BROOKLYN, NY: February 23, 2018—An idiosyncratic distillation of New York Toy Fair this week.
Is Rubik’s the Toy World’s Betty Boop? Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop first appeared as a cartoon character in 1930. She has since been successfully licensed for thousands of products. Even young people who don’t recognize the name know the image. And as you travel, you’ll find Betty in store windows around the globe as a come-on, even when the stores barely carry any Betty merchandise.
I was reminded of Betty at Toy Fair seeing the number of booths with a Rubik’s Cube at the sign-in desk. It only really sunk in my second day, so I can’t tell you if they were all licensees, or distributors, or putting it out there to amuse visitors while they wait for their appointments, or legitimate knock-offs (patents have expired, though trademarks are still in effect for the word Rubik and Rubik’s).
Bricks, Briks, and Pix. If you start your annual tour of Toy Fair as I do downstairs at the Javits Center in Manhattan, where the newer, smaller, scrappier companies tend to be, and head north from the southernmost aisle, one of the first booths you would have seen this year is Rubik’s Briks, from Strictly Briks, which are compatible with other brick sets such as LEGO’s.
Speaking of compatibility with the Danish company’s toy blocks, that’s been a theme for years now, with plenty of toy companies riding LEGO’s coattails into construction set glory. The above video of a replica of Coney Island’s Cyclone roller coaster illustrates a personal favorite among the relative newcomers to what I term construction brick interoperability — whatever the brand, they’ve all got to work together. As for the Cyclone, I live in Brooklyn, NY after all, just a few miles from the real thing. The set is manufactured by CDX (CoasterDynamix) and has been out since mid-2017.
Non-tech Toys With Tech-ish Names. Another variant on interoperability with LEGO is Pix Brix, which offers “pixel art” by way of mini-bricks (also compatible). That plays into yet another theme: companies with traditional (read that non-electronic/non-digital) toys trying to imbue those toys with a hint of interactivity by borrowing tech-ish descriptors — for example, “pixel” art, or their tag line, “What will you pixelate?” Similarly, Charles Zadeh’s booth featured art kits urging kids to “Explore your inner selfie” while puzzle-maker 4D Cityscape Time Puzzle, which makes upscale 3D puzzle (not sure what the 4th dimension is here), incorporating 4D into its name. That company has about eight Game of Thrones titles, just signed Harry Potter and has 6-8 Potter puzzles forthcoming. Nothing tech about these.
From Tech-ish to Tech — And Every Gradation In Between. My bad for not being aware of the term “mixed reality” until the show, certainly not in the context of toys. But there it was on signage touting MergeVR’s Merge 6DoF Blaster, one of at least half a dozen devices at different booths integrating a smartphone as its screen.
Thank you Wikipedia for the formal definition: “Mixed reality (MR), sometimes referred to as hybrid reality, is the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time.” Move in a real space and you move similarly in the parallel universe of the imaginary space on the screen.
Variations On Classic Themes. Slime is back. A generational fad if ever there was one (comes back about every 17 years). When Cra-Z-Art saw sales of its glue soaring as children used it with other ingredients to make slime, the company licensed the Nickelodeon name and produced a now best-selling slime-making kit. Meanwhile, Keycraft Global’s variant comes in Goobands (remember SillyBandz?), and Steven Spangler has DIY slime science kits. That’s just three of many slimey products. . . .Twee (funny name for a company, but hey) offers gorgeous sidewalk chalk that comes in the shapes/images of sushi, glittery donuts, and more. . . .Bobble Head banks from Tin Box Company featuring DC, Star Wars and other licenses. . . .My Arcade’s miniature arcade replica games licensed from Bandai Namco and Data East.
Hot Brands. Rick & Morty. Game of Thrones. Minecraft. I keep hearing that Paw Patrol is falling off, but it’s still omni-present. Ditto for Star Wars, but more on that in an upcoming post. Coming on strong: Bendy and the Ink Machine. I didn’t know, either, folks; year-old horror videogame from TheMeatly Games. Runs on multiple platforms. Watch it (the brand), but don’t wait too long to sign on.
Off-the-Beaten Path Licensed Brands. Bachman Trains with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus (now certainly a nostalgia brand; how long can it be maintained? Will Feld revive the brand in a new context?) and Norman Rockwell. . . .American Chess picking up Bobby Fischer. . . .Kitchen/home graphic designer and children’s book illustrator Mary Engelbreit will have her own Looney Labs card games later this year.
Collectables. Imperial Toys’ collectable food trucks, coming out fall. Imperial is known for bubbles — and they have a new variant on the flavored bubbles they first introduced a year ago, to be known as Lick-A-Bubble going forward (1.6 million views of the ad on Youtube since mid-January). But food trucks are definitely trending, and for a company as non-trend-rooted as Imperial to come up with nice designs, with side hoods that go up to reveal the kitchens plus movable roofs, this is a nice surprise. The preliminary packaging says 5+ but I see this as a 20-something office fad. Toys aren’t just for kids, you know.
On that note: There has long been a market for upscale collectables for adults, but credit Funko for expanding the category and giving it legs.
New, Neat & With Licensing Potential. Stroller Costumes to entice kids to get in. “Inspired by my son, who refused to get in the stroller. I designed one that looked like a truck. Problem solved,” says inventor/dad-preneur Moses Atkins. Definite potential for licensing. He found interest among licensors, retailers, and manufacturers.
Sago’s Pillow Playsets, which are beautifully detailed with sewn pockets, curtains, and other features. Retailing at $49.95, for upscale toy/gift boutiques and, again, potential for licensed versions. Toronto-based Sago, by the way, launched five years ago offering wordless apps for kids that have now been downloaded 27 million times and subsequently became an activity toy company.
Roooz Planet is a book with an exceptional array of characters its author/illustrator Rooz Mousaur sees delivering environmental messages.
Glove-A-Bubbles makes an oversized glove that has a pouch for bubble mix and different size holes above the fingers. Empty the bubbles into a dish, dip the upper part of the glove in, and wave your hand to generate multiple sized bubbles. The original art isn’t that interesting, but the concept could definitely work for licensed characters.
Other Views. Writer/consultant/photographer Karen Raugust kicks off her Toy Fair coverage with a look at the role social media influencers such as toy testers, mommy bloggers, comedians, singers and pranksters are playing in the toy industry. LIMA’s Inside Licensing goes behind the press releases, including commentary on poop toys and games, and collectables. The Wall Street Journal explores the toy industry’s efforts to match fast fashion’s speed to market.
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Call it what you will — retro, vintage, nostalgia, classic, evergreen — the “everything old is new again” refrain has been perennially popular in licensing. But just using old images, or original packaging, is NOT the name of the game:
- Look at how Nick updated the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Saban the Power Rangers — and the huge success they’ve enjoyed on air and in consumer products. (I estimate that the Turtles exceeded $1 billion at retail worldwide in 2014, while the Power Rangers continued their upward swing to in excess of $350 million worldwide.)
- Nintendo’s Mario Bros., Bandai/Namco’s Pac-Man, and other video game companies are stressing pixilated images in their style guides. These are true to their origins but have the added benefit of playing off the popularity of styles popularized via LEGO and Minecraft, as my colleague Karen Raugust points out.
- “Throwback jerseys” are made of contemporary fabrics. “The Mick’s” throwback comes “equipped with Majestic’s amazing Cool Base technology to keep you cool and dry whenever it heats up!”
- Archival art, whether Fuller Brush, the Smithsonian Library’s Seed Catalog Collection, or the Saturday Evening Post seek to wed “nostalgia with innovation,” as Fuller Brush says in its promotional literature. As do we all.
More from Licensing Expo in coming days.
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.”