A board-again classic

Traditional board games have lost a lot of ground to TV and video games in recent years, but Scrabble, with an updated look by Brown ID, is staging a big comeback.

Every now and again a board game comes along which monopolises the charts for a few years. Trivial Pursuit did it, and now it is the turn of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The TV show spin-off, which was brought out by the company Upstart, is expected to leave its traditional rivals in the shade for a second Christmas season this year.

Board game manufacturers are accustomed to these blips, but there is a bigger and potentially more damaging threat. As a sector, it is in decline, according to NPD, which tracks sales of toys and games. Total board games sales in 1994 were £48.8m. Compare this with £49.7m in 1999, and when inflation is taken into account, the market is not only stagnant, but on the decrease.

This state of affairs can be blamed on the moving image, says NPD UK toy service manager Frederique Tutt. As far as the children’s market is concerned, electronic and hand-held games are taking over. And adults, she says, are more interested in watching TV or videos than hunching over a board. Indeed, video games have the biggest share of the total UK games market at 25 per cent, and as has happened in the US, that share will grow, says Tutt.

So what’s the future for the old-timers? “Scrabble is a classic and will always be there,” says Tutt, but she doubts the sector can actually grow. With all these new entrants and increased competition from other types of games, the classics need a breath of fresh air. Sales for the entire games category was £152.5m last year, according to NPD’s consumer panel, giving board games about a third of the market.

Mattel Games has owned Scrabble since it bought JW Spears in 1994. The game has been selling consistently – global sales in 1998 were $40m (£28.6m).

The initial decision to review its look and positioning were based on nothing more than a gut feeling, says Mattel marketing director Paul McGarry. “There was nothing screaming out at us, but we thought we would check it out, because we couldn’t afford to be complacent. Had we left it any later we would have seen a decline in sales,” he admits. This is only be the game’s third redesign in its 52 years.

Scrabble is very popular – more than 100 million games have been sold in 121 countries, and 53 per cent of UK households have a set.

But as the average set lasts upwards of 12 years, it was important to identify untapped or under-exploited consumer groups. “Everybody has a game in the cupboard, but that does not grow the market,” says Tutt. The trick was to attract lapsed players and at the same time encourage converts to replace existing games. Thirty-somethings, Mattel discovered, are buying the game at twice the national average rate.

Mattel brought in Added Value to carry out research, create positioning and identify core areas of consumer growth. The consultancy researched 5000 existing and new players and came up with six types of new users. Of these, the two biggest clusters are “family entertainers” and “serious games players”, which both command 26 per cent of the market. McGarry’s target markets are “family entertainers”, “family appeasers” at 10 per cent, and “family improvers” at 11 per cent.

It was then up to Brown ID, Tempus Group stablemate with Added Value, to translate the brand essence – convivial mental sparring – into a new design. As always with a well-known successful brand, the rethink had to honour the heritage while adding a sense of modernity. When people were being polite about the old pack design, says McGarry, they would describe it as classic and simple.

The consultancy came up with ten different creative routes across three Scrabble variants, making 30 designs in all. The route concentrates on domestic rivalry and competitive spirit, with the playing tiles becoming the focus. This is adapted to work across all the variants, from the original game to Junior Scrabble.

The look of the children’s version wisely borrows from cartoons. Kids are also being tempted by Pokémon and all the games created through licensing deals. Last year it was Star Wars, this year it’s Chicken Run.

Hasbro, too, is making some changes in its children’s board games. This year new designs have gone on shelf for Connect 4, Operation, Twister, Mousetrap and Battleship. The aim, says a Hasbro spokeswoman, was to “bring the games up to date”, and inject some more “energy and excitement”.

As well as improving on shelf impact and product differentiation, Brown ID looked at the structural quality and usability of Scrabble. The board now has a raised grid, the cotton tile bag is free-standing, the tiles are square, to make them easier to pick up, and the racks are smoother. All these changes, while adding value to the game, did not add cost, according to Brown ID chairman Dave Brown. The consultancy also reworked the back of pack wording and evolved Mattel’s own identity.

Brown ID started work in January 1999 and finished in June of that year. “The new design says more about the emotional values of the game,” says McGarry. The redesign got its debut last week in the UK and France, and will now roll out worldwide. In the meantime, like any healthy brand these days, variants and extensions are being explored.

“We are always looking at different playing occasions and distribution channels,” says McGarry. Brown ID is currently working on Pocket Scrabble, and there are plans, but no launch date set, for an on-line version. Monopoly has already gone on-line, and with the continued advance of all things electronic, this may also be Scrabble’s best line of defence.

Total games sales

1998 – £152m

1999 – £152.5m

Source – NPD consumer panel

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