Licensing Trends from Toy Fair 2019
March 4, 2019
The 2019 edition of New York Toy Fair revealed a relative dearth of traditional entertainment/character licensing, new wrinkles in some ongoing trends, the rise of a number social media-ready toys, and a back-to-basics mindset, among other insights. Read on for some of the highlights.
Evolution of Existing Trends
For the most part, the innovations spotted at Toy Fair this year were more a matter of evolution than revolution.
Slime x Collectibles. Marketers are increasingly combining these two key toy industry play patterns of recent years. A number of new toy lines involved finding collectible figures hidden in slime and its siblings in the compound family (e.g. sand and dough). Examples include Moose’s Treasure X, where kids discover their treasure in a can of “dirt” or ooze; Alpha Group’s SpongeBob Slimeez, a line of mystery figures packed within Nickelodeon’s famous green slime; and Hasbro’s Lost Kitties, in which kids hunt for kitty and mouse collectibles inside milk, cheese, mustard, or ketchup made of a Play-Doh-like shaping compound.
Compounds to enhance play patterns. Similar substances appeared in other types of toys as well. Spin Master’s new Monster Jam vehicles and playsets included dirt for the first time—an integral part of real Monster Jam events—in the form of a compound that users can drive vehicles through or form into jumps. Moose’s Goo Jitsu is a line of stretchy transparent action figures filled with different substances that give the characters their powers. The Orb Factory offered a Ryan’s World slime blaster.
The next phase of drone technology. High-tech educational toys such as coding and circuitry kits, augmented and virtual reality elements attached to physical toys, and drones continue to have a strong presence at Toy Fair. One twist on the latter in 2019 was the integration of drone technology into other play patterns. For example, Spin Master used drone technology in its Owleez line; kids nurture their owl, Tamagotchi- or Hatchimals-like, until it can fly. Playmates offered a Super G line of flying Ninja Turtle, Spiderman, and Batman figures. Far Out Toys has a Drone Slayer line where a drone, shot from a blaster, dramatically explodes into pieces on impact.
Real girl power. The girl empowerment trend is still top of mind, but has evolved to be more about real-life skills and inspirational role models and less about superheroes. Several publishers exhibiting at Toy Fair, including Quarto, Rebel Girls, and Chronicle/Mudpuppy, were putting cute and informational biography series of accomplished females front and center (a trend first noted last year). Mattel and National Geographic were touting their new partnership, which puts Barbie in roles such as entomologist and astrophysicist. Nick Jr.’s new show, Butterbean’s Café (with toys at Mattel), joins other series in recent years (e.g. its own Sunny Day and Disney’s Doc McStuffins) in focusing on young characters performing real-life jobs (albeit often in an imaginary or magical form).
Tough Times for Entertainment-Based Toys
Traditional TV and film licenses were relatively few and far between this year. Many established programs are showing their age or have reached saturation, especially on the film-driven side, and there was a lack of tentpole films in 2018 to spur some of the older properties forward. In addition, fragmentation in the TV and film landscape makes it difficult for new properties to break through. Many entertainment licensors are keeping their programs lean and mean to reduce risk and potentially give their properties time to build, while licensees and retailers are leery of making a big commitment on a new property.
There were some exceptions. Sesame Street, entering its 50th anniversary year, had a broad presence, and Harry Potter, Rick and Morty, Stranger Things, and a few others were frequently noted across the floor. There were individual products here and there as well—a Night Before Christmas Skellington plush puppet at Folkmanis, an Aladdin interactive genie at Playmates—but for the most part properties from other licensing sectors dominated.
Results from Mattel and Hasbro released just before the show confirm the entertainment sector’s struggles in 2018. Both companies saw declines in sales overall, but in both cases proprietary brands outperformed licensed products by a large margin. At Mattel, Barbie and Hot Wheels saw 15% and 12% year-on-year growth, versus a decline of 23% for partner brands. At Hasbro, most key toy lines saw declines, with its own brands such as Nerf, Monopoly, and My Little Pony decreasing 9% for the full year. Even this was a better result overall than partner brands such as Star Wars, Frozen, and Marvel experienced; their revenues fell by 22%.
Looking Beyond Entertainment
Areas of licensing that seem to be flourishing in the toy industry, on the other hand, at least based on their presence at Toy Fair, include:
YouTube properties. Ryan of Ryan’s Toy Review and Baby Shark both had a high profile across multiple toy companies. Other YouTube-centric licenses spotted included the gaming-video family known as FGTeeV (at Bonkers), British unboxing celebrity Tiana (Commonwealth), and Fortnite gaming-video star Ninja (Wicked Cool), to name a few. Properties from other social platforms also made an appearance, such as Twitter’s We Rate Dogs, at Chronicle.
Video gaming. With retail sales of video game hardware and software increasing 18% in 2018 to $43.4 billion, and physical toy sales declining 2% to $21.6 billion the same year (both estimates per the NPD Group), it makes sense from the toy industry’s perspective to link the two. That seemed to be the case at Toy Fair again this year, with toys based on Fortnite, Fallout, and Overwatch, among many others, noted not only in the collectibles area but across the aisles.
Toy company-owned properties. Toy companies continue to focus on their own IP, as noted, marketing playthings themselves and licensing them out to other toy companies. Just before the show, Funrise reported that it was launching a new entertainment division (its first IP is Rainbow Butterfly Unicorn Kitty on Nickelodeon), while Playmobil retained animation company Wildbrain to manage its YouTube content. Almost every company was putting a strong focus on its own brands, often alongside continuing and new licenses.
Corporate brands. Licenses such as National Geographic and Crayola continued their expansion, while Smithsonian, Lamaze, and Discovery—as well as any number of vehicle brands—were among those maintaining their typical presence. A number of companies were showing products and product lines that incorporated multiple brands. Moose showed its Shopkins extension, Real Littles, featuring mini versions of ConAgra, Kellogg’s, and Welch’s products; White Mountain was highlighting its puzzles featuring a variety of General Mills cereals, including some packaged in mini cereal box packs; and Funko reported that its series of Pop! vinyl figures based on licensed ad icons (from Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel to Quaker’s Captain Crunch) were selling well.
Sports. The presence of sports toys has been growing in recent years, in part due to more focus on the toy industry by the leagues, players associations, and individual athletes, and in part because of consumer and toy industry interest in pulling kids off of their computer screens with outdoor play. Skateboarder Tony Hawk introduced a line with Far Out Toys, to name just one new agreement on display.
Not only are YouTube and other social media platforms responsible for launching the licensing careers of more and more properties, as noted above. They are influencing toy development in other ways as well.
Several companies have created toys that give children the tools to easily participate in social media trends, for example:
- Lego’s Movie Makers line provides an easy means for kids to film their own stop-motion movies starring Lego figures, something they are already doing in a more painstaking fashion.
- Far Out Toys created its levitating Squaire with YouTubers in mind; users are encouraged to create videos to share their expertise and tricks via social media.
- One of the lines in Mattel’s long-running WWE action figure program includes detailed playsets and figures that fans can use to realistically recreate famous scenarios from WWE matches and press conferences and share them online.
- Spin Master has a kinetic sand cutting kit that replicates the social media trend of creating kinetic sand sculptures and cutting them into slices and cubes (billed as relaxing for the viewer). Its kits contain safe plastic versions of the knives and other kitchen tools that are typically featured in the videos, along with the sand.
- Terra Virtua, which was demonstrating its software in a private meeting room, is developing a virtual reality platform where gamers and others can show off their virtual goods to friends or potential buyers in an immersive digital environment, among other activities.
In another social media-driven initiative, Alpha is touting collectible figures depicting SpongeBob characters as they have appeared in popular memes over the years. The products are part of the company’s broader SpongeBob master toy line, which launches in the character’s 20th anniversary year. The thought process was that memes are a sort of “virtual collectible” that are given physical form in this product assortment.
Collectibility is King
The collectibles area of Toy Fair—featuring everything from vinyl figures to higher-end sculptures, skewing somewhat toward older fans—gets larger and larger each year, with plenty of licensed products in a variety of materials and price points. This is one area where gaming properties really shine, although properties of all types are represented.
Collectibles marketers are placing increased emphasis on music and sports. Funko, to name one example, said both of these sectors were areas of focus, with new deals in the music sector including Post Malone, Kiss, and BTS, and sports licenses ranging from NASCAR, to Major League Baseball mascots, to LeBron James.
Executives in the collectibles segment noted that the retail landscape for their category is expanding. Mass merchants such as Walmart are increasing their assortments, even at higher price points; specialty retailers such as Gamestop and Hot Topic remain key partners; and online platforms including Amazon are important and growing. Meanwhile, chains such as Footlocker and Nordstrom have become new retail partners for some collectibles brands.
Low-priced plastic collectible lines for younger kids also remain ubiquitous, particularly squishies depicting cute animals and foods (often combined into one). But all forms of tiny toys, licensed and otherwise, in blind boxes and bags, in playsets, and in all manner of other configurations, do not show any signs of decline.
Many of these collectible assortments reflected another Toy Fair trend: There were more sequins and sparkles across the show floor than ever, on plush, dolls, accessories, and craft kits, not to mention collectibles. A few examples include Ty’s new Flippables (with color-changing sequins), Spin Master’s glittery Hatchimals Pixies, Battat’s Glitter Girls, and Rhode Island Novelty’s Sequinimals.
Anniversaries—with a Twist.
It seemed like a large proportion of licensed properties were highlighting an anniversary of some sort, either this year or upcoming. Most milestones marked the launch of the property as a whole—the 80th anniversary of the creation of Batman, for example—and celebrated a total of years ending in five or 10. But a few took a different tack:
- Some celebrated individual products, as Phoenix International is doing with the 15th anniversary of its 2.4 million unit-selling Potty Time With Elmo sound book, a Sesame Street-licensed product, in 2021.
- Others were touting an anniversary of a licensing partnership, as Lego was doing by marking the 20th year of the Star Wars-Lego agreement.
- Some were honoring a particular subset of a property, as Hasbro was with the 10th anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And Yottoy announced that it would support the 16th birthday of the character Pigeon, star of Don’t Let Pigeon Drive the Bus, on April Fool’s Day 2019. The date is when Mo Willems’ book character, published by Hyperion and with Yottoy on board as the licensee for plush and other products, would be eligible for a driver’s license.
Back to Basics
A number of trends played into a “back to basics” mindset that is, at least to some degree, a reaction to so much screen time in kids’ lives.
Focus on handwriting. Several exhibitors were offering products to help children learn and practice cursive writing, something that is not taught in many schools. Creative Stationery and Waff were among the companies creating toyetic journals and writing kits (the former under Lego and Star Wars licenses). School Rite was selling handwriting templates and guides. And School Zone was offering an expanded range of workbooks to promote the practice of cursive writing, in response to demand from teachers and parents.
Nostalgic TV series. Some of the gentlest television properties in history had a nostalgic presence at the show. Several licensees up and down the aisles were showing Bob Ross products, as has been the case for the past few years. Pyramid America showed posters of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood; other licensees on board for the property’s 50th anniversary range from Funko to Wizkids. And Kahootz was showing a range of classic toys from Romper Room.
Arts, crafts, and DIY. The arts and crafts toy segment was one of just four (out of 11) categories that saw growth in 2018, according to NPD’s figures, and the trend shows no signs of diminishing. One notable product type seen across the show floor this year was miniature wooden building kits made of untreated, unpainted plywood. Some, such as those in Insight Editions’ IncrediBuilds line, were licensed.
Rights Sliced Thin
Licensors seem to be granting ever-narrower rights within the toy industry. In part, this strategy is due to licensors wanting to have their properties associated with popular proprietary toy brands across companies.
In addition, licenses that rise to popularity quickly may have a short life, as consumers move on to the next thing. This leads their IP owners to capitalize on as many partnerships as possible within the window of opportunity.
Some of the many properties noted at multiple companies this year included Ryan’s World, at Bonkers, Fiesta, Orb, Kids Preferred, and Far Out Toys; Fortnite at Jazwares, McFarlane Toys, Hasbro, NGC, Funko, and Moose; and WWE at Mattel, Alpha, Funko, and Wicked Cool.
Toy Retailers: On the Comeback Trail
In a post-Toys ‘R’ Us world, Toy Fair saw a number of firms looking to fill the void left by the closure of TRU’s U.S. stores.
FAO Schwarz, which has licensed its name for a handful of retail shops around the world to date, had a big booth where it showed its brand and its growing range of licensed products.
Learning Express, the educational toy store banner, had a booth as well. Its mission was to convince some of the independent mom-and-pop shop attendees to convert to Learning Express franchisees as it looks to expand.
Even Geoffrey’s Toy Box, the now-owner of the Toys ‘R’ Us, Babies ‘R’ Us, and Geoffrey brands, had a booth to reintroduce itself and explain its plans to the toy trade. In conversations on the show floor, many attendees and exhibitors seemed skeptical that these former TRU brands can make a significant comeback so soon after their forerunners’ demise.
Licensing Trends from Toy Fair 2018
March 1, 2018
RaugustReports’ observations from New York Toy Fair 2018 include the impact of social media trends on the toy industry; the strength of hands-on activity, STEM, and experiential kits; the continued dominance of collectibles; a lower profile for licensed products; and more sophisticated technology, balanced by the need to get kids away from their screens once in a while.
Social Media Drives Toy Trends
Many of the licensing and general industry trends at Toy Fair this year drew their inspiration from phenemona that originated or spread via social media or other digital platforms. Examples of social media-driven themes popular this year include:
Slime. Companies from Dunecraft to Canal Toys, among many others, offered prepared slime-like compounds or slime-making science or activity kits. Making slime has become a viral trend among middle and high schoolers, launching the careers of slime-making Instagram and YouTube stars.
Selfies. This theme was noted in selfie-enhancing device accessories from Candywirez and Popsockets, themed goods such as Hot Focus’s selfie scrapbook and VTech’s digital video selfie journal, and in trade marketing, with a plethora of booths having selfie stations to spur viral exposure.
Unboxing videos. Toys such as L.O.L. Surprise and its licensed products are inspired by the Internet unboxing trend, and an element of surprise incorporated into toys was a widespread theme, from blind bags to shape-changing toys such as Little Kids’ Grow-a-Peep, where an egg-shaped toy soaked in water transforms into a surprise character shape. The focus on surprises in the toy industry is not driven only by the popularity of unboxing videos, but that certainly plays a role.
Unicorns. An evergreen theme to some degree, unicorn imagery has become ubiquitous in part due to the viral popularity of unicorn foods and other unicorn-related crafts online. Stationery, crafts, plush, water floats, headbands, coloring books, and more featured unicorn themes, and licensed products based on Tokidoki, Pusheen, and My Little Pony put unicorns front and center.
Sloths. Driven at least in part by the large number of views of baby sloth videos online, sloths were noted among most of the plush makers at Toy Fair, including Douglas, Animal Adventures, Mary Meyer, and many others, as well as on a few books and games.
Meanwhile, licensed products are increasingly tied to properties coming from the worlds of social and digital media, building on a trend that has been gaining traction over the past couple of years. Influencers such as toy tester Ryan of Ryan ToysReview, tween star and anti-bullying advocate JoJo Siwa, and video blogger Jake Paul are increasingly signing deals for toys and related products. And even the biggest toy companies are creating merchandise tied to streaming-only properties. Hasbro, for example, markets toys based on its own Hänazuki (100 million views for season one) and Chomp Squad brands, as well as the Netflix Original series Super Monsters.
Internet-spurred phenomena can have a short life span, of course. This was illustrated at the show by the reduced presence of emojis, which were sighted all over the show the last two years in both licensed and unlicensed forms. This year their presence was far less (aside from the poo emoji).
STEM, the Maker Movement, the popularity of subscription boxes, and other trends continue to drive growth in hands-on kits. Kits centered on coding, robotics, circuitry, and other physics and engineering projects have been dominant for the past few years, of course, and they are still abundant. Other areas of note in the kit and box space this year included:
Chemistry sets. Particularly hot were girls’ versions that focus on making cosmetics, fragrance, and other spa-style products, with Thames & Kosmos’ Barbie and MGA’s Project MC2 kits serving as examples. There were also all manner of slime-making kits—sparkly, smelly, metallic, and the like—for both genders. In fact, the NPD Group says the global 14% rise in “all other toys” in 2017 was driven by slime kits, as well as the brief but powerful fidget spinner craze. Biology sets teaching plant- and nature-related science also represented an emerging sector in the licensed portion of the kit world.
Experiences in a box. The start-up Playdate in a Box from Artful Playdate offers five themed boxes containing costumes and accessories for creative play, while Part Time Renegade’s Kindness Box allows kids to make art and use it to anonymously make someone’s day. Klutz has gathered its kits that allow users to make soap, bath bombs, nail art, and the like, under a “spa line” that it can’t keep in stock. “It’s a fancy, luxurious experience rather than one activity,” said spokesperson Brittany Leddy. “That is central to our spa kits.”
Subscription box makers going retail. Surprise Rise, which makes hands-on activity kits focused on getting kids away from their gadgets, launched as a subscription service. It exhibited at Toy Fair for the first time as it takes subscriber favorites, ranging from volcano to monster slime kits, to retail. The subscription angle helps the company determine what’s hot before it becomes mainstream. “By launching as a subscription service, we found out about slime before slime was cool,” says founder and COO Rosy Khalife.
Of course, STEM and STEAM were prominent trends outside the realm of boxes and kits as well. Examples included the licensed Discovery #Mindblown line with Merch Source, licensed by Discovery Communications; USAOpoly’s Disney A Wrinkle in Time: A Daring Adventure Game, which teaches STEM skills themed to the upcoming book-based film; and Spin Master’s Rusty Rivets, Cool Maker, Rube Goldberg, and Build A Bear toys, all of which incorporate STEM and Maker themes. Actors representing scientists, in white lab coats, were the most common demonstrators spotted at this year’s show, by far.
One area that was less prominent at Toy Fair this year was construction kits, one of the most prevalent STEM-related categories over the past three years. This is not surprising given the contraction of the building-set category, down 6% in the U.S. in 2017, per the NPD Group.
Collectibles and More Collectibles
The collectible trend is as strong as ever; NPD estimates sales were up 14% globally in 2017. Some of the mini-trends within the category at this year’s Toy Fair included:
Stylization. Licensed collectibles these days are almost more likely to take on the licensee’s signature look than being true to the original character. Pioneered by companies such as Funko, Kid Robot, and Lego, stylized collectibles and toys today come from companies such as Whatnot Toys, Super7, Factory Entertainment (Revos), Hasbro (Mighty Muggs), Foamies, Re-Marks, Good Smile, and The Loyal Subjects. Most have a big-headed, big-eyed look, and some include playable features.
Squishies. Perhaps driven by the popularity of foam compounds and slime, as well as the kawaii trend, squishable collectibles were noted up and down the aisles, at vendors including Squishable, Basic Fun, Redwood, Bearington, and MGA (in its new Moj Moj collectible line), among others. Many of the squishies were tied to themes of fruits and foods, which remained a big trend in collectibles.
Poop. Although this theme extended into a number of product categories, especially games from the likes of Hasbro, Mattel, and Alex Brands, collectibles were a centerpiece. Examples ranged from Basic Fun’s Poopeez and Tomy’s Stink Bomz to Spin Master’s Flush Force, among many others. Other gross themes such as farts and pimple popping are also having a moment this year.
Continued miniaturization. Some of LEGO’s construction sets, including an Incredibles 2 set, featured baby figures that were a fraction the size of a typical mini-figure, while Zag Toys, recently purchased by Jazwares, expanded its Original Mini’s brand with additional licenses.
Changing Licensing Landscape
Licensed products based on high-profile TV and film properties were concentrated primarily in their master licensees’ booths—generally with narrow ranges of products, unless well established and proven—as well as in the assortments of a few licensees that rely on broad portfolios of hopefully hot licenses (e.g., marketers of coloring books, stickers, or collectibles).
One exception was the preschool arena, which continued strong. Properties from Paw Patrol to Peppa Pig had a presence in multiple booths. Nick Jr. and Disney Junior have been expanding their preschool schedules, and products tied to the former’s Sunny Day and Top Wing and the latter’s Vampirina and Fancy Nancy were spotted at a handful of licensees large and small. Some classic preschool licenses, such as Sesame Street, were seeing a resurgence, according to exhibitors. And there were some big announcements involving preschool licensees, notably Mattel’s recent news that Thomas & Friends would air on Nick Jr., with Nickelodeon serving as the property’s global licensing agent.
Other than that, just a few individual properties had wide exposure at Toy Fair. Cartoon Network’s Rick & Morty, for example, and Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter were both spotted at many licensees’ booths.
While mainstream TV and film properties had a relatively low profile, a number of niche property types or strategies benefited from a wide and/or growing presence. The Internet-based influencers, apps, and streaming properties mentioned earlier represented one example, while others included:
Literary properties. Harry Potter led the way, but Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch also was frequently spotted—thanks to the upcoming film—while Roald Dahl, Eric Carle, Jumanji, Pete the Cat, Llama Llama, and other book-based licenses dotted the aisles.
Corporate brands. Crayola and National Geographic were among the top licenses in terms of the number of licensees or licensors showing branded products. Kodak, Polaroid, Velcro, Vivitar, and Quirky were among the other brands seen on toys and related product; note that many of these brands have a natural connection to the Maker movement.
Properties from the 1990s. Licenses are being brought back for older millennials who remember them fondly from childhood, or reworked for their children. Mattel relaunched Polly Pocket, while a number of licensees showed products tied to late TV artist and millennial favorite Bob Ross, to name just two examples.
Co-brands. Tomy’s licensed Lamaze branded baby products were paired with Incredibles 2, marking the first time Lamaze has been involved in co-branding; Mattel paired its Barbie with Crayola for the Confetti Design Studio; and Tomy relaunched its 1970s Big Loader brand in partnership with Thomas & Friends.
Good fit. From ongoing lines such as American Ninja Warrior playzones from B4 Adventure to new items such as Insect Lore’s Eric Carle science kits, a number of licensing initiatives were narrow in scope but made perfect sense. These programs can be successful for the partners; Hasbro’s Nerf equipment line with Internet trick-shot artists Dude Perfect is in year three and continues to expand.
Overall, the toy industry and the licensed portion of it have been struggling of late. Licensees we spoke to reported a difficult environment for licensed toys and related goods, particularly on the film and new TV show side of things. And while toy industry sales grew 1% year-over-year in 2017, according to the NPD Group, the first six months of the year were up 3%, suggesting slower sales for the second half, including the all-important fourth quarter. Toys ‘R’ Us’s bankruptcy and store closures certainly had an impact.
That said, the number of companies getting into licensing continues to grow. Popsockets, a device accessory that sold 35 million units in 2017, entered licensing for the first time with properties including Stranger Things, Sanrio, Rick and Morty, Harry Potter, and Justice League. Green Toys entered the licensing arena with Sesame Street and Insect Lore with Eric Carle. Playmobil, a recent entrant into licensing, expanded its roster by adding DreamWorks Universal’s Spirit Riding Free and adding to its Ghostbusters and DreamWorks Dragons lines.
Tech Versus Anti-Tech
Not surprisingly, toys based on technology or with tech enhancements continue to proliferate. Some mimic adult technology, such as the Lego Life safe social network for kids; Scout, “the Alexa for kids,” part of Elemental Path’s Cognitoys line; or Tomy’s KiiPix smartphone photo printer. Other technologies that have been growing over the past few years, such as augmented reality, drones, robots, and the like, were on hand this year as well.
While in many cases technology seems to be added to toy lines as more of a fun novelty than a real innovation, there are a growing number of instances where tech is used for true added value. For example, Pai Technology’s Circuit Conductor allows children to create a circuit in a hands-on project, then scan it with an app. A blueprint on the screen shows what is going on inside the circuit, with electrical flows illustrated in real time, something that would not be possible without the addition of augmented reality.
In a parallel trend to the proliferation of tech, a number of exhibitors stressed that they were focused on finding ways to get kids off their screens and into hands-on, creative, or outdoor activities. One example of a low-tech trend on the rise: interest in calligraphy has been coming back for the past couple of years, with chains such as Michael’s taking a bigger position in the craft and fans sharing their own marker-based calligraphy online. As a result, Crayola trademarked the phrase Crayoligraphy, offers calligraphy kits under that name, and launched a hashtag for users to share their creations. It recently licensed coloring and activity book maker Dreamtivity for Crayoligraphy activity books. They are sold at Target, with Michael’s and Zulily also showing interest.
Licensing Trends from Toy Fair 2017
March 2, 2017
Following are some of RaugustReports’ licensing-related observations from the floor of the 2017 New York International Toy Fair.
The Year of the Mini
The latest iteration of the collectible toy trend—small toys that combine collecting and play, focused mostly on children rather than adult collectors—seemed to be nearing its peak at the 2016 edition of Toy Fair. But the trend has blossomed even more since then.
Licensed toy lines of all types include extensive ranges of collectibles as part of the mix, with the assortments expanding in number and variety. The list is nearly endless: TV-based boys’ properties (e.g., Playmates’ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), preschool properties (Fisher-Price’s Thomas & Friends), digital brands (Jazwares’ Animal Jam), doll lines (Wicked Cool’s Cabbage Patch Kids), and movie tie-ins (Mattel’s Fast & Furious), are just a few examples.
This year’s trend within a trend was miniaturization, with the likes of the Turtles Micro Mutants, Littlest Pet Shop Little Teensies, and Shimmer & Shine Teenie Genies being expanded from their previous-year introductions or added to existing collectibles arrays. Like core collectibles lines, minis include blind bags or other elements of surprise to enhance collectability, and most come with playsets and feature articulation, affixed suction cups or magnets, or other characteristics to enhance their play value.
Both mini and core collectibles collections can be vast, featuring a mix of designs—including co-brands—and levels of rarity. Jazwares is enhancing its Animal Jam collectibles line with more than 200 additional figures on top the 90 SKUs it launched last year, for example, while Fisher-Price’s Teenie Genies range is up to 300 different iterations.
Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
The inspiration for a number of trends seen on the show floor could be traced directly to the industry’s biggest recent hits. There were abundant Shopkins-like cute food collectibles around the show floor, including scented and stackable versions. Even Disney got into the act with the launch of its first collection of D-Lectables, a range that merges its strong-selling Tsum Tsum stackable mini plush concept with Shopkins-like food-based designs, from Imperial Toy.
The popularity of Funko figurines has led to a number of squat, big-headed collectibles (and other products) that marry licensed characters with the licensees’ stylized visuals. Examples include Wish Holdings’ plush Kawaii Cubes, Re-Marks’ Harry Potter and Wizard of Oz desk art and novelties, and Lego Brick Headz buildable collectible figures, among others.
And, following the success of Spin Master’s Hatchimals, a significant number of toys, especially collectibles, were enclosed in eggs, from Wicked Cool’s Egg Babies to Fantasma’s Smiley Egg-moji, licensed from the Smiley Company. The latter was also inspired by the YouTube phenomenon of surprise-egg openings, specifically the subcategory of videos in which the contents of Play Doh-encased surprise eggs are revealed.
Licensing was more prominent than usual in a number of toy categories. In some cases, this reflected growth in the number of deals, while in others it was more a function of manufacturers publicizing their new licensing agreements with extensive displays and signage, rather than treating each new property as one among many.
Plush. Plush vendors continue to enter the crowded licensing arena, typically focusing at first on unique, niche products that licensors’ existing plush licensees do not make. Folkmanis, known for its lifelike plush animal puppets, was touting its new Mickey Mouse and Friends line; it has partnered with properties such as the Sierra Club in the past, but this deal represents its first foray into entertainment licensing.
Meanwhile, in the last year or so Animal Adventures has signed its first licenses with Warner Bros. and DC Comics, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for Curious George, and Blue Sky/Fox for the Ferdinand movie, among others. It is creating products such as jumbo plush figures, Sweet Seats furniture, My Pet Blankie roll-up character blankets, and plush rockers tied to these characters.
And Fiesta has been increasing its presence in licensing over the past three years, mostly for the amusement trade, with Animal Jam, Jungle Book, and Teletubbies being new additions. It also has the Sprout license for the consumer market.
Puzzles. In the puzzle category, where licensing has long been a key tool to provide a continuous stream of new imagery, a number of marketers were highlighting specific new licenses with large displays along the aisle. Examples included Springbok (Coca-Cola), Outset Media (Archie Comics), New York Puzzle (Harry Potter book cover art), and Masterpieces (Caterpillar and RealTree). Ceaco was highlighting its new Peanuts license, as well as a grouping of Christmas-related properties including Polar Express, A Christmas Story, The Night Before Christmas, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and Thomas Kinkade.
Board games. Board game companies were also displaying new licenses prominently this year. Buffalo Games offered Scooby Doo and DC Comics; Identity Games had Miffy and Elmo’s World tinned hide-and-seek games; USAOpoly introduced Disney, Pixar, and Marvel versions of Codenames; and Masterpieces debuted Major League Baseball, NFL, NHL, and collegiate versions of Spot it!.
Sculptable compounds. A relatively new—and fast-growing—category consisting of nontoxic, non-messy, sculptable and moldable compounds with names such as Kinetic Sand, Sands Alive!, Playfoam, and Floof, is starting to attract licensing deals. Educational Insights had a Pete the Cat-licensed kit that included Playfoam, while Spin-Master showed an Avengers Kinetic Foam kit, to name two examples.
Paper construction. Foldable paper kits, a small niche within the broader construction category, are also seeing interest from licensors. Paper Punk was showing its My Little Pony products (it has offered Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles items in the past) and Wizhead displayed a Shaun the Sheep version of its Paper Head Puzzle, along with a raft of celebrity likenesses.
Tech toys. Drones and robots—together comprising a tech toy category that has been expanding over the past few years—are experiencing an increase in licensing. WowWee introduced Minion MiP Turbo Dave, World Tech Toys is continuing its line of Marvel drones, and Spin Master highlighted its DR1 Racing League-licensed drones under the Air Hogs brand, endorsed by celebrity drone racers Luke Bannister and Johnny Schaer.
Bath toys. Typically a low-margin item, bath toys were also attracting licensing interest this year, with SCS launching Angry Birds products, SoapSox signing Disney Baby, and Tubby Table Toys, a bathtub activity hub with interchangeable playsets and figures, about to finalize a license with a major studio.
Over the past several years, toy companies have been increasing their emphasis on extending their own IP into other categories through outbound licensing programs.
This trend was on display at Toy Fair in a big way, and not just through established and significant licensing efforts such as Lego’s Ninjago, Friends, Elves, and other brands; Hasbro’s Transformers and My Little Pony; Mattel’s Barbie and Monster High; and more.
Spin Master’s Hatchimals, the hit toy of the 2016 Christmas season, naturally has been extended into new categories, with 25 licensees on board to date. The company also launched Rusty Rivets with Nickelodeon, following the model it set with its preschool hit Paw Patrol, and is planning to license the Etch-A-Sketch brand into compatible categories.
Ty’s Beanie Boos licensing program has become wide-ranging, and its licensed goods commanded a lot of real estate in the company’s display area. Mattel’s American Girl has been expanding its licensing activities as its operations become more integrated with owner Mattel’s; it has signed Scholastic and Dorling Kindersley for books, among other deals.
Meanwhile, companies that have never done any outbound licensing before are getting into the act. Educational Insights, for example, is in talks about licensing its best-selling Sneaky Snacky Squirrel board game brand into a complementary category.
Preschool remained an area of interest up and down the aisles. Several already-preschool-focused properties extended their demographic range from ages 2-4 down to babies. Leap Year’s Playskool range of books and activities, under license from Hasbro, featured cute, youthful images of key Hasbro characters such as Mr. Potato Head and Optimus Prime in baby books for the first time. Plush maker Yottoy offered its first book-and-plush line for the youngest preschoolers under the Paddington Baby brand.
Properties for older kids continue to lower their age range into preschool as well. Even Spin Master’s Pirates of the Caribbean pirate ship, based on the film, is including preschoolers in its target market this time around, with an age range of 4 and up and a less scary play pattern than in previous pirate sets.
In addition, several key toy trends are extending down into preschool toys in a big way. These include, for example, co-branding (often involving properties originally meant for older consumers) and minis. Thomas Minis (based on the Mattel-owned, HIT-produced TV show) covers both of these trends; introduced with DC Comics last year, the minis are expanding to include Power Rangers in 2017. Separately, Jazwares’ Chuck & Friends soft trucks have been paired with Marvel Universe characters such as Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America. And the Disney Princesses are the latest properties to be reimagined as Little People figures at Fisher Price.
STEM, STEAM, and STREAM (encompassing various configurations of science, technology, robotics, engineering, arts, and math) are still buzzwords in the industry, as they are in U.S. schools, although the meaning has been diluted to a degree in both environments. STREAM-identified toys range from curriculum-aligned products to craft kits to anything involving building. Imports Dragon’s new Peg + Cat activity kits, licensed by the Fred Rogers Company, teach children math skills and foster more positive attitudes about math among both kids and their parents, for example.
The “girl power” theme remains strong. Last year’s burst of superhero properties involving girls continues, with new examples in the toy world including Playmates’ Mysticons (licensed by Nelvana), Jazwares Bottle Squad (not licensed), and Mattel’s Wonder Woman (DC Comics). Other properties feature normal girls with an independent, self-reliant streak, as in DreamWorks’ Spirit Riding Free, a series distributed through Netflix. Just Toys, Reeves International’s Breyer division, and Little, Brown are the first three licensees.
In many cases, the STREAM and girl-empowerment trends come together, as a do-it-yourself attitude and aptitude are key attributes of self-reliance. Jazwares offered a licensed line of mini-DIY craft projects with digital components, focused on tween girls. They are based on the 100-character Tiniez lifestyle brand licensed by Richmond Marketing Group.
Many of the highest-profile licenses on the show floor, as measured by the number of products seen, were familiar. Some of the most prominent were Marvel and DC Comics, Disney and Pixar, Star Wars, Minions, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Paw Patrol, and Pokémon, which has naturally seen its profile rise after the Pokémon Go fad of last summer. Also prevalent were toys tied to upcoming films, most of which were based on existing properties. Examples included My Little Pony, Jumanji, Lego Ninjago, and Wonder Woman, among many more. Several of the top franchises mentioned above also have movies coming up this year.