4 Things the Toy Industry Needs to Do to Break into the 21st Century

In my last posting I wrote about why the toy industry struggles to escape its 19th century roots.  In this posting, I write about what the industry can actually do to fully engage the 21st century. 

1.    Embrace young talent at the executive level

Look around you and you will see that many of us are immigrants to the digital age.  We speak the language but we do so with an analog accent.  We “get it” in our brains, much as someone who learns to speak a foreign language, but not in our hearts. 

Today’s children and their millennial parents are digital natives and they fully intuit the way today’s children expect to play. Watch a child of two with a magazine or book.  The child presses the pictures fully expecting them to open yet another picture.  Their expectations and intuition are dramatically different than ours.

In order to understand how 21st century children play, the toy industry needs to employ the best and the brightest of the millennial generation.  Toy companies should be showing up on campus and recruiting. 

The young recruits will need heavy guidance; after all understanding digital doesn’t necessarily make you a good businessperson.  But by injecting them, their world view and their ideas into the toy industry work force, the industry will seed a new generation of tech savvy leaders.

2.    Embrace alternative business models

One of the interesting developments of the digital age has been the explosion in alternative ways of making money through play.  Freemiums, subscription services, micro purchases and more present concepts that traditional toy industry veterans find confusing and non-intuitive. 

Yes, they are different but the right mix of models integrated with the traditional bricks and mortar format is with us and will continue to change how we do business.  The toy industry would therefore be wise to hire executives who have experience with digital business models. 

Importantly, they need to integrate them early into the product development process.   In today’s world of phygital and digital play, the way a product is purchased is integrated into the product itself.  As a result there is no clear dividing line between product and business model.  They are one.

3.    Champion the future

I recently wrote about the Toy Fair’s practice of rewarding the best space to those who have exhibited the longest.  It is a sensible and fair practice but it has had the unintended consequence of creating an image of an industry frozen in time.  Any visitor walking into the main hall will think that little has changed.  As a result, only those visitors who make their way to the edges and corners of the exhibition halls who see that there are exciting things happening in robotics, artificial intelligence and phygital play. 

Toy Fair needs to honor its veteran companies while at the same time championing those who excite the press, the public and the industry’s members.  New configurations, more prominent signage a sleek and new image are just a few of the things needed.

 4.    Honor the past and present

Even though the face of play is rapidly changing, basic physical play is not just a great way to have fun but an important way to understand the physical world in which we live.  A child needs to stack blocks in order to see what stays up and what falls down.  A child needs to climb to the top of the sliding board in order to comprehend risk, experience exhilaration and to become brave. A child needs to play with dolls and action figures in order to play out themes of adulthood before they become an adult.

The toy industry can fully embrace the 21st century by embracing its past, present and future as a whole and not as separate segments.  There is no yesterday, today and tomorrow.  There is just a seamless, never-ending evolution in how we play and how we sell play.    

So, how does the toy industry embrace the 21st century; by recognizing that play and the business of play are in motion and having the courage to respect that we have to run to keep up and run faster to get ahead.  We must, in short, climb to the top of the sliding board.  The view is scary, expansive and eye-opening.  The trip down the slide is…well you have to actually do it to find out.


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