Spielwarenmesse: The 'Playground Effect'

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The 'Playground Effect'

from Steve Reece

The powerful, yet under utilised driver of toy sales

This is the second of three articles looking at children and toys.If you missed the first article on the phenomenon of ‘Toy Stockpiling’ you can read it here. In this article we look at the ‘Playground Effect’ – a powerful, yet often under-utilised driver of toy sales.

Most research into the purchase motivators for toy products shows that word of mouth is a critical driver of sales. In fact, we in the toy industry often talk about playground crazes, and the viral effect that cool toys benefit from due to the ‘playground effect’. TV advertising may be likely to ensure retail listings, but a nationwide/global playground craze driven by playground word of mouth can be massively powerful and in fact can become a self-driving phenomena. 

To explain how this happens/why it is so powerful, we must start by observing that children usually attend school 5 days per week during term time (in most major toy markets). Therefore when we look at factors affecting how children see the world, how they spend their time and what influences them, school (and the other children they encounter at school) is THE major factor outside of their home. Yet in our experience, most people in the toy industry do not go to great lengths to understand and exploit how the social culture of school and of the school playground actually works in practise. Somehow we expect the ‘playground effect’ to happen regardless, and sometimes it does, but in general based on my experience working with many toy companies very few look in depth at this most vital of issues and actively do anything to encourage it.

This is like randomly buying a horse, entering it into a race and hoping it wins – a seemingly illogical strategy, because random does not give us any degree of influence and does not take advantage of obvious and simple opportunities to increase our prospects of success.

Here are some key points to understand about social and playground culture at schools:

  1. Children are under great peer pressure to conform to social pressures and social norms, to be ‘cool’ and to be popular at school. We often associate these factors with teenagers, but they still apply at a younger age, it’s just what is cool that changes.
  2. Children of primary school age i.e. ages 5-11 still generally view school as a good place to go where fun happens – there is not much evidence of ‘too cool for school’ in effect with these age groups.
  3. In case you didn’t notice, children have a lot of energy. Recently we gave a presentation to over 100 children aged between five to seven years in a school near London. The school hall where the presentation was held felt like a mass of energy – with over excited children literally struggling to contain their energy and having to ‘fidget’ and bob up and down as a result! Due to these high energy levels, children need numerous breaks throughout the day, otherwise they would be too unruly/too physically restless to concentrate on lessons – with primary aged children, there is normally a morning and afternoon break, as well as longer lunch break. During these break  times children can usually play freely with their friends, and at this point in time tend to try to show off in terms of the cool new stuff they may have, a cool new thing to do or a cool new program or product they have seen on TV/tablets etc.
  4. Children do not interact/communicate in the same way or on the same level as adults. They are also not as serious as adults in general. Whereas they are held back from ‘silly’ and non-serious behaviour by adults in general, and specifically by teachers in lessons, when they hit the playground for breaks they are ready to mess around and show off.
  5. This may seem obvious, but it’s worth pointing out that children have smaller hands, pockets and pretty much everything else versus adults. Items that they need to carry should reflect this.
  6. Parents are not likely to allow high value items into their child’s school bag as they are very likely to get broken or lost at school.
  7. Schools do not encourage or actively limit the amount of ‘stuff’ children can bring into school/openly play with.
  8. Gender differences are usually very marked in terms of how boys and girls play in school playgrounds. Boys and girls tend (in general) to opt to play separately in many instances, although often play informal team games with both genders.
  9. Children, especially boys (in general, but not exclusively!) tend to play in a very physical way, with lots of physical contact, chasing around and noise.
  10. When schools actively ban a product/brand at school that massively increases the kudos and attractiveness of the brand to children!

We could continue at length with how the playground works, but most importantly we need to look at these characteristics of the playground to deduce how toy companies can optimise their opportunity based on these factors.

Firstly, we must look at the issue of size and value. Because children can’t easily carry/conceal bigger items, and because parents are less likely to allow higher value items to go to school, the ‘playground effect’ will be most easily and immediately harnessed for smaller, lower value toys. The more collectable features the better as far as these toys are concerned. For instance, this summer we noticed a leading football sticker brand placing free copies of their (empty!) album into primary schools we attended for research sessions. When we went back a few weeks later, many, if not most of the children had caught world cup fever and were actively collecting stickers to fill in the album the company had given to them.

There is still opportunity for higher price point/higher value items to utilise word of mouth via school. For instance, toys with any educational value can be directly promoted to the schools themselves (albeit with certain restrictions on promoting brand names). One way to get round this issue is to look at giving away products. These days it seems like toy companies will send product for review to any mom blogger who asks for it, regardless of reach or impact. Yet so few actively engage with schools to try to kick-start word of mouth via product trialling in school. For sure this would be more difficult if you have a less socially responsible or educationally worthy product, but as with all things sometimes there are difficulties/barriers to work through to achieve what we want.

The other thing that less portable products can do is to include some more portable features in products for social sharing the old fashioned face to face verbal way in schools. Again, toy companies seem increasingly willing to invest in creating social sharing online, but children may need a more physical approach – cool stuff as an added extra included in your product may increase product cost slightly but can create valuable impact. For instance, collectable cards or pocket sized range catalogues in tactile formats could be used to encourage and stimulate playground conversation.

This article is just a starting point – how can you embrace the playground effect and kick-start your sales?


Author of this article:

Steve Reece, CEO Kids Brand Insight

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