Sunday, June 8, 2008

Spin Master Takes Its Toys on Tour

One of the hottest toys in stores this year owes its success to a marketing campaign straight from the Eisenhower era.

Last summer, teams of college interns roamed the Canadian countryside in large, colorful vans introducing children at summer camps and local fairs to Bakugan Battle Brawlers, a game played with small plastic balls that snap open into monsters when rolled across magnetic trading cards.

The trip took place months before the toys were available in stores or advertised on television, but it generated plenty of under-age word of mouth. When the toys hit stores in September, they sold out almost immediately, and even today retailers struggle to keep them in stock.

Genuine hits in the toy industry are rare these days, particularly for products like Bakugan that need some explaining and lack familiar characters. But the company behind the product is Spin Master, a 14-year-old toy seller known for a grass-roots approach to marketing and a nimble strategy that has brought it a string of successes.

In 2007, Spin Master’s sales grew by more than 60 percent, while the $22 billion toy industry experienced a 2 percent dip in sales, according to the NPD Group, a research company. Some Spin Master toys that are not new, like Moon Sand, Tech Deck and Air Hogs, were among the top sellers, according to NPD.

Last month, as a line formed in front of the Toys “R” Us in Times Square to buy the latest hot video game — Nintendo’s Wii Fit — store employees wearing Bakugan T-shirts helped shepherd the crowd. That morning, the actual Bakugan Battle Brawler capsules were sold out in the store, though ancillary products, like the arena for battling, were available. [...] All Toys “R” Us outlets are featuring Battle Brawlers in “end caps,” which are prominent displays at the end of an aisle.

To introduce Battle Brawlers, Spin Master chose the touring-van approach after deciding that the game was not easily explained in a 30-second TV commercial — and that the marbles-turned-robots simply look cooler in person than on the screen.

Spin Master has used van tours before, during the 1998 rollout of Air Hogs, a line of tiny remote-controlled helicopters. Back then, the vans visited air shows to find young flight enthusiasts.

For the 2006 release of Moon Sand, a clay-like molding product intended to compete with Hasbro’s Play-Doh, Spin Master introduced a series of direct-response TV ads, the long-form “call now” commercials generally associated with exercise equipment and Ginsu knives.

Direct-response television “hasn’t generally worked with toys,” Mr. Rabie said, “because kids don’t have credit cards and they aren’t watching TV at 12 o’clock at night.” But for Moon Sand, which appeals to children under 4, the approach found success by selling parents on the idea of easy cleanup and portability.

Gerrick Johnson, a toy industry analyst with BMO Capital Markets, called Spin Master’s infomercial approach “one of the greatest innovations in toy marketing.” The company has
replicated the approach for other items, like the Aqua Doodle Wall Mat, a mess-free board for scribbling.

One new marketing element for Bakugan has been a half-hour TV show on Cartoon Network that was introduced in February. “Regular TV advertising is becoming less effective,” Mr. Rabie said. “Content is king.”

Not that Spin Master doesn’t advertise on TV. Commercials on Saturday morning cartoons are part of its marketing mix, but they tend to play a supporting role.

Another way Spin Master tries to drive up demand is by limiting the inventory it delivers to stores. “Spin Master is managing it very well by not flooding the market,” said Mr. Johnson, the toy industry analyst. This fosters a “treasure hunt” atmosphere that gets children trading the toys as well as shopping for them.

Spin Master spends more than $30 million a year on marketing and almost never uses outside advertising agencies, instead relying on its own department of about 30 people. “That’s been a competitive advantage for us,” Mr. Rabie said. “We understand the product better than anyone else, and we don’t want to delegate that.”

Spin Master’s next marketing frontier is the Web, where it has already found success with YouTube channels that gather communities of children around their products. This summer, the company plans to introduce a virtual world Web site for its Tech Deck toys, a line of finger-operated skateboards.

Article Link (New York Times)

No comments: