retailers, are not surprisingly reporting vastly increased demand for Pokémon merchandise. See Publishers Weekly for bookseller (and bookstore café managers’) comments on how the “New Pokemon Game Takes Bookstores By Storm.”
- While there have been reports that Nintendo is signing Pokémon GO licensing deals “left and right” (see NY Post), that is inaccurate on several counts: First, Nintendo doesn’t control the rights, The Pokémon Company (TPC, of which Nintendo is a part owner) does. Second, The Pokémon Company signed its deals for the 20th anniversary of the property last year and marked that occasion with a Super Bowl commercial this past January. So while the degree of success of the app was unanticipated, the fact that there would be renewed attention on the property, which Millennials grew up with, was not.
- The Pokémon Company London office covers all of Europe, where poster and other merchandise licensee GB Eye’s Max Arguile relates to me his own conversation with the company. “Given that there is no difference between the artwork of Pokémon and Pokémon GO,” Arguile says TPC told him, “it makes no sense for them to spend time negotiating licenses that would effectively replicate what they already have in the market (and either making licensees pay twice for the same thing or annoying them by appointing a competitor). The only difference in artwork is the addition of GO to the logo. If [their position on not licensing separate Pokémon GO Images] changes they will let us know but right now they are busy fielding multiple calls every day from all the major retailers — this is where the real money is, not in adding licensees. [In the wake of the Pokémon GO Phenomenon,] Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury, Primark, Debenhams, Matalan and M&S have all ordered big apparel ranges for Q3/Q4 2016. This will be achieved by print-on-demand. Other categories, such as bedding are going into most of the same retailers.” Arguile adds that TPC forecasts “some big collaborations in 2017.”
- The most recent estimate of worldwide retail sales of licensed Pokémon merchandise is for 2014 at $328 million, according to The Licensing Letter. I estimate that in 2015 the property would have been down somewhat as is typical prior to an event such as a 20th anniversary. Published reports of $600 million seem way out of range.
- Publishers Weekly isn’t the only non-game trade magazine reporting on Pokémon. Try this one from Billboard, about the characters landing in music business offices. Not to mention the fact that the New York Police Department issued Pokémon GO Safety Tips, sent by email to subscribers to its various alerts as well as posted on its website.
- While Millennials are the core audience, even among my boomer contemporaries, the topic literally came up in every dinner conversation the past week, and a number of friends have downloaded and played with the app, though they’re not going out in search of merchandise. (At least not until this filters down to their grandchildren…)
NEW YORK, NY: FEBRUARY 16, 2016—My favorite parts of Toy Fair are invariably the far aisles on the main floor upstairs and the downstairs exhibits. That’s where many of the start-ups and smaller players are and where you get a sense of the ideas that are propelling toy inventors and designers.
Here are my idiosyncratic impressions after two days walking the show at the Javits Center, with a few added comments based on a recent spate of store visits.
Star Wars isn’t disappearing any time soon. Sphero will have competition for its BB-8 later this year when Spin Master brings out its own version of the robot. The creator of the Spin Master BB-8, Thomas Tretter, was doing the product demos, happily admitting he “gets paid to do what he did as a kid.” Also via Spin Master, Air Hogs will have an expanded Star Wars line.
But SW was ubiquitous, if anything moreso than even last year and eclipsing even the strongest of the strong. Manufacturers uniformly report that Star Wars is still going gangbusters, and many are still developing new assortments. Marvel is Marvel, DC is DC, and they’re next in line. I was surprised not to see more new Minions on the boards, as retail is still going strong with that as well. Universal’s Secret Life of Pets clearly has momentum, though, with Spin Master’s Best Friend Max wobbly-walking dog from that upcoming film a candidate for next Christmas’s must-have toy (Elmo beware). Commonwealth and Spin Master are also working Angry Birds in anticipation of that film.
The expansion of Melissa & Doug, once exclusive to specialty toy retail, is nothing short of astounding. The company used to eschew licensing, but has some Disney and other properties. However, unlike LEGO, which reinvented itself (and came back from the walking dead) through licensing, Melissa & Doug hews true to its origins even if distribution has expanded to mass, education stores, and more.
JoyLabz had perhaps the oddest display among the robotics/electronics startups: Makey Makey was demonstrated using a piece of tin foil folded on a table, with hand-written marker instructions, and five bananas with connector leads in them hooked up to a laptop. Touch the foil with one hand and use the other hand to hit the bananas (“it could be anything conductive; we just used bananas,” the demonstrator noted, though their sales materials feature bananas too), and you get music from the laptop. The kit can also be used to make game controllers, instruments, and “inventions.”
There’s really no breakout company in robotics. If I were a buyer, I’d be hard pressed to decide who to go with — both whether they have the wherewithal to deliver, and what might make the product stand out. Most seem to create different lighting or noise patterns from generic component parts, and there’s little guidance for what you can do further. As a group, they’re coming of age, but they’re not there yet.
Among the more traditional science kits, Smart Lab used licensed Star Wars and Disney Princess to distinguish itself. Based on retail visits as well as the show, Smithsonian and National Geographic are dominating this sector at specialty, in book stores, and at mass.
3Doodler and Creopop are among several companies offering handheld 3D printer pens. 3Doodler has had an adult version on the market at $99; the new child version is $49. Different colors of instant-hardening plastic are available. Using the pens requires pretty serious fine motor skills; not clear to me exactly who the market will be for kids versions. 3D printers are also rapidly coming down in price to where they might have potential as consumer items, but again, the killer app that could transform them from “having potential” to “must have” has yet to surface.
A year or two ago formable sand products for home and school were relatively high end, sold by Brookstone initially; the variety is expanding rapidly now under a variety of names (Kinetic Sand from Spin Master, but Magic Sand, Aqua Sand) — in colors (including glow-in-the-dark from Sands Alive), packaging, and price.
Zing’s StikBot Studio — a toy-size green screen with little characters you can use to create your own stop motion animated videos — expanded its one-year-old line with a more extensive “Pro” kit. Zing also has Wet Head, which is a hat with a little reservoir for water and stick plugs coming out. It’s essentially “Russian roulette with water,” as a demonstrator put it — the hat is filled with water, players spin a wheel to indicate which plug to pull out, and eventually one of the pulled plugs releases the water.
AzIAm Girlz yoga dolls, which first shipped this past December, is growing its line.
There’s growing availability of sophisticated tool sets. New at the show this year was Toydriver from the “smart screw specialists.” Toydriver is a mini powered screw driver designed for the small screws used in children’s toys but also for small hands. Sidenote: Toys R Us carries an extensive line of Home Depot-branded tools and child-sized workbenches and the like that are truly standout.
On the gardening front, Triumph Plant has been doing a beautiful job with Crayola for a number of years. There’s a My First Plant series, and a Color A Plant Pot kit. And they’re re-introducing a Charlie Brown tree to go with their Charlie Brown Grow a Pumpkin kit; the tree had been around for a few years, but the company wasn’t able to get the seeds for the last two years. Triumph’s Jim Johansen also said the company has licensed the Garden State Parkway for a wildflowers line. It’s an outgrowth of Lady Bird Johnson’s highway beautification program and could be expanded to cover other states’ highway wildflower programs.
Morphmallow’s Spaghetti Headz hair accessories remind me of the coiled shoe laces that were a fad for a couple of years. Generic versions of Spaghetti Headz have been on the market at $9.99 list for about two years; Morphmallow, exhibiting at Toy Fair for the first time, is now adding licenses including Care Bears, Garfield, Betty Boop, and the upcoming Steven Spielberg film The BFG selling at $12.49. Target is tweens to young teens, with the designs with feathers at the end appealing to the older end of the spectrum.
Capson and Zoofy, to name just two, are outfitting caps (brand name Brick Brick) and backpacks, respectively, with boards that work with Lego and other similarly sized building blocks as well as with miniature versions so kids can customize their look. Capson had the Disney logo, an As logo, and a Hello Kitty image to show what you can do, but was quick to say they don’t license those images, “they’re just to demonstrate what someone can do.” In fact, they don’t even sell blocks — those are user-supplied. Zoofy used generic designs to illustrate the potential on its backpacks.
Pinbox 3000 is likely typical of many toy startups these days: They used a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $15,000 they needed to make the diecuts they needed for the first run of their cardboard “pinball machines” which are blanks. The examples they showed demonstrate how you can draw or photograph your own backgrounds, use discarded toys or household objects, and so forth to create your own game. Make, an online magazine (makezine.com) wrote about the product last July and started selling it. That sent them back for a second run. They’ve also developed special education and library market versions. The basic kit is $49.95; a large “double kit” is $89.95.
Speaking of make your own: Yottoy, which is both a publisher and makes plush and collectibles with licenses for Babar, Madeline, and others, signed on as an Eloise licensee about a week before Toy Fair. A beautiful lunch kit was hand painted to get it on display in time, VP creative director Peter Doodeheefver showed me proudly. Sales of licensed Madeline merchandise benefited enormously from a museum exhibit at the New York Historical Society, as did sales of Paddington goods with release of the Paddington Bear movie. Next up for them is The Little Prince movie; but Yottoy typically has these properties long-term; the movie and museum shows are bonus opportunities.
Not a toy per se, but a fun product: Fan Hands (company and product name) — special gloves designed to make a loud clap when at a sports event. Marc Jones, President/CEO and inventor of the gloves, has had the patent since 2013 and has been selling a generic version. But if this isn’t a product designed for licensing… Jones has a relationship with CLC for another product line he developed; he’s looking to expand that to Fan Hands, and to add MLB and NHL “to start.” NFL, he says, is too complex and too expensive to deal with starting out.
Colorforms and Highlights are two children’s brands that have been largely dormant for a number of years. Both are re-establishing their reach through licensing programs the results of which were in evidence at Toy Fair this year and should be more in evidence at retail over the next 12 months. Colorforms is owned by Out of the Blue; Highlights is independently owned.
The success of eOne’s Peppa Pig — which itself is expanding its licensee roster through U.S. master licensee JazWares — is prompting a small surge in other pig properties. Not that pigs haven’t always been popular, but this year sees the addition of Pass the Pigs dice from Winning Moves, among others. Note to Warner Bros.: Is it time for a Porky comeback?
That’s all folks!
Ira Mayer, former publisher and executive editor of The Licensing Letter, conducts competitive research and consults for marketers; takes clients on retail tours; and offers courses on licensing through colleges and universities. You can contact him by clicking on the “Contact” button above left.
There’s a lot of talk about STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) and STEAM (add “arts”), and plenty of laudable products to support entertaining educational play. Mattel supports Nickelodeon’s BLAZE, for example, and there are a wide array of licensed Discovery toys spanning an array of subjects.
But sometimes there seem to be hidden potential applications for other toys. Take Mattel’s new talking Barbie. A child can ask questions of the doll; questions and responses are stored in the cloud, content can be updated by Mattel, and the doll builds on past conversations.
We asked whether there had been any thought to a wider range of inquiries and whether the doll searches the Internet. “Barbie will never search the Internet; we’re COPPA [Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act] compliant,” came the reflexive response to an anticipated question that might have insinuated Barbie entertaining inappropriate subject matter with her charges.
But I was asking in a different context. Last fall there was a media frenzy when a mother wrote an article for The New York Times about how Apple’s Siri app engages her autistic son by being willing to pursue a subject endlessly. (See also NPR interview with the mom.)
The Mattel spokespeople were intrigued and introduced me to the outside developer who had created the Barbie application, Benjamin Morse, “Teddy Roboticist” for Toy Talk, a San Francisco company that has previously developed the apps The Winston Show (“a talk show where the characters talk back”) and SpeakaZoo (“where you talk with the animals”).
Feels like there’s something there for someone, whether it’s Barbie or otherwise.
This seems like a slam dunk licensing opportunity that the company isn’t even thinking about. Anki has a physical car racing game that is controlled by an app. But this doesn’t use the touch screen so much (at least not for steering) as the motion of iPhone or iPad which is used like a steering wheel. Speed is controlled by moving your thumb on the touch screen.
The app was highlighted by Apple two years ago, just about the time other toy manufacturers were trying apps where you ran the toy vehicle over the actual screen (a scary scenario for most parents).
In a reverse out of the usual set up, where you download the free app and then have in-app purchases to enhance the playing experience, with Anki you buy the physical tracks (a lightweight flexible plastic), special toy cars, and then download the free app to run the whole thing.
So far I’m told there isn’t a plan to license – the company is focusing on distribution of its own Anki Drive sets (about $150), but it’s easy to envision the Thomas version, the NASCAR set, the Batman set.
The “Maker Movement – a hybrid of engineering and invention on the one hand and arts and crafts on the other” has surfaced in the toy arena. See Karen’s blog post here.
LEGO once derided licensing, saying it would never move away from its core generic, unadulterated building set business. But new thinking was needed amid hard times not so many years ago, and the Star Wars license turned the company around.
Star Wars was truly just the beginning of LEGO’s licensing, and it is licensing that has made the company one of the top global toy manufacturers. Recently, I asked a cousin’s 8-year-old daughter which LEGO sets she has. (I’d been tipped off that she was heavy into Star Wars.) “I’d rather tell you which ones I’d like to get,” she replied, and proceeded to rattle off 19 sets – all of them Harry Potter – before scrunching her nose. “There are 21 I want. Which two am I forgetting?”
Certainly Angry Birds did a lot for Commonwealth Toys a few years ago. And now it will be interesting to see how Germany’s Schleich will fare. Schleich’s core business is upmarket plastic figurines of prehistoric animals, generic knights, wild life, and farm life. They tend to be sold in specialty toy stores.
Years ago, the company licensed Smurfs, and its success led Schleich to license extensively. The company had severe financial difficulties and swore off licensing, except for continuing its Smurfs relationship. It tried developing its own fantasy property, Bayala, that it hoped to license out into other categories (the property still exists, but I’m not sure much ever got licensed). And now the company’s Toy Fair presence was dominated by its new DC Comics (specifically Justice League) and Peanuts licenses. The people at the booth, who are from Schleich’s North Carolina-based U.S. distribution operation, weren’t familiar with the company history but, noted Soren Philip Hjorth, who is president of Schleich USA, “This isn’t that company.”
Licensed products weren’t an easy sell to the consumer on the original Jurassic Park movie. “A dinosaur is a dinosaur” is what people said at the time, or as one licensee of the upcoming sequel, Jurassic World (this June), puts it, “Dinosaurs are universal.” (No pun intended relative to the film’s distributor, Universal Studios.) This one’s also not so lovable and cuddly, at least based on the trailer. That’s usually not a positive indicator for licensing but can mean boffo at the box office, as Variety used to say.
Will Marvel step up its co-branding? Allow more flexible use of its characters? They already co-brand with Mattel’s Matchbox; will they do the same with Hasbro’s Transformers?
You could argue that Transformers are already their own characters with their own personalities (so to speak). But Hasbro’s Super Hero Mashers line lets kids take Transformers, Marvel, Jurassic World, Star Wars, and other figurines apart to mix and match body parts, outfits, and weapons.
Will other studios allow similar use? Kids always took their toys apart anyway – in this case, is Hasbro just facilitating a play pattern that hasn’t been officially recognized before?
Not all toys are packaged with clear advice what age they’re for, and often for good reason: Aging toys up and down continues to be a trend.
Sometimes it works – Transformers have collectibles for adults, a main line for kids, and a third line for preschoolers. Hasbro is using that as a model for My Little Pony.
The question that every toy company takes into account before aging down: Will they lose their core audience when baby brother or baby sister starts playing with the same characters?
“Storage” – as in ways to tote your toys around – has always been an adjunct to multi-part toys. I remember my sister’s Ginny doll and its film star trunk carrying case in which different outfits traveled on hangers, with room for the doll itself as well.
Storage containers that have been more utilitarian are taking on more style again, with some toy companies making their own cases, and others such as LEGO and Hasbro, licensing others to do so.
I think there are opportunities to create home display items for adult and kid toy collectors, too. Mattel’s Matchbox had a clear half-tube on a wall that displayed probably a couple of hundred Matchbox cars. It was decoration for the booth – but could be equally at home…at home.
I bet a lot of dads who still have their collections would love that idea. So might kids who dump their cars or action figures in a box anyway. This way they’d be able to see them.