Old before their time

Traditionally, toys were desired by children and bought by parents. But the past few years have seen a radical change in the way manufacturers and retailers target consumers.

Parents are no longer the only ones targeted to buy toys. Today, children are focused on more than ever, as manufacturers compete for market share.

Though, rather awkwardly, this realisation comes just two years before Sweden takes up its Presidency of the European Union, where it is likely to introduce measures to protect young consumers from hard sell tactics. This puts Sweden in line with Denmark and Poland.

Elmwood director Paul Middlebrook, whose clients include Asda, believes there has been a “shift in terms of awareness” and a realisation that children are an audience in their own right.

“In the past, companies patronised children and there was a danger of alienating them by talking down to them. But there is now an awareness of their needs and the necessity to treat them like mini-adults instead of babies.”

“We need to think like children and understand what they think is cool and interesting,” he says.

With regard to packaging, Middlebrook acclaims Disney. “A more engaging experience needs to be produced on the packaging, creating a sense of magic, which Disney has mastered,” he says.

Dragon creative director Greg Vallance, who has worked with retailer Early Learning Centre for two and a half years, highlights the past ten years as a turning point in how the toys and games industry targets children.

“A syndrome has occurred called Kids Growing Older Younger, whereby things that were appropriate for a five-year-old in 1990 are now appropriate for a three-year-old. Manufacturers have adjusted their age ranges accordingly,” says Vallance.

Vallance acknowledges this shift when designing characters for ELC to compete with those from Disney and Warner Brothers.

He says, “We’ve looked at the generics to see how we can sub-brand products to compete against the bigger companies. Characters have been developed to support sub-brands, including Ziggy Zoom who is now the visual spokesperson for Zoom Sports.”

One company at the forefront of the revolution in young children’s products was Swatch, which was among the first watch manufacturer to develop a time-teaching range for young children ten years ago.

Flik Flak watches, for three-to eight-year-olds, produces a range featuring Flik, a boy, who points to the minutes, and Flak, a girl who points to the hour. Booklets explaining how to tell the time accompany the watches. “They are water and shock-resistant and the entire watch can be put in the washing machine,” explains brand manager Lucy Johnson.

Nestlé recently added Mini and Maxi Mooze to its extensive list of food products. Design Bridge client services director Jill Marshall, who worked on the condensed milk drinks, says the aim was to “create a character which is appealing to children aged four to ten and reassuring to mum. We were conscious not to make it look too artificial or synthetic, but bright and eye-catching for the kids.”

A spokeswoman for the British Toy and Hobby Association says that without targeting children, manufacturers “won’t be successful at all. Toys are manufactured with children in mind. If the children don’t find it interesting, they won’t ask their parents for it.”

Hasbro European marketing senior brand manager Kai

Wunderlich agrees, saying a number of factors are considered when a toy is developed.

“We have a research group that finds out what kids want, before designing and developing it for testing. For the Star Wars toys, for four-to nine-year-olds, we did research in America and then asked children what features they were looking for and how the toys could be improved,” he explains.

“But the price also determines who we target. If it’s for a Christmas present, we target the parents, but a pocket-money toy will be aimed directly at children.”

Retailers are an important consideration. “Things such as military toys, which kids love, shop-owners consider violent. We still supply them in Britain, but we no longer make them for other European countries such as Germany,” says Wunderlich.

Age plays an integral role in Lego’s strategy according to PR manager Michael Moore. “For children under five we communicate directly to the parents. After that, we target the children, through PR, television and promotions. The attractiveness of the packaging is vital.”

Tomy Managing Director Alan Munn says packaging for toddlers should have a “tactile appeal, shapes and parts that can be held by small hands, bright colours for visual appeal and an element of cause and effect”.

Munn warns that children’s loyalties can be “exceptionally fickle and volatile. Today’s objects of desire can easily become the unloved relic of tomorrow.”

With an increasing number of toys and games emanating from films, Stokes Jones from The Henley Centre believes manufacturers need to be accurate in their portrayal of film characters when producing toys.

“Children are becoming more visually sophisticated and design will have to match that. If characters look the wrong colour or their joints don’t work in line with the film, they will notice,” he says.

But, retailers seem more wary of concentrating on young customers than manufacturers. A spokeswoman from toy store Hamleys denies targeting children. “The manufacturers have already done that. Throughout the store there are areas specifically designed for children to play with toys and demonstrators. We hope people will make a purchase. But we don’t have a deliberate policy.”

She adds: “Parents come in and ask for products for their children such as Teletubbies, but the children have already asked the parents for the product at home, as opposed to seeing it in-store.”

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