BROOKLYN, NY; FEBRUARY 24, 2017—“What did you see that was new?”
Those are the questions anyone who has walked a trade show of any kind is asked in the aisles and at cocktail receptions once the floor closes. And hardened show attendees, even though they, too, ask those questions, know the answer: “Not much.” Not so, I say. It just takes a little time to reflect.
Walking NY Toy Fair last week, and AmericasMart Atlanta and NY Now, known by most as the Atlanta and New York gift shows, respectively, isn’t about “new” or “exciting.”
Walking such shows is instead an opportunity to:
√ Soak up innovative design and product development trends;
√ Evaluate the latest technology advances — and how they’re being integrated into traditional products;
√ See the color palettes coming over the next few selling seasons across multiple product categories;
√ Discover the tweaks that build on success; and, equally importantly…
√ Bear witness to concepts/products being tested for retailer interest that will never make it to market. These, too, are instructive.
Here, then, are the themes and random observations from a month of shows. Some of these products already have some licensing supporting them; many of the others have clear licensing potential because, while the technology (in the broadest sense) can be copied, licensing the right properties for it offers differentiation.
Tech, Tech Everywhere
One striking trend is the integration of textiles including bedding and rugs, as well as floor coverings, wall hangings, and other decorative accessories, into app-based games and stories. Note: The classic “RC” radio-controlled toys are often though not exclusively now controlled by apps. This segment includes:
- Apps where augmented reality stories are controlled by aiming a smartphone or tablet camera at a map or map-like image (a forest, say) which are increasing in number. Tilt’s SpinTales (owned by textile manufacturer Welspun) delivers video, narration, and activity suggestions when a device’s camera is focused on an illustration matching one on a Tilt-designed duvet cover or rug. The app itself is free. This is the tech-enhanced version of the gaming format used by Charlotte, NC-based Playtime Edventures, which designs sheets that are used as gameboards for non-electronic games such as checkers.
- Virtual reality goggles and a small app-driven drone with a camera are part of Spin Master’s latest add-ons to the Air Hogs DR1 Racing line. The goggles center the user inside the action, which is the next step after “watching” the action on a tablet or phone.
- Decalcomania, which is primarily known for stick figure family-on-board car decals as well as traditional licensed decals, is introducing wall decals that are essentially gussied up QR codes which, when activated by your device, take you to video footage or games.
- Luvabella is a life-like doll, also from Spin Master, that was, frankly, a little creepy in its responsiveness (and its eyes). The doll stretches when waking, laughs when you tickle it, makes appropriate sounds when eating, and expands vocabulary as the child playing with it grows. It is NOT internet- or Wi-Fi connected, a problem Mattel encountered with its talking Barbie a while back. Note to Spin Master: Luva Bella is a wine bar and bistro in Lowellville, OH, for which Luvabella the doll is definitely underage.
I can’t say as I’ve seen the “killer app” in augmented or virtual reality, but that will come in time, no doubt. And sometimes classic technology can be executed with a fresh spin. Helio’s light projector, for example, exchanges the typical stars projected on the ceiling of a child’s room with interchangeable word games and other educational material. The company is now producing projectable discs featuring Mickey Mouse for its lamps for sale exclusively in Disney theme parks and stores.
Holiday season 2016’s must-have out-of-stock toy was Spin Master’s Hatchimals. Now that they’re in-stock, they’re spawning not only new editions in their own line, but copycat versions such as Beverly Hills Teddy Bear Company’s Surprizimals. Similarly, Disney’s success with stackable Tsum-Tsum plush finds Ty featuring Teeny Tys very prominently.
Generally, interest in “collectible” small toys (add Spin Master’s Chubby Puppies, which may be politically incorrect, and classics such as Hasbro’s My Little Pony and Polly Pocket, among many others) is perennial, though I suspect hitting a peak for the moment. As a trend, that will rest and come back in some new iteration in 6-7 years.
Chalk It Up
Chalk boards and chalk writing had been a trend for a number of years at the gift shows, though that seems to have plateaued and perhaps fallen off. However, there are new versions of chalk toys for kids that are interesting.
Chalk of the Town, launched in August and seen at NY Now, offers t-shirts with markable and erasable/washable chalk boards embedded. The shirts come with special markers. Licensing opportunities seem like a natural fit for a chalkboard in the shape of, say, Mickey/Minnie ears or a Mustang. [Note: Photo removed at request of the company in Oct. 2019.]
Jaq Jaq Bird started 12 years ago with a foldable chalk mat on one side, placemat (for eating) on the other. Its latest offering, seen at AmericasMart, are artist-based Chalk Color It Books — soft-sided books evoking Van Gogh, Degas, and others. The pages have outlines based on the original art which can be filled in with the company’s Zero Dust Chalk. Again, easy to see licensed applications here.
Color Me Bright
AmericasMart and NY Now are notable for the color palettes that jump out at you. The photos here tell the story:
Bumkins and Avanchy are among those selling brightly colored silicone “plates” and mats for young children. Bumkins is a long-time licensee of DC, Dr. Seuss, and others, and Avanchy uses the silicone for the suction bottom and non-dishwasher-friendly bamboo for the plates and utensils. Baggu offers a range of reusable shopping bags. Color Cords specializes in colorful electrical cords, fabric wire, and other accessories.
I started by talking about fabric and technology, but fabric is a running theme here with its own “technologies,” what with wearable chalk boards you can throw in the wash and others that fold, crinkle, are heat-activated, and so on. Examples include Palomar’s “Crumpled City” cloth maps; Mikabarr’s heat-activated polymer fabric that folds for lamps (and other fabric types that fold in unique ways), from Israel; Uashmama’s washable paper food bags, aprons, cosmetic cases, and more, out of Australia.
Sometimes I come across products that have been around that I simply haven’t seen before. Ciao! Baby’s Portable High Chair folds the way beach chairs do, and is about the same weight. The Louisville, KY-based company has licensed versions for 49 schools via Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC) and the product has been on the market for about five years. The new accessory: a clip-on lightweight umbrella, thus far only with the Ciao! Baby logo but which attaches to the licensed high chairs, too.
What’s new? What’s exciting? Those are questions with no answers in the heat of the moment, coming off the floor in that hazy state I’ll call “convention head.” But a little reflection always brings new ideas and perspectives.
Need help refining fresh marketing and licensing concepts? Finding brand extension opportunities? Conducting competitive research to define the “white space” your business can occupy? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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?