Now Hear This

Kids’ audio is hot, with everything from podcasts to musical albums on the rise. One of the most active areas within this sector consists of a growing number of low-tech, screenless audio players designed to allow young children to control what they listen to independently and safely in a closed eco-system. The proliferation of these platforms brings content licensing opportunities for children’s entertainment, publishing, music, and mindfulness properties, among others.

Most of these devices have smooth or soft edges and are simple to use. Once their parents complete the initial set-up, kids as young as 2 years old can select and change what they listen to, recharge the battery, adjust the volume, and complete other tasks, all on their own. Content includes audiobooks, music, and podcasts, both proprietary and licensed.

The systems were largely created by start-ups. Most of the companies are based in Europe and the U.K. but have entered the U.S. market once established abroad. And new entrepreneurs are still adding their names to the list. Some of the leading examples in this space to date include:

  • Yoto. Children using this U.K.-based company’s Yoto Player insert content cards to listen to podcasts, music, mindfulness content, and stories, many of which are licensed. While its content is broad, it emphasizes storytelling and has licensing deals in place with a wide range of book publishers, especially in the U.K. Other recent licensing acquisitions include a range of Disney and Pixar properties; Lego Duplo, through a deal with Lego master publisher Ameet; Kidz Bop; and Novel Entertainment’s Horrid Henry. The demographic sweet spot for the device is ages 2-8. The first-generation product launched on Kickstarter in 2017 and the current generation debuted in early 2020, first in the U.K. and a few months later in the U.S.
  • Toniebox. This device, for ages 3-7, launched in its home country of Germany, as well as Austria and Switzerland, in 2016 and, after rolling out in various other countries, hit the U.S. in 2020. The company says 10.5 million units have been sold worldwide to date. The cube-shaped, fabric-covered Toniebox has rounded edges and is available in a range of colors. It includes songs and stories and is operated through interchangeable figurines—some internally developed and some in the form of licensed characters—that are attached to the device. The figures, of which there are more than 65 in the U.K. and more than 25 in the U.S. to date, double as collectibles. Each Tonie figure plays content ranging from 15 to 50 minutes. Beyond the core Tonies, Creative Tonies allow family and friends to customize content. The company’s licensing roster includes Disney characters, Peppa Pig, Pippi Longstocking, Bing, Scholastic audiobooks, and, in a recent limited-edition collaboration, GoNoodle meditation and mindfulness content.
  • Storypod. This U.S.-based company launched in its home country this year after a Kickstarter campaign in 2020. The figures used to operate the device are 3.5-inch characters made from yarn, called Crafties. The focus when it comes to content is interactivity, with read-along audiobooks and trivia cards encouraging readers to actively engage rather than passively listen, although music recordings are also among the content offerings. Twenty different animal-shaped Crafties were available at launch, each associated with unique content; the Owl figure is customizable, allowing parents to record 100 minutes of audio content. The catalog is expanding, including with licensed offerings; its first deal was with Fred Rogers Productions and 9 Story Brands for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. The Daniel Craftie, content, learning cards, and branded sleeves will launch in time for holiday 2021. 
  • Jooki. Launched by Belgian company MuuseLabs, this product gained traction in the U.S. at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show. Children select and affix molded characters called Stars to change content on the player. Each Star features a parent-curated playlist built from a range of available music and audiobooks. The device comes with five Stars, each ready for its own playlist. Additional plain white figures are available for purchase, so parents can create additional playlists and kids can customize the look of the new characters. Music can also be streamed directly from a dedicated channel. Jooki does not have any licensing deals in place at this time.  
  • Lunii. Based in France, Lunii distributes its product, My Fabulous Storyteller, across Europe and the U.K., as well as in the U.S. (since September 2020). It provides multilingual audio content where kids aged 3-11 play a role in co-creating the stories, within the parameters of a licensed or proprietary world, by selecting the character, plot, conflicts, settings, and other building blocks of storytelling, as well as the language. They use a selection wheel rather than a card or figure to choose the different story elements. The design of the device is also differentiated from its competitors by being more iPod-like than Amazon Echo-like. Users can build stories in U.K. or U.S. English, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Flemish, Russian, or German, which makes the device useful for language learning. More than 150 additional audio stories, including licensed content such as Mr. Men and Little Miss, Peanuts, and Babar, are available for purchase. Because of the active storytelling element, the Lunii is being tested as an educational device for schools.

While the market for such products is starting to become crowded, parents’ desire for screen-free audio entertainment for their young children does not seem as if it will wane, at least in the near term. And, as relatively few licensed properties are represented at this point, the potential remains for IP owners to explore this space.

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