What’s more fashion-conscious than the fashion industry, more competitive than the Pepsi/Coca Cola war, more faddy than the music business – and geared at consumers who are among the most brand loyal even though many of them can’t read? The toy industry, of course, and when it comes to winning and retaining junior consumers, the role of concept and packaging designers is becoming increasingly important.
No one could have failed to be caught up in the Buzz Lightyear hype in the run-up to Christmas just gone, illustrating the powerful marketing strategies behind toys. And as children grow ever more demanding and brands ever more powerful, the challenge is on to create and package products which will capture the young minds – and their parents’ pockets.
Although the market tends to be transient and fickle, there are plenty of hard and fast rules to abide by, dictated mainly by the age and gender of the target mini-consumer and the type of product. But as many designers are aware, rules are there to be broken, and in toys, perhaps more than any other sector, opportunities exist to push creative boundaries beyond their limits.
John Davey, creative director at London consultancy Funhouse, admits: “The challenge for designers is to try to be original because there are just so many companies out there regurgitating everything. We try to create a wave and everybody just jumps on and surfs with it. The idea is to get something moving.”
Funhouse has matured from a packaging group specialising in children and the youth market into what Davey calls an “ideas company”, after being asked to come up with concepts. “We were asked to do diverse things and it’s brilliant work. Basically we go bonkers.”
Branding is a crucial aspect of toy marketing, particularly for children of three and above, and the big players Hasbro and Mattel – who virtually dominate the toy industry – are committed to design to ensure their brands stay on top. Mattel, which controls most of its design work from the US, has successfully grown its Barbie doll into the most popular toy on both sides of the Atlantic, with sales last year reaching $1.4bn. The doll is now played with by an ever younger market, while its adult appeal is evident through collector’s dolls and even a range on sale in fashion store Gap Kids.
But for every Action Man and Barbie there are plenty of products which only last one season. Building up a strong brand is vital to ensure staying power in an ever changing market, and to fight off copycat products. Research carried out by The Green House, which works with Hasbro and Walt Disney, among other toy manufacturers, shows children are more brand-aware and visually literate than their parents, and that children also have a high level of brand recognition even if they can’t read. The aim, says The Green House managing director Judi Green, is to “create a balance between parent and child – a product that captures both is a win-win thing”. She adds: You have to understand brands really well. The logo and the whole brand is key.”
New technology is undoubtedly making an impact which will continue to grow. “The interactive market is very big. We don’t yet know how far it will cross over into conventional toys. It’s more like the record industry, marketed in a much harder hitting way,” says Davey. Green agrees that new technology is “where the future is” as more homes acquire the hardware, but predicts a bit of a backlash as children grow bored of it. Hasbro director of product division toys Barbara Calderwood sees interactive toys as an important area for designers, and one which is predominantly fashion-led.
For smaller toy companies, being able to respond quickly to new trends is an advantage over the two toy giants which have longer development times. Vivid Imagination is a four-year-old company specialising in licensed products. “The toy industry is almost the most faddist and fashionable market going. For a toy company the key is to be as fast and responsive as possible to opportunities coming up,” claims marketing manager Andy Cooper. He stresses that good design is an essential weapon: “Presentation and image are increasingly important. The on-shelf image is almost as important as the product. Ultimately, every toy is easy to copy – what is more difficult to copy is the brand. The right brands managed in the right way can stretch a very, very long way.”
Briefs for new concepts may be sprinkled with liberal amounts of magic, sparkle and fantasy, but when it comes to packaging there are certain rules to comply with. “Children like packaging that is complicated,” claims Green. “Sometimes from an aesthetic point of view it can jar with what you want to do. But children like to see pictures, look at something that’s very busy and pull out what they want to see.”
According to Mark Wickens, chairman of Wickens Tutt Southgate: “When you’re aiming packaging at children, you have to make it magic. The more sparkling and shiny things you create, the better. But you break certain rules at your peril. Most packaging is international. You need big product shots, it has to be clear and easy to find your way around. The more said with pictures the better.”
Packaging is also notably stereotyped according to gender. This, claim designers, is always stipulated in the brief, and toy manufacturers claim it’s what the market demands and reflects the way children play. Girls supposedly prefer dolls and the colour pink, while boys apparently prefer action figures wrapped in any colour but pink. There are unisex toys in unisex packs, but the gender split is never more obvious than with toys aimed at three- to seven-year-olds. The split becomes evident again after the age of 12, and with computer games in particular, where games publishers claim their target customers are almost exclusively male.
Pre-school toys, or those aimed at the nought-to-three age group, are a different story. Packaging is mostly aimed at parents, with the emphasis on what the product actually does, says Wickens. Cooper adds that at this age the toys have to aid development and are far less affected by fashion trends.
But music and sport are two key areas which will dictate new trends in toys, according to Cooper: “The toy market is moving into pop groups and branded sports gear with children as young as six and seven years old getting interested in fashion wear.”
Guessing the next big thing is almost as hard as winning the Lottery. As Davey points out, who could have anticipated that green turtles were going to be huge? “Kids are so fickle. It’s very difficult to predict what’s going to catch their imagination.”
Precious Pearl Play-Doh set
Hasbro hopes Santa will get plenty of requests next Christmas for its Precious Pearl Play-Doh set which is being launched to the trade at this month’s toy fair at Olympia. The set is intended to answer every little girl’s dream – provided she’s between the ages of three and six and has 14.99 pocket money to spend.
Ali Haynes, a designer at Hasbro, was responsible for commissioning product consultancies to work on the concept. Over the eight-month development phase a total of five different consultancies were used to come up with ideas, because “we found it difficult to find true innovation”, says Haynes.
Haynes explains the theme was to create a Europe-wide product sympathetic to the pearlised Play-Doh which would be “mystical, based on fantasy not reality”. The result, an integrated clam-shell handbag, contains mermaids and sea creature moulds to be used with the new doughs which have a “semi-precious” look. Colours chosen for the product are pink, green and blue. “Pink is a real favourite for girls,” claims Haynes.
The Precious Pearl packaging was designed by Funhouse and briefed out by Play-Doh senior graphic controller Elaine Taylor. Funhouse has been working on a global redesign of the Play-Doh packaging, so was an obvious choice. “The pearlised dough is quite stunning,” comments Funhouse creative director John Davey. “We needed to create a look on the packs so the kids think ‘Wow, I’ve just got to have it’.”
But as with most toy packaging, there are constraints – such as windows to show what the actual product looks like, the logo in the standard position, and use of brand colours.
“Play-Doh is difficult because it’s often a parent purchase. It has to be appealing to children, but parents also have to be reassured by the packaging, which has to endorse the brand,” says Taylor. Pack sizes vary depending on the size of the set, and Taylor stresses that wherever possible you need a window.
“You also have to demonstrate as many features on the front as possible, but at the same time not clutter it. It has to be tempting, with clear content shots and instructions.”
The computer games market is growing and diversifying by the minute. At one end of the spectrum, games publishers have been exploiting the “edutainment” market, with interactive toys ranging from CD-ROMs to computer games aimed specifically at children of both sexes. At the older end, the target consumer is perceived as almost exclusively male and interested in games based on “shooting, fighting and football”, claims Virgin Interactive project manager Rosemary Dalton.
For such a fast-moving sector, the packaging of games aimed at older players has been dull and old-fashioned, opening the door for more effective design input.
David Miller, product marketing manager at Virgin Interactive, comments: “Basically, nine out of ten publishers are still stuck in the Eighties in terms of marketing. Generally, packs are photographic or airbrushed and are very bland. We are trying to do something different. Other publishers are slowly waking up to the fact that they’re going to have to invest in design talent to drag themselves into the Nineties.”
He tends to use consultancies with experience of the record industry, and chose new outfit Squid Inc to design packs for Screamer 2. The sequel to the racing game launched in time for Christmas is aimed at male players aged 15 to 45 (98 to 99 per cent of Virgin Interactive’s audience is thought to be male), though Miller is aware that younger children do play the games.
Boxes have been Mac-designed to create a more “trendy, club culture” feel in contrast to the Screamer 1 packs. “It’s an exciting, glamorous box,” declares Squid Inc designer Jethro Clunies-Ross. “I drew the typeface myself and did the logo to try to bring it bang up-to-date.”
Games are constantly being launched to keep up with changes in hardware, and the challenge is to keep one step ahead of what’s next in vogue. Sony Playstations are about to become mass market as prices come down, making them top of the Christmas list for 1997, while punters await the UK arrival of “the next big one” – Nintendo 64 – according to Dalton.
Although at the younger end of the market both boys and girls form the target market, the balance shifts dramatically during adolescence. Perhaps another trend will be more games aimed at both sexes.
“There aren’t nearly enough designed for both sexes. It’s definitely an area that should be tackled,” adds Clunies-Ross.