Licensing Trends from Toy Fair 2023
October 17, 2023
October 17, 2023: The first Toy Fair since February 2020—and the first to be held in the fall—offered insights into many licensing and toy trends, some continuing and some new since the last iteration of the show. A lot of the news revealed at Toy Fair this year had to do with the show itself, particularly its ever-changing future locations and timing.
Licensing at the Forefront
The presence of licensed products tends to rise and fall cyclically, and 2023 was an up year in terms of both sales, according to anecdotal evidence from exhibitors, and quantity of toys being displayed. There was a much wider array of licensed products being highlighted this year, compared to the last, pre-pandemic show.
- Preschool licenses remain strong, with Bluey, CoComelon, Paw Patrol, and Gabby’s Dollhouse (a show with a broader audience that reaches down to preschoolers) among the properties currently performing well. Sesame Street’s characters were particularly widespread this year, with new master licensee Just Play making a big splash and a variety of other licensees showing product.
- Holiday-specific licenses had a big presence, with The Grinch, The Elf on the Shelf, Rudolph, and The Nightmare Before Christmas well-represented across the show floor. There were also a number of products marrying popular properties with holiday themes. Part of this was due to industry trends and part likely due to the autumn timing of the show.
- Netflix properties had a high profile, with lots of Stranger Things products across licensees, some Squid Game items noted, and products based on the animated series The Creature Cases starting to emerge.
- Hello Kitty is back. Not that she ever went away, but her presence has been relatively muted for the past few years. Several licensees new and old (Fiesta, Hands Craft, Innovaction, HeadStart, and Jazwares, among many others) showed product this year, and both new and existing licensees reported strong sales for the property.
- Anime remains a force, with examples ranging from Funko’s Pop! Anime line; to Playmobil’s Naruto Shippuden products; to Bandai’s huge booth showing Studio Ghibli, Dragon Ball, and other Japanese properties; to Pokémon’s wide-ranging presence.
- Corporate brands seemed to have a higher profile than usual, with candy and snack properties highlighted by plush makers, early childhood brands like Sassy on display, and Crayola and Lego spotted at their licensees’ booths all over the floor. Red Tool Box expanded beyond its longtime Stanley license to produce activity toys tied to Char-Broil, Black & Decker, ScottsMiracle-Gro, Oklahoma Joe’s smokers, and the newest example, Goodyear.
- Sports licenses in the toy industry are diversifying beyond the five major leagues. Sightings included European soccer clubs, Canada Curling, and pickleball properties.
- Mickey and Minnie dominated the Disney-licensing landscape at Toy Fair, likely driven at least in part by the Disney100 celebration.
- Movies were influencing some of the licensing activity, with Paw Patrol and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles among the properties backed by upcoming films. There was not as much Barbie as might be expected given the success of that film—Mattel was not officially present at the show but some licensees and distributors were showing product—likely because of the older audience, which does not necessarily translate directly to children’s success.
Mainstreaming of the Metaverse
Properties originating in the metaverse or as NFTs have grown quite a bit since the last edition of Toy Fair. Some examples included Toikido’s Piñata Smashlings and the NFT brand Pudgy Penguins at PMI Kids, Jazwares’ DevSeries and licensed Adopt Me! lines, and Among Us at YüMe. The physical toy lines typically include a UPC code to connect the toys to the digital world with bonus content or gameplay.
Mattel announced around Toy Fair time that it was pairing its Masters of the Universe action figures with the NFT program VeeFriends, offering the latter’s Skilled Skeleton with the former’s Skeletor in a special-edition two-pack. And exhibitor Jazwares added Royale High, a metaverse experience on Roblox involving fashion role-playing, to its robust roster of online-origin properties.
The influence of the metaverse showed itself in another way, with the suffix “-verse” used to describe all manner of programs, from Lumistella’s Elf on the Shelf Santaverse, to MGA’s Miniverse (represented through a distributor), to Teeturtle’s Plushiverse, to name a few.
There seemed to be fewer pure “tech toys” on display, such as drones and robots, which were peaking when Toy Fair last happened in 2020—although there were still many examples, from Thames & Kosmos’ AI robot to Robosen’s Buzz Lightyear robot. That said, many toys of all sorts, from science activity kits to paper airplanes, had some sort of tech connection, whether the ubiquitous UPC code or the integration of AI technology.
Focus on Food and Cooking
Kitchen-related play is a core category within the toy industry, but no Toy Fair in recent memory has had so many examples, especially with such prime positioning in the booths. Perhaps the increased interest in cooking at home spurred by the pandemic, and continuing for many due to health and economic concerns, has driven this trend, at least in part.
The theme touched on plush and pillows, play food truck vehicles, science kits, and barista playsets, among other products.
Licensing has not traditionally had a dominant presence in this category, but this year there were numerous examples on display, including Bendon’s Minnie Mouse Design & Play Cookie Café, In KidZ’ new Sesame Street activity set introducing young children to the food of different cultures, Abacus’ Master Chef Jr. cooking kit, Red Tool Box’s Tasty Jr. kitchen activity kit (with links to Tasty Jr. cooking videos), and Handstand Kitchen’s Hello Kitty assortment of children’s kitchen tools, among others.
Products Tailored to “Kidults”
Recent research from Circana (formerly NPG Group) found that consumers aged 12 and older drive $9 billion, or about 25%, of annual toy sales in the U.S., thanks to the kidulting trend. Teens and adults are finding satisfaction by engaging with the toys and hobbies of their youth.
The adult collectibles area at Toy Fair, a hub for kidulting where the likes of Funko and Diamond Comics Distributors reside, was one of the most crowded spaces on the show floor, as has been true in recent years.
In addition, some toy companies known for their traditional children’s toys were creating products specifically for adults, from craft kits to board games and beyond. And even more were stressing that their products were fun for kids and adults alike.
A Big Year for Plush
Plush is always a core category with a big presence on the show floor, but this year its profile was greater than ever. There were collections of both giant and mini-plush, UPC codes to add digital play, new themes (e.g. plush snack foods), new products such as plush pillows and plush-hoodie hybrids, high-end collectible plush, and non-traditional materials such as vinyl.
One notable licensed product array was Manhattan Toy’s extensive and growing range of Lego plush, displayed front and center in its booth. The assortment includes plush mini figures, such as corncob guy and peapod girl; representation for Lego brands such as Ninjago; and co-branded characters including Lego Star Wars and the new Lego Harry Potter range.
Here are some of the other trends noted in the aisles:
- Audio storytelling shows no sign of waning, as specialists in this category were spotted throughout the aisle. Each has a slightly different positioning and many were touting new formats and brand extensions. Most rely heavily on licensing as part of their quest to ensure adequate content for their consumers to choose from, and a number of new licensing deals were announced. Tonies, StoryPod, and StoryPhones were among the offerings.
- Doctor- and vet-themed playsets have always been a staple, but this year the assortment was bigger than usual and medical-related toys were highlighted in a number of displays. The trend took varied forms, from Little Moppet’s Little Doctor playsets and Little Medical School’s hands-on toys, to Squishables’ new The Mysterious Dr. Plague plush. The pandemic was likely a driver of this mini-trend.
- Social-emotional learning was still top of mind, with products from Fox Chapel, Open the Joy: The Feel Better Company, and the Educational Insights, Learning Resources, and Hand2Mind family of companies among those highlighting SEL product lines.
- Toy influencers are starting to have a hand in creating products (outside of those that have broken out to become licensed properties in their own right). Highlights kid-tests its products and has started giving kid reviewers credit in its books and products. WeVeel, owner of the Scentos and Sugar Rush brands, was touting its influencer initiative, consisting of scented art kits created by the likes of Boss Baby Brody and Along Came Abby.
- With the popularity of comic books and manga, as well as the continuing DYI trend, it is logical that make-your-own-comic kits are on the rise. Highlights, Lulu Jr., and Fox Chapel were among the exhibitors with products along these lines.
- Themes that popped out across toy categories mirrored some of the trends in other industries such as food and beverage, publishing, and fashion. Some notable trends included toys featuring themes of bees and honey, mushrooms, and lesser-known animals from around the world, with the axolotl having a particularly strong presence.
- In a counterpoint to the metaverse trend, many licensees were touting their hands-on toys and their products focused on developing good, old-fashioned imagination. This is always a noticeable theme but seemed particularly prominent this time around.
The Show Itself Makes News
The 118th edition of Toy Fair made news initially for being the first ever to be held in the fall. While this is a good time for some exhibitors, the general consensus seemed to show a preference for early in the year, by a wide margin.
In a surprise announcement on the second day of the show, Toy Fair announced that there would be no event in 2024 in anticipation of a move to a March 2025 timeslot at the Javits. After that, the show would move to January and, in a shock to the exhibitors, New Orleans. Dates were given for 2026, 2027, and 2028.
Less than two weeks after the show ended, however, the Toy Association backtracked due to pushback from its members, saying that the show would remain in New York for the foreseeable future, at a time to be determined but sometime early in the year. It also announced a smaller interim event in Los Angeles—details to come—for companies who prefer to do their previews in the fall. There seemed to be mixed feelings about the latter move from some quarters, although it is still early days.
Some of the bigger toy companies already hold an independent event for their retailers in Los Angeles, which this year occurred just before Toy Fair. Companies including Mattel, MGA Entertainment, Hasbro, and Jakks Pacific, all of which participate in that event, were not part of Toy Fair at all officially this year, although some had teams on the show floor or in nearby showrooms for East Coast meetings with partners.
Some of those companies also made announcements timed to Toy Fair, despite lacking a booth presence. MGA Entertainment announced a master toy deal with Jim Henson Productions for the Apple TV+ series Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock; Mattel said it was releasing Pictionary Vs. AI, which integrates the new technology into its classic game, allowing players to compete against an AI rival; and Hasbro touted its relaunch of The Littlest Pet Shop, with a new experience on Roblox leading up to a global launch of products in spring 2024.
The fall time period likely contributed to the fact that there was notably less floor space devoted to booths, although the total number of exhibitors was roughly comparable to 2020 (a smaller show itself due largely to the inability of COVID-trapped exhibitors and attendees from China to make the trip). A significant number of long-time exhibitors skipped the show entirely—a trend that was somewhat counteracted by a large number of first-time exhibitors—and others took visibly less square footage this year than in the past. Some of the larger remaining exhibitor companies, on the other hand, including Bandai Namco, Lego, and Jazwares, commanded very large booth presences.
In a new initiative this year, exhibitors were encouraged to have at least 20% of their booth space open to the public, and many companies seemed to take that to heart. While there were some larger booths that were entirely closed off, as was common in the past, a significant portion of exhibitors made an effort to show more of their existing product, while previewing newer items in private meetings.
Foot traffic was slow on the first day of the show, due to factors such as torrential rains in New York City as attendees were arriving at the airports on the Friday before the show, along with the perennial issue of the first day taking place on Shabbat, keeping many Orthodox Jewish exhibitors and attendees away on Saturday. After that, foot traffic seemed healthy. And, while experiences varied widely, most of the exhibitors we spoke to said the show was positive, with lots of productive meetings and more orders than expected, given the time period.
Update: On October 6, the Toy Association told its members that it was abandoning plans to move to New Orleans, with Toy Fair returning to New York from 2025 on. The next iteration will be held in March 2025 at the Javits; future shows are expected to be sometime in the January-February timeframe. An event of some sort is also anticipated in fall 2024 in Los Angeles.
Licensing Trends from Toy Fair 2020
March 5, 2020
Trends spotted at Toy Fair New York this year included a big push toward sustainability and the proliferation of toy lines tied to social media influencers. There was a strong presence for licensing across the show, with the entertainment/character side of things skewing heavily toward properties in the Disney corporate family.
The novel coronavirus was top-of-mind. Along with employee and customer safety, top concerns included production delays, the impact on sales in the growing Chinese consumer market, and general uncertainty about the duration and severity of the crisis. Travel bans and the cancellation of the China Pavilion meant a lack of Chinese exhibitors and attendees at the show. Exhibitors reported that there seemed to be little noticeable impact on traffic overall, however, in comparison to recent years.
Sustainability has become a much more important push in the toy industry since previous incarnations of the show. Companies were touting products and packaging made from recycled materials (e.g. bottles) and bio-based plastics (e.g., made from sugar rather than oil); reduced packaging as well as packaging that serves multiple purposes (e.g., as part of the play pattern or for storage); products and packaging that are recyclable and/or biodegradable; and recycling programs for used toys.
This focus was not just attributable to specialist companies such as Green Toys but also to the biggest players. Mattel, MGA Entertainment, and Lego were among the many companies that announced new initiatives at or just before Toy Fair. The focus on multi-purpose packaging was a particularly strong trend, with marketers from Play Visions to Little Kids to Crayola among the widespread examples. A number of exhibitors were touting eco-friendly content and play patterns as well, including Little Tikes’ Go Green! Playhouse and Elly Lu’s eco-friendly Ocean Keepers books.
While the increased number of environmental initiatives this year versus the past was notable, many licensing executives at the Fair pointed out that the activity is still a small proportion of the total industry, and that other regions (notably Europe) are far ahead.
Influencers have been a key presence at Toy Fair over the past few years, mostly as endorsers. This year saw an uptick in branded products tied to influencers’ names and social media channels (especially YouTube).
Some of the efforts were narrow and closely connected to the influencer’s area of expertise, as with Emily Arrow’s ukulele (with Kala) and learn-to-play-ukulele book (Fox Chapel), or Lily Hevesh’s domino-toppling set (Spin Master Games). Others were more broad-based, with Jazwares’ Blippi line encompassing a range of educational playthings and Moose’s Collins Key collection offering a variety of slime kits and challenge activities.
The many new examples joined the smaller group of influencer-based products that began launching last year, such as Maddie Rae’s Slime Glue and Karina Garcia’s Craft City line. And pocket.watch’s Ryan’s World program, one of the first successes in this space, has expanded to include dozens of licensees, from Bonkers and Bendon Publishing to Hi Jinx and Franklin Sports.
Celebrity licensing in general had a higher-than-usual presence at Toy Fair, with musicians particularly active. Several licensees, including Gund, Trends, and Paladone, offered products tied to the K-Pop group BTS and its BT21 set of characters with LINE. Jazwares debuted dolls, figures, microphones, and plush connected to another K-Pop group, Blackpink. And Playmates announced a line of toys tied to singer Billie Eilish; no details have been announced, but plans include action figures and fashion dolls inspired by her distinctive look and taste in fashion.
Entertainment Licensing: A Familiar Feeling
It was a strong year for entertainment/character licensing, as gauged by the percentage of licensed products in the aisles.
There were no universally recognized tentpole films or other consensus hits (aside from optimism around The Mandalorian, discussed below). Licensees have high hopes for the likes of the next Trolls and Minions films, but recognize that any growth related to those properties will be on an already significant base of sales. Overall, the properties with the greatest presence were established rather than new, from Stranger Things and Rick and Morty to Harry Potter and DC Comics. Baby Shark also had a broad presence at companies such as Hedstrom, Crayola, and more.
The Disney-Pixar-Lucasfilm-Marvel portfolio was dominant. A lot of Toy Story 4 and Frozen 2 merchandise was still on display, after the NPD Group and exhibitors alike reported strong sales for those two properties in 2019. Several of Disney and family’s existing licensees, from Jakks Pacific to Ravensburger to Diamond Dotz were releasing new products. And recent licensees, such as Carson Dellosa with its Disney Learning line and Magical Tales with its Disney-licensed holiday- and tradition-focused books-with-activities, introduced their ranges. (Fox properties are now part of Disney as well, but without a widespread presence at the moment.)
For the most part, licensees were showing characters from across several or even all of Disney’s studios, rather than putting a focus on a single property or property group. The plush puppet maker Folkmanis was showing products for The Nightmare Before Christmas, Donald Duck, Marvel characters including Baby Groot, Pixar’s Ratatouille, and Pooh, for example. One exception: The Mandalorian, the popular new Disney+ TV series, with its breakout character The Child, a.k.a. Baby Yoda. Long-awaited products could be viewed at Hasbro, Lego, Buffalo Games, Rubie’s, Innovative Designs, Power House Toys, Half Moon Bay, and others.
The reliance on a handful of licenses—Disney-owned and otherwise—across a wide range of products can result in fragmentation, oversaturation, and too much reliance on the tried-and-true. Of course the landscape is likely to change somewhat when the next hot property arises.
New Entrants in Preschool
The preschool space was a special case, with several new properties being introduced. Vtech was showing off its recent deal with Netflix for Go! Go! Cory Carson products. Tomy was exhibiting items tied to Ricky Zoom, from Hasbro-owned eOne. Spin Master offered Dragons Rescue Riders toys, based on the latest Netflix spin-off from DreamWorks. Moose Toys highlighted the U.S. debut of playthings connected to BBC Studio’s Bluey brand, which it has already launched in the Australian market.
A number of preschool-centric content platforms were also on display. Jazwares acquired the rights from Treasure Studio for CoComelon toys including bath toys, role-play, plush, vehicles, and figures. MGA Entertainment’s Little Tikes showed its toy line tied to Little Baby Bum, the music-based YouTube channel. And Baby Einstein was resurging, with a new collection from Mary Meyer under the Baby Einstein First Discoveries brand and new titles from publisher Phoenix International Publications among the initiatives being touted. (Blippi’s new line also falls into the YouTube preschool content banner, although more personality-driven than these brands.)
Meanwhile, the preschool “classics,” Peppa Pig, PJ Masks, and Paw Patrol, along with Sesame Street, also were noted across the show floor, with expansions to existing product lines and some new licensees. Peppa Pig was a new addition to Little Kids’ line of bubble products, for example, while one of Sesame Street’s newest licensees is MyAudio.Life, a book-and-speaker combo.
Going After Millennials with Retro
Retro properties have long gone beyond a “trend,” transitioning into a perennial content or design style. That said, it was a big year for relaunches and new licensed products based on classic properties. Some were celebrating anniversaries and others simply were a good fit with a particular product. Although the initiatives targeted a variety of age groups, a PR rep for Spin Master Games encapsulated the overriding strategy for many marketers when she said, “We’re leaning into retro for the millennial parents.”
Basic Fun! introduced its new line of old-style Tonka trucks, under license from Hasbro. K’nex put together a prominent display for its Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs brands. Bandai was touting its Tamagotchi and Pac-Man products (the latter turning 40), including a collection featuring both. Highlights is launching a retro licensing effort called Highlights for Grown-Ups. And Playmonster’s newly acquired Kahootz brand was touting the classic Spirograph.
Some of the other retro properties and products noted, both new and continuing, included Skee Ball, the Evel Knievel Stuntcycle, Etch a Sketch (with four collaborative limited editions), Back to the Future, Anchorman, Starsky and Hutch, Bill and Ted, Johnny Lightning, Titanic, Blockbuster, and Micro Machines.
A Varied Roster of Corporate Brands
Corporate trademark licensing always has a high profile at Toy Fair, particularly in the vehicles segment, where car and truck brands dominate. An ongoing trend has been toward a more multifaceted presence for brands, each associated with products that are very closely related to their core business and with an eye on developing future consumers.
A few toy makers specialize in corporate-branded toys, including Red Tool Box, which featured an extensive display of Stanley Jr. tools, and German company Theo Klein, which makes children’s appliances and tools tied to brands such as Bosch, Weber, Miele, Braun, and O’Cedar, as well as a number of automotive nameplates. Trademarks paired with a single or a few logical products included University Games’ pub game with Guinness and Craft City’s Kool-Aid edible slime kit. Other non-automative corporate brands spotted, both new to the industry and continuing, included Peeps, Jelly Belly, Baskin Robbins, Mr. Bubble, Kodak, RealTree, Lamaze, and Nissin Cup Noodles.
A Focus on Mind, Body, Spirit, and the Self
A raft of exhibitors featured products tied to spiritual themes, in the form of crystals, tarot, yoga, and related content, from Mudpuppy’s Cat Tarot card game to Macmillan’s collection of yoga and related books for kids, including Yoga Bunny, Good Night Yoga, and Mind-Body-Baby. Spin Master offered Zen Catz desk accessories for adults. (Spirituality and cats seem to go together.)
Social and emotional learning toys and content, especially those that guide children in understanding and expressing their own feelings and dealing with those of their friends and family, continue to have a strong presence. Examples include Hand 2 Mind’s See My Feelings Mirror and Manhattan Toy’s book-and-toy combinations that were created with the help of a psychologist. Classroom products supplier Roylco showed Theo the Therapy Dog; it was created for teachers and parents of special needs students, but as a weighted plush animal it is calming for all children. The latter illustrated a wider trend across the show of weighted, soft products meant to comfort and calm.
ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), which we cited as a theme for the first time last year, expanded its reach. Spin Master has found that its kinetic sand is being used for mindfulness and as a calming activity, even releasing a sand-and-slicing-device kit for kids last year with ASMR in mind. This year, it expanded the concept to adults, releasing Kinetic Kalm as a desk set with sand and accessories. Meanwhile, it recently acquired the Orbeez brand from Maya Toys. Noting that consumers were using the gel-like spheres for ASMR and mindfulness purposes, including bathing in them, the company was showing an Orbeez foot spa, among other products. Moose Toys offers collectible figures packaged inside a jelly-like compound, which it says appeals to adults and children responding to its ASMR qualities.
Life as Play
Exhibitors across the board were highlighting toys that can go anywhere with the child, bringing play into all aspects of life. “On-the-go play, that’s what we’re driving home,” said a Lego rep.
A related trend was a broader definition of toys as having multiple purposes, notably playthings doubling as home décor or functional products. Melissa & Doug not only had on-the-go products where the packaging becomes a carrying case, but also functional décor that looks good displayed in a room while also being a game or a toy. “You’re creating your life around play,” said a staffer. Similarly, Lego’s new Dots extension allows kids and adults to have the fun of crafting and then end up with a useful product such as a jewelry holder, bracelet, or desk accessory.
Klutz was showing craft kits that encourage kids to create projects such as a camper or a pet adoption truck, along with related figures (e.g. clay animals) that turn the craft into a permanent play set. “We’re seeing a lot of craft-plus products that have a play pattern after you make them,” says Brittany Leddy, Klutz’s marketing and publicity manager.
Memes as Themes
More collectibles this year were tied to popular memes. Moose Toys’ Oh! My GIF line is inspired by well-known viral video sensations, with its Typing Away Catly figure suggesting Keyboard Cat and Pickle Puggo reminiscent of Pickle the Pug. Alpha Group brought back its collectible collection featuring SpongeBob memes, introduced at Toy Fair 2019 as part of SpongeBob’s 20th anniversary; examples include Squidward dabbing. And Hasbro’s collectible figures for The Child feature moments from The Mandalorian that have gone viral, such as when Baby Yoda eats a frog.
The tendency to incorporate memes into product lines is a reflection of the broader and more profound trend of the integration of user-generated content. Another manifestation encompasses toys that offer the ability to personalize. Alpha with its licensed Sub Surf line (which is tied to graffiti culture), Lego with Dots, and many more marketers were highlighting toys that encourage the fan to use DIY techniques—coloring, painting, stickers, digital techniques—to customize some or all of the components as part of the unboxing and play pattern.
Meanwhile, Roblox, whose licensed products are almost all based on user-created video game characters, continues strong. The platform, with 117 million active monthly users, recently started allowing fans to create avatars with a variety of looks, beyond the blocky style to which they were formerly limited. The toy line, based on the site’s top characters and games, integrates these styles as well.
Consolidation among both licensees and licensors was evident across the show floor. In some cases, recently acquired companies and brands were seamlessly integrated into the purchaser’s brand umbrella, as was the case with Wicked Cool’s products at Jazwares. Disney’s takeover of National Geographic as part of its purchase of 20th Century Fox led to the disappearance of long-time Toy Fair exhibitor National Geographic Books from the show floor; it recently was merged with Disney Publishing Worldwide.
In other cases, the formerly independent company’s name and products were called out, as Playmonster did with its “Kahootz with Playmonster” branding. The Young Scientists Club, a long-time exhibitor and marketer of licensed science kits, kept its booth, placing a stack of boxes there with a sign pointing customers to Horizon Group USA, its owner since October 2019. It was business as usual for Animal Adventure, the plush company that was scooped up by Dan Dee just a few days before Toy Fair.
On the licensor side, Hasbro was showing its eOne preschool properties for the first time. It is in the process of reviewing eOne’s existing licensing contracts to see which should stay in place—many have been successful and are likely to remain on the roster—and which should be replaced. There will be at least some Peppa toys in Hasbro’s line in the future, the company says.
In terms of play pattern, water was a key theme, with water play integrated into toy lines of all types. Spin Master’s Monster Jam Megalodon vehicle can navigate both on land and through water, for example. Water is playing an especially important role in the unboxing play pattern, with a toy assuming its surprise shape and size when placed into water (Little Kids) or a box dissolving in water to reveal a swimming fish (Moose).
Water was also a content theme, with pirates and sharks among the water-based topics that are always present but seemed to be more prevalent than usual.
The More Things Stay the Same…
Much of what was seen at Toy Fair this year represented the continuation and/or deepening of ongoing trends:
- Diversity and inclusion. One notable twist this year was a focus on disabilities. Exhibitors from Drop the Puck to Spin Master were highlighting characters in wheelchairs, for example. The latter’s Paw Patrol toy line is introducing its first wheelchair-bound pup, the newest addition to the TV show.
- Slime and sand. There seems to be no end to the use of various compounds, often in combination with other categories such as action figures, activities, or vehicles. The substances fit with a number of other trends, from DIY to STEM to ASMR. And there are always new twists, such as slime balls, scented slime, slime shooters, and slime construction kits, not to mention new configurations of squish, color, stretch, glitter, and sound.
- Collectibles and blind boxes. New products continue to enter the fray, such as Commonwealth’s Dumplings Surprise, while existing lines, such as Moose’s Real Littles, continue to expand. Scents and water add new layers of play. And products are starting to differentiate with stepped amounts of surprise; Spin Master’s DC Comics line offers a “partial blind-box experience” where the customer can see the Batman figure in-store but can delight in secret accessories and missions while unboxing. The company says this configuration is attractive to boys.
- Manga and kawaii. Properties from Japan, or inspired by Japanese culture, remain strong, and not just in the sophisticated adult-oriented collectibles. Studio Ghibli properties in particular seemed to have a higher presence than usual in the plush category, as well as through licensees such as Bandai and Diamond.
- Action figure realism. Every year action figures, both for collecting and for play, get ever more realistic. This year, toy makers were stressing not only the high number of points of articulation (up to 19 in some cases), but also the attention to detail on each individual figure. For example, rather than all figures having 12 points of articulation and being six inches high, each had the proper number of points to realistically accomplish the distinctive moves and mannerisms for which the characters are known. And each was the proper height to realistically scale with all the other figures in the line. Hasbro’s Star Wars, Bandai’s Naruto and Saint Seiya, and Jazwares’ All Elite Wrestling (AEW) and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) figures were among the examples.
- STEM and STEAM. There is no indication that this trend is going away any time soon. While some of the products are more obviously educational than others, these terms certainly seem to incentivize retailers and consumers alike to purchase. Klutz launched 28 new STEAM-based products, while Melissa and Doug expanded its Innovation Academy STEM line for ages 8-12, to name just two examples. One area of interest remains construction kits, which are becoming more varied, utilizing bamboo, light-up soft plastic sheets, and compounds, among other materials.
- Real cooking and baking. Companies including Briarpatch, Klutz, SmartLab, Handstand Kitchen, Code Red, and more offered kids’ baking and cooking kits that really work, albeit in miniature. This category has been expanding for several years, with the popularity of TV cooking shows one of the driving forces. That said, there are still no chef-licensed examples, at least not at Toy Fair. (In the U.K., baker Nadiya Hussain, known from The Great British Bake Off, recently launched a line of toy cooking and baking sets with Wilton Bradley.)
As always, toy trends reflect real-life events. This year, that meant Olympics-related products from Gund (Hello Kitty x Team USA) and Mattel (Tokyo 2020 across the Barbie, UNO, and Hot Wheels brands). Political themes were on offer from Chronicle/Mudpuppy (books about presidents) and FCTRY (action figures). A number of toys reflected pop-up and food truck culture (Lego Creator burger truck, Melissa & Doug’s food truck play tent). Giant Microbes was even offering a plush coronavirus.
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.