America’s Baby Boomers' long run as the largest generation in history has come to an end. Today, American Millenials passed the Baby Boomers with a population of 75.4 million humans compared to the Boomers who are now in second place with 74.9. That is according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Pew Research Center and as reported by the Washington Post and other outlets. This generational passing of the baton is happening all over the world with profound effects on how we create, market and sell toys. Millenials, a generation that does not love cars but does love anything digital, will define the first half of the 21st century. And for that reason, they will have an outsized impact on government, society, culture and yes, the toy and play industry.
So what do Millennial shoppers want? Tanya Dua, writing in her Digiday in her article, "The Mother of All Generations: 5 things Brands Should Know About Millennial Moms”, tells us that Millennial Moms "prefer brands that align with their values."The values expressed have to be organic to the brand and not an add-on. Giving a percentage of profits to charity is certainly a noble act. Yet, it does seem that this new generation of parents is far more attracted to companies that actually make their values an integral part of the product.
That is why I think that the McDonald's Corporation's choosing, a few years ago, to cease using chickens with human growth hormone or more recent decision to stop providing plastic straws are steps in the right direction. They are both active values statements that are integral in a meaningful way to how they do business. Who would have thought that the values expressed by which chickens or straws are used might be as impactful for this generation as a Big Mac was for an earlier one?
So, who in the toy and play industry has succeeded in expressing their values through their product and how it is marketed?
“Goldie Blox” certainly did by aggressively and endearingly espousing for girls to be engineers and engage in other hard science professions. Their products and their wonderful videos connected with girls and their parents through a cute but aggressive pushback against all things girly-girl.
In the same sense “Green Toys”, though much more subtly, espoused its belief in safekeeping the environment with its very name no less than its use of a trade dress and logo that expressed allegiance to the Green movement.
“Toca Boca”, now owned by “Spin Master”, has been a leader in kid's play by producing gender neutral, open-ended apps that are playful without being competitive. In addition, there are no ads or in-app purchases. By integrating values of no surprises for parents and silly fun for kids into their products they have connected strongly with parents and become leaders in the digital space.
Changes in marketing and taking values positions are, however not enough. Toy companies need to make changes in who they hire and how they operate. Here are some suggestions:
Embrace young talent at the executive level Look around you and you will see that many of us are immigrants to the digital age. We speak the language but we do so with an analog accent. We “get it” in our brains, much as someone who learns to speak a foreign language, but not in our hearts. Today’s children and their millennial parents are digital natives and they fully intuit the way today’s children expect to play. Watch a child of two with a magazine or book. The child presses the pictures fully expecting them to open yet another picture. Their expectations and intuition are dramatically different than ours. In order to understand how 21st century children play, the toy industry needs to employ the best and the brightest of the millennial generation. Toy companies should be showing up on campus and recruiting. The young recruits will need heavy guidance; after all understanding digital doesn’t necessarily make you a good businessperson. But by injecting them, their worldview and their ideas into the toy industry work force, the industry will seed a new generation of tech savvy leaders.
Embrace alternative business models One of the interesting developments of the digital age has been the explosion in alternative ways of making money through play. Freemiums, subscription services, micro purchases and other digital concept are in many cases confusing and non-intuitive to toy industry veterans. Yes, they are different but the right mixes of models integrated with the traditional bricks and mortar format is with us and will continue to change how we do business. The toy industry would therefore be wise to hire executives who have experience with digital business models. Importantly, they need to integrate them early into the product development process. In today’s world of phygital and digital play, the way a product is purchased is integrated into the product itself. As a result there is no clear dividing line between product and business model. They are one.
Honor the past and present Even though the face of play is rapidly changing, basic physical play is not just a great way to have fun but an important way to understand the physical world in which we live. A child needs to stack blocks in order to see what stays up and what falls down. A child needs to climb to the top of the sliding board in order to comprehend risk, experience exhilaration and to become brave. A child needs to play with dolls and action figures in order to play out themes of adulthood before they grow up.
The toy industry can fully embrace the 21st century by embracing its past, present and future as a whole and not as separate segments. There is no yesterday, today and tomorrow. There is just a seamless, never-ending evolution in how we play and how we sell play. Accordingly, the Millennial generation is just another in a long line of new parents, trying earnestly to figure out what toys are best for their children. The basics stay the same but the challenges are new.
So, how does the toy industry embrace Millenials and the 21st century; by recognizing that play and the business of play are in motion and having the courage to respect that we have to run to keep up and run faster to get ahead. We must, in short, climb to the top of the sliding board. The view is scary, expansive and eye opening. The trip down the slide is…well you have to actually do it to find out.
Millennial moms account for almost 90 percent of the 1.5 million new mothers within last year...
Tanya Dua, Digiday
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Spielwarenmesse eG.