Monday, May 7, 2007

The Transformer Story

From a marketing viewpoint, the birth of Transformers toys in 1984 was
an orchestrated act of genius. It not only launched one of the most
successful playthings ever, it propelled a massive change in toy
selling. Today, marketing rules; toys and the entertainment industry
have become two sides of the same coin. The groundwork of all that was
laid with the birth of Transformers.

Hasbro, now the world's second
biggest toy company, had licensed Diacron, a puzzle toy with cars and
planes that transformed into robots, from the Japanese company Takara.
The Japanese had tried to sell it on the American market for a year.
When it failed, they handed licensing rights to legendary toy man Henry
Orenstein, who took the toy to Hasbro.

Convinced it could still be a success, Stephen Hassenfeld, Hasbro's
CEO, the man regarded by many as the architect of the modern toy
industry, had made the decision to market the toy instinctively. Now
Hasbro had to make it work. Just how was thrashed out in an after-hours
car ride between Hasbro's Rhode Island headquarters and New York City:
the toy company's marketing chief and the three heads of Hasbro's ad
agency Griffin Bacal brainstormed for three and a quarter hours.

after another, decisions emerged. The toys would no longer be
three-dimensional puzzles but characters in a story, with cars (the
Autobots) being the good guys, and planes (the Decepticons) the bad
guys. Joe Bacal came up with the name Transformers against initial
opposition from the others. A back-story was created: Transformers had
all come from Cybertron, a distant planet, where civil war raged
between giant alien robots, under siege and desperate for fuel supplies.

the time they reached New York, Diacron was no longer a stand-alone
puzzle. As Transformers, it had broken away from its role of toy as
object. The play pattern was spelled out. So too was the inducement to
keep buying Transformers merchandise - playtime now would need lots of
characters and props.

The remaining problem was how to sell such
a fantasy toy effectively on television - the use of animation in
advertising in the US at that time was strictly controlled. The Griffin
Bacal agency had the answer. They made Transformers the subject of a
comic book, and then advertised that instead to create awareness of the
Transformers brand: there were no guidelines for commercials for comic
books, because comic books never advertised on television. Griffin
Bacal's ingenuity drove a coach and horses through the rules. Now the
commercials could include all the animation they wished.

was one more ingredient. Over a decade before, the Federal
Communications Commission had cracked down on attempts by toy companies
to introduce toy-led programmes. But now, under the Reagan
administration, that changed. Transformers was free to become a
"programme-length commercial".

A watershed had been crossed. The
old idea of basing toys on characters in books or movies or programmes
was turned upside down. Now the toy came first. The borders between
programme and product became forever blurred, and in 1984 the
Transformers TV series was launched.

Transformers sold $100m
worth of toys in its first year - the most successful toy introduction
in history at that point. Despite ups and downs since, constant
marketing-led initiatives - new TV series spinning off new toys - have
ensured it has never been out of production, a triumph in a business
where a successful toy is one that lasts more than a year.

· The Real Toy Story: Inside the Ruthless Battle for Britain's Youngest Consumers by Eric Clark is published by Black Swan, £8.99

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