M is for Magic – Classifying the Chicago Toy & Game Fair

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"It’s
not marketing, it’s magic. You have to see it to believe it," I said,
before delivering an unquestionable truth. "The best way to sell a great
toy is to put it into a kid's hands and let him play."

Unfortunately,
my pitch didn't hit home for my counterpart. It wasn't that this high-level
marketer at a major toy manufacturer disagreed (except perhaps with the
assessment that his employer manufactured "great toys,” his unexcitable
demeanor implied). No, he agreed that putting toys into kids hands was the
single, absolute, unconditional best way to achieve purchase. It's just, sadly,
this was not a tactic he or his company would be using for customer
acquisition. His company declined to support the Chicago Toy & Game Fair,
not because of some disagreement of merit, cost, or capability, but because his
company had institutionalized high spending for faceless marketing and advertising
efforts with a buffer between toymaker and customer.

It wasn't
so long ago that I discovered Chicago Toy & Game Week, a series of
connected toy events focused on industry, media, and the public (all on the
table, I'm a member of the ChiTAG advisory board). I remember thinking how
partially-conceived other industry events looked in comparison. Not to distract
from the massive intra-industry achievement of events like PlayCon, Toy Fair,
and others, but why keep kids and families at bay? Isn't it a bit disingenuous
to produce a toy industry event without kids involved? What does it say about
the state of our industry that kids are an afterthought? ChiTAG, in the legacy
if not the flavor of Essen and other international events, remedied that error.
Capping a week of industry and media events like Toy & Game Inventor
Conference, PlayChic fashion show, and the Toy & Game Inventor Awards, The
Chicago Toy & Game Fair is attended annually by nearly 20,000 consumers,
kids and families. This is not a retailer buyer summit. It’s real people. The
ones that buy toys and the ones that play with them.

I spend
much of my day being a marketer. I utilize best practice, Forrester, NPD Group,
or Euromonitor research studies, scientifically-collected user interviews and
testing, Google analytics and site metrics, and any other hard data I can find,
in order to help my clients, partners, colleagues, and myself innovate and
design in viable directions. Sometimes the data proves invaluable. Other times,
the data cannot account for success or failure. The worst toy marketers fail to
take advantage of available analysis and research. Fairly good toy marketers
make decisions based on available analysis and research. But the best marketers
let available analysis and research take them as far as it can before trusting
to the spark of uncanny, unexpected, unreconcilable magic. The truth is, when
marketing pertains to harnessing the undefinable “fun” factor, data only takes
you so far.

A few
years after discovering the events, I introduced my colleague Eric Hardman to
ChiTAG. Stepping onto the fair show floor, Eric made a sound somewhere between
a word and a cough, sort of like “mgurkik” or something. I asked him what he
said. He told me it had been a genuine gasp: here, filling an expansive
convention hall at Navy Pier, was an assembly of tens of thousands of
people…just people…playing. “It’s magic,” he said and no other words came
to mind.

Eric is
among the few people I know in our industry that is able and willing to articulate
the childlike glee of what ChiTAG is all about. I think we grow so accustomed
to the magical aspect of our jobs that we take it for granted. We make
playthings. Not wrenches or lightbulbs or bombs or carpet squares. We make
toys. Consumer data, market analysis and google analytics explain part of the
story, but the other part should be filed under M for Magic.

Having
spent the better part of ten years embracing digital media for product and
marketing, I still often struggle to impart the value of such media over
traditional print and broadcast approaches. The reality is that the digital
world lets marketers interact with an audience, rather than merely
"preach" from glossy page parapet or shiny screen pedestal. The
reason marketers further embrace digital marketing is that interaction produces
conversation, which is much more organic as part of a customer decision
journey. Apples To Apples is a great example of a wildly successful product
based on the firm foundations of good word of mouth. By the time Mattel picked
up Apples, Out of The Box Games had already used positive customer
communication to skyrocket sales. But Out of The Box didn't rely on Facebook,
Twitter, or Pinterest to spread the word. The word spread mouth to ear,
organically, through real world interactions.

Digital
communication is often less effective as a marketing tool than good old
fashioned in-person conversation. Digital marketing efforts are sometimes
frustrated by the user's quick-changing attention span and the plethora of online
diversions at his or her fingertips. The mere proximity of an individual to the
purchasable product makes him or her vastly more decisional prior to any
manufacturer or marketer action. I find myself turning more and more frequently
to "guerilla" marketing tactics, advising even globally-reaching
clients and partners to sidewalk stencil, flash mob, or publicly demo their
product. I keep hearing myself recommending talking with customers as an
alternative to big ad buys or costly campaigns. In separate conversations with
three major retailers, a colleague and I imparted the need for stores to
develop a modern definition of their customer experience journey taking into
consideration the nature of external stimuli whether the customer is shopping
at home, in-store, or out and about her day. I championed dramatic in-store
changes to facilitate the experiential retail model that could hold customer
attention rather than lose it to price check apps. Remove the packaging barrier
between customer and product. The customer is already in your store, don't show
them a small cardboard billboard…show them the product and let them touch it!
Toys and games compete directly with smartphone and tablet game apps that are
cheap or free, available on a device you carry everywhere, and have virtually
no barrier of entry. A substantial change in brick and mortar in-store
experience could dramatically improve the likelihood of a customer walking out
the door with purchased product in hand. "It's magic," I said, "The
best way to sell a great toy is to put it into a kid's hands and let her
play." Instead, all three retailers indicated such a change would be
impossible. No one argued with the simple, logical assessment that putting a
toy in a kid's hands is 100% effective marketing. It's just, unfortunately,
their stores would not be exploring experiential retailing.

Sure, it's
low-fi. Sure, it's old fashioned. But for all the extravagant marketing tools
our toy industry has at its disposal, I firmly believe it is all less viable than
starting a conversation and putting a toy into a kid's hands. I challenge any
marketer to find a shred of data to prove tv commercials, social campaigns,
print ads, microsites, or whatever marketing collateral option is more
effective at quickly converting a sale. Map the simple-as-it-gets customer
journey: it's a straight line!

That first
time walking the fair show floor at ChiTAG gave me the realization: consumer
shows like ChiTAG are our brightest hope for the future of toy marketing. We
have alienated ourselves from our customers and end users. We have started
making toys for retail buyers who often aren't buying based on any real or
tangible consumer info (heck, many retailers are only employing toy buyers
seasonally! How's that helping get the right toys on shelves for customer
demand?). We have buffered our industry, preventing customers from experiencing
the absolute most experiential consumer product category. We've trained
ourselves to trust numbers on spreadsheets and not our own senses. We've
forgotten that we make toys, not automotive parts and not cleaning supplies. We
think in "pounds of plastic" not play and playfulness.

We need to
get back to basics and start playing again.

I had a
hard time understanding why my "high-level marketing" counterpart
shrugged off the opportunity to dramatically impact customer conversion. But he
and his apathy are not to blame. We have institutionalized a destructive
disconnect between manufacturer/retailer and customer. It’s time to start to
change, even if some of our entrenched colleagues aren’t quite getting it yet.

For those
manufacturers and retailers already involved in consumer shows like ChiTAG, and
there are a lot of you, spread the word. When your colleagues start trying to
prove, document, prioritize, aggregate and categorize, help them understand
where this absolutely crucial spend and resource utilization should be filed.

File it
under M.

For Mary
and for Magic.

 

In his roles as Digital Strategy Director
of Consumer & Entertainment Brands at Manifest Digital, Co-Founder at toy
invention studio Otherdoor Entertainment, and ChiTAG committee member, Brian
Torney is an innovator in the play industries, kids entertainment, and
product/brand initiatives. Refusing to grow up, Brian has been contributing to
the play industries since the age of 15, when he worked at a Chicagoland Toys R
Us store. He specializes in cross-platform brand storytelling. Brian also
practices ancient Jedi techniques of mind control… These are not the droids
you’re looking for.

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