A long time ago, in a galaxy not far away, a battle began between toy makers to win big on Christmas day. Today, using high-tech methods and Jedi marketing mind tricks, the industry is as far removed from an elf whittling away in Santa’s workshop as can be… But whose year will it be?
Picture the scene. It’s Christmas morning 2014 and parents across the world are being woken, bleary-eyed in the far-too-early hours, by their excited, expectant children, all with but one thing on their minds. What’s wrapped up underneath the tree – and soon to be ripped open – will have a greater bearing on the outcome of the day than whether Mum has decided to follow the year’s hot-chef advice of pre-brining her turkey or which box set Dad will fall asleep in front of. For a fairly large proportion of little girls in the UK, that item is a doll called My Friend Cayla.
Earmarked as the year’s hottest toy by retailers such as Hamleys, Cayla talks. Of course, talking dolls are nothing new – Edison first invented one back in 1890 – but Cayla’s wi-fi internet connection means that she can check Wikipedia in the blink of a plastic eye and answer pretty much anything you throw at her. Think of her as Siri with brushable hair. Cayla proved so successful that this year her maker, Surrey-based Vivid Imaginations, is expanding the range to include My Friend Freddy Teddy for younger children and a robot called i-Que that’s aimed at boys, both of which employ the same sort of cutting-edge technology.
It’s fair to say that the days when children would be satisfied with a puzzle or a painted wooden figure are long gone – and the stakes for toy makers are immeasurably higher, as a result. In fact, you could say that, as we go about obliviously eating, drinking and indulging, a turf war is being played out every year for supremacy beneath our Christmas trees. And every toy company on Earth wants to come out on top.
According to trade group Toy Industries of Europe, Europeans spend over €16.5bn on toys each year and over half of those sales are in November and December in the run-up to Christmas.
Now, companies pour their resources into spotting trends years in advance and into harnessing new technology. Yet, predicting and producing the year’s must-have toy remains a Jedi mind trick made even tougher by the fact that new products have to win over not one, but two of the most fickle, critical and discerning audiences on the planet: children and their parents.
Probably the safest bet is to ride in the wake of a wildly popular film franchise. Scan a list of the predicted top sellers for 2015 and you’ll see Minions, Disney’s Frozen and, inevitably, Star Wars featuring highly.
But what if you’ve an entirely new idea? Then you need to start thinking smart. To this end, companies like Vivid employ in-house research and development teams; they also look for help from external sources. Eric Rossi, Vivid’s European Managing Director, says Cayla was actually created by someone outside the company. “We have to be humble,” he says. “The idea for Cayla came from an inventor. We work closely with the inventor community and when we like an idea, we’ll enter into an agreement. Then we help with development and apply our marketing expertise. You can have a good product, but if it doesn’t connect with an audience then your job isn’t done.”
If there’s one toy that’s never had trouble connecting with an audience, it’s Thunderbirds’ Tracy Island. It’s been one of the toys most associated with Christmas in the British popular imagination ever since 1991, when short supply led to the BBC reporting on fights breaking out between parents in shops and a flourishing black market in secondhand sales. After more toy sets were produced to meet demand the following Christmas, it went on to be that year’s top seller. By then, Blue Peter presenter Anthea Turner had staked her claim for immortality by showing those who’d missed out how to build their own out of shoeboxes and sticky-backed plastic.
In 2000, a revamped Tracy Island play set again became the Christmas bestseller, so perhaps it’s no surprise that with new CGI series Thunderbirds Are Go on TV at the moment, a new iteration of the toy is enjoying yet another lease of life. Now also manufactured by Vivid, this year’s much-expanded version, complete with more sounds, bells and whistles, was named at the top of Hamleys list of predicted top sellers this Christmas.
Jamie Anderson, son of Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson and Managing Director of Anderson Entertainment, believes that Tracy Island has a timeless appeal. “The show itself was put together by people who were fascinated by stuff like space, aeronautical engineering, gadgets and where the future might take us,” he says. “With Tracy Island, we all know that making secret bases, even if it’s just a fort between a couple of chairs under a duvet, is the kind of thing kids love.”
It’s a testament to the invention and ingenuity of Gerry Anderson and special-effects designer Derek Meddings that their creations still inspire children 50 years after Thunderbirds first aired – and also to the legacy of Keith Shackleton, who was the man who masterminded the toy side of the company.
“I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that Dad’s production company, Century 21, basically invented merchandising to the degree that we know it now,” says Anderson. “In the 1960s, Century 21 was putting together a magazine that had a circulation of a million copies a week – which now seems bizarre for a kid’s comic or any magazine. They also had a toy division, a publishing division and even a music division featuring Penelope and Parker singing stupid songs. By the end of the 1960s, it was established that you could make a huge amount of money on the merchandising side. Some of the same people went on to work on the Star Wars toys in the 1970s. They kind of changed the world in that way.”
Which brings us right back to this Christmas. The fact that Tracy Island is competing for shelf space with toys from the new Star Wars film is, in fact, a battle between teacher and student – a plot fit for a space opera.
“It will be very interesting to see how well Thunderbirds does after the Star Wars release [on 18 December],” says toy designer Stefan Knox. “It’ll be the same boys playing with those toys. In the past few months, they’ve all been playing Thunderbirds in the playground. I bet by January, when Star Wars is out and it has a slick machine like Disney behind it, they’ll all be playing Star Wars. What do retailers do then? Do they fill their shelves with all Star Wars toys – or 50% Star Wars and 50% Thunderbirds and other boys’ toys? If you don’t have the deep pockets of Hasbro to afford the Star Wars licence, then that really makes it difficult for other toy companies.”
Knox worked with both Hasbro and Vivid before leaving to form his own design company, Bang Creations, in 2000. On his desk in his design studio in Haslemere, Surrey, he carefully unwraps a few mementos of his time working on the last range of Star Wars toys. Along with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, his prized possession is a Boba Fett figurine, which was doomed long before it made it to mass production. “It’s too expensive,” he says, pointing to the grappling hook hanging from the prototype’s backpack. “The amount of detail you need just costs too much.”
This is one of the key challenges facing toy designers in 2015: they have to create products interesting enough to distract a child’s attention away from their phones or iPads, but simple enough to produce cheaply on a mass scale. “The word ‘toy’ implants in people’s minds that it’s just a bit of fun and that it’s easy,” says Knox. “Actually, it’s a really difficult product to design. You’ve got to capture two markets: kids and parents. Then you’ve got the fact that it’s the most safety-cushioned industry in the world and it’s the most litigious. Then you have to plan ahead to realise that your product, which costs $5 [€4.50]to make, will end up selling for £25 [€34.65] at retail. How do you make something for $5 that is so magical it looks like it’s worth £25?”
For maverick inventors and independent designers, figuring out how to fit their toys into existing worlds can make or break whether one of the bigger companies will help them take it to market. This year, Disney are marketing a Millennium Falcon drone – a good example of taking a new piece of technology and fitting it into a world of toys that children (and their parents) are already interested in.
“If you’re a toy inventor, the wise thing to do would be to look at a company’s portfolio,” says Knox. “For example, Hasbro has the Star Wars licence. If you’ve got an idea that could be moulded into the Star Wars property, spend your money on that and try and get it in. Starting a new brand needs a lot of marketing and you’re then competing against the films and the licences in this world. It’s a very hard sell.”
Star Wars is such a powerful force in the toy market that it even had a little-heralded impact on the survival of one of the world’s most successful toy companies. Back in the late 1990s, LEGO was floundering and dicing with bankruptcy. While it was struggling to modernise, it did have one big-selling product line keeping it afloat: Star Wars, its first outside licence. As the company rebuilt in the 2000s, they went on to licence a whole host of other franchises, including Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean, but it’s Star Wars that has remained the biggest seller, even as the brand diversified into computer games. The LEGO Movie has also helped the Danish company to a stunning recovery and annual global sales approaching 28.6DKK (€3.83) billion.
Warren Elsmore, a professional LEGO builder and the man behind London’s Brick 2015 exhibition, believes that its recent success is down to finding a way to integrate modern interactivity with its physical toys. “They’ve kept their finger on the pulse of what people want,” he says. “The video games are huge sellers, but I think what’s really nice, especially with their new game, LEGO Dimensions, is that they’re melding the two together. There’s something visceral about playing with something with your hands.”
While LEGO has been successful in bringing together physical toys and computer games, one new technology that still isn’t quite up to scratch is 3D printing. Elsmore says that printers aren’t yet accurate enough to print bricks with the precision that LEGO requires. “LEGO bricks are made to the tolerance of one-fiftieth of a millimetre, 10 times finer than a human hair,” he says. “That’s way beyond what most 3D printers can cope with at the moment. It’s something that can be used in design, but it won’t take over from moulding LEGO bricks any time soon.”
Meanwhile, as battles rage between companies competing to create the newest tech and bid for the biggest film franchises, other toy companies still exist in a rather more sedate world, where they know their tried-and-tested formula works. Germany’s Playmobil, for instance, is targeted at younger children and pulls in an annual revenue of over €552m, without plastering any famous faces or brands on their boxes.
“Most of our toys are classics that we’ve been making since the beginning, like knights, firefighters and police. There’s no need to license things,” says Uwe Reuter, head of Playmobil’s product-development department. He says they get their inspiration for new toys from a more traditional source: “We receive 150 letters per month from children commenting on our products. They send us sketches and ideas. That’s what tells us which direction we should take.”
Come 25 December, when children across Europe dive underneath their Christmas trees to find out what Father Christmas has brought them, they’ll be holding in their hands the end result of a design, development and marketing process years in the making. Whether it’s brand-new technology or a timeless classic, it’s their parents who’ll be crossing their fingers behind their backs and asking: “Are these the toys you were looking for?”