Toddler-toy maker Tomy takes a stab at online marketing
tactics to introduce its tiny toy robot.
By TAMARA CHUANG
The Orange County RegisterComments 0| Recommend
With no plans to spend a penny on TV commercials, Santa
Ana's Tomy Corp. is betting its new i-SOBOT will capture the hearts and
wallets of Americans and become one of the hottest toys this holiday.
The $300 robot, being unveiled today, has gained a following
thanks to a strategic Internet campaign. Tomy's marketing gurus targeted blogs
and Web sites. Popular gadget sites, such as Engadget and Gizmodo, have been
keeping tabs on its progress all year. I-SOBOT even has a MySpace page with 161
But it's not just the geek community that's curious. The
6.5-inch, bipedal mechanical creature attracted retail attention as well.
Neiman Marcus won the rights to sell i-SOBOT exclusively in September
before other retailers. Other stores, including Amazon and eToys,
began taking pre-orders last month and have since asked Tomy for more after
selling out of initial allotments. Sharper Image stores are featuring it
as one of its top tech toys.
Not bad for a company that previously made only toys for
"Tomy's always been known as a preschool toy company, but
we've been expanding into electronics," said Sandra Leo, Tomy's senior marketing
manager. "We really had to look at the best way to market (i-SOBOT). We wanted
to do more untraditional marketing, like blogs, MySpace and robot
Even at the official news conference this afternoon, Tomy is
testing a new tactic. It's inviting consumers not only to listen to the Webcast
but ask questions at tomy-usa.com/mediaroom. If the campaign works, it will save
Tomy a lot of money.
"Usually, traditional marketing with TV can be a couple of
million of dollars depending on the campaign," Leo said. "Based on the
nontraditional marketing approach TOMY is taking by reaching consumers through
limited print, online, word of mouth, and the news conference, TOMY will spend
approximately between $200,000 to $400,000 – much less than traditional
marketing with TV."
Japanese parent Tomy Co. Ltd. spent two years
developing i-SOBOT. An American version was tweaked for the U.S. consumer. Leo
said the local office gave it a sense of humor. i-SOBOT will crack jokes, tell
you that you smell funny, act drunk and imitate Dirty Harry's infamous line "Go
ahead, make my day."
American consumers are getting their hands on i-SOBOT before
the Japanese. Tomy's local office wanted the robot in time for Christmas.
Retailers in Japan don't depend on the holiday season as much as U.S. retailers.
So the Omnibot, as it's called in Japan, will hit stores there a month
Tomy didn't have to do too much marketing. The buzz about
i-SOBOT is that it's a bipedal robot that comes pre-assembled and ready to play
with. And it doesn't cost thousands of dollars.
The diminutive i-SOBOT is packed with technology: 17
custom-developed servo motors, 19 integrated circuit chips, a gyro-sensor, two
LEDs and software. It sings, dances, does somersaults and karate chops, plays
air guitar and balances on one leg. Using an infrared remote control, users can
tell the i-SOBOT what to do by typing in up to 200 preprogrammed
"We're not calling it a toy. It's more of an electronics
gadget," Leo said.
Robots have long amused hobbyists and the tech crowd. But
they usually had to be built by the user and could cost thousands of dollars,
like the late Sony Aibo dog robot, which retailed for $1,500. On the other
extreme, toy robots were merely play things with blinking lights and limited
A new breed of robots, such as WowWee's Robosapien,
has sprung up in recent years. They have bumped up the technology of toy robots
and are priced in the more affordable hundred-dollar range.
While that's higher than the typical toy, price doesn't
always matter, said Anita Frazier, an analyst who tracks toys and video games
for market researcher NPD Group.
"The price points for these items are higher – but that
hasn't stood in the way of their success. While toy companies traditionally have
shied away from higher price points, in recent years it has been proven that if
a toy is innovative enough and interesting enough to kids then it can succeed no
matter what the price," Frazier said.
These "interactive robotic playmates," as Fraiser calls
them, are just a smidgen of the $22 billion toy industry. But their sales record
makes them one of the fastest-growing toy categories. Last year, sales reached
$262 million, up 43 percent from the prior year's $183 million, according to
"The numbers tell the story. This category has been hot in
recent years. It's a small category but it's been growing like gangbusters," she
Whether consumers will bite on the $300-plus price tag
remains to be seen.
Sharper Image, known for showcasing robots and other tech
toys, told Tomy that i-SOBOT is probably priced too low. The retailer's other
new robots this year include the $350 Pleo baby dinosaur from Ugobe, the
$120 R2-D2 droid from Star Wars and WowWee's singing Robopanda Interactive Robot
Sales have pleased Neiman Marcus, said Ginger Reeder,
spokeswoman for the department store. i-SOBOT has been available for sale only
at Nieman's, known for carrying hundreds of exclusive products at any given
"It's a great product and that's what we look for. And we
thought it would be a fun gift," Reeder said. "The bottom line is we look for
If pre-orders mean anything, Tomy is hopeful. Retailers who
have been taking pre-orders have sold out and asked Tomy for more.
"The initial shipment to the U.S. is 15,000 units, but
production has been ramped up due to overwhelming demand and an additional
135,000 units should arrive prior to year-end," Leo said.
Sharper Image is pretty confident the robots will
"Robots and tech toys rule this season," said Cori Zywotow
Rice, Sharper Image spokeswoman. "It's predominantly driven by the consumer
whose desire is to interact with products that will allow them to escape,
fantasize and have fun. It's interesting. Fuzzy slippers and plush toys that
don't have sound chips and sensors have really become wants of the
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