Toy makers create their dream projects (but ask for money from the start)


Thomas Brandt has loved the Masters of the Universe franchise since he was a kid. Drawn to the sword and witchcraft, over the years he has assembled a vast collection of He-Man toys.

Now 41, Mr. Brandt has enthusiastically supported a crowdfunding project for ‘the playset I’ve always wanted’: Snake Mountain, He-Man’s nemesis lair, Skeletor. At 36 inches tall and 48 inches wide, the highly detailed purple mountain, made by Super7, a San Francisco-based toy maker, eclipses the original version, made by Mattel in 1984.

Mr. Brandt, a healthcare account manager who lives in Nashville with his wife, paid $ 600 (plus $ 150 shipping) and had to wait a year for delivery. “It’s a gamble when you support a project,” he said, but Super7 had built a reputation for reliability, so he felt comfortable with the risk.

Other collectors open their wallets to purchase exclusive merchandise like a $ 575 Transformers action figure from Hasbro, a $ 350 Star Wars battle helicopter from Lego, a $ 75 Magic 8 Ball from Mattel and a Bear skateboard. $ 250 Pokémon Walker.

The strategy is part of an effort by toy makers to build stronger bonds with fans by providing them with unique toys. Many companies have stepped up their presence in e-commerce to sell limited edition items that aren’t found at Walmart or Target.

After falling 4% in 2019, toy sales in the United States exploded last year, rising 16% to $ 25.1 billion, according to the NPD Group, a research firm. “2020 has been an unprecedented year for the U.S. toy industry,” Juli Lenett, vice president and industrial advisor for NPD’s U.S. toy division, said in a statement.

Much of the expansion has been driven by pandemic-induced lockdowns that have led consumers to purchase entertainment options online. In the first three quarters of 2020, overall online toy sales jumped 75% from the previous year, NPD said.

Taking advantage of online growth, executives at major toy makers like Hasbro and Mattel are stepping up their efforts to create dream projects. And digital strategies like crowdfunding allow small businesses to sidestep the hurdles of selling a concept to established retailers, who might be reluctant to give valuable storage space to an expensive big toy or non-product. tested.

“Retailers are aware of their costs and overheads; they’re doing a lot of diligence, ”said Nic Wood, editor of The Fwoosh, a website that features news and reviews of toys. “It’s hard for small businesses to take that risk.

A crowdfunding project is helping lower costs for toy companies, said Brian Flynn, founder and CEO of Super7, which also sells toys through a one-month pre-order window.

“For a small business, the biggest challenge is figuring out how many products to manufacture,” he said. “I am maximizing the number I can make and minimizing the overhead.”

It remains to be seen how long the pandemic crisis will last, but toy makers seem keen to take advantage of the growing interest.

“It appears they have stepped up in terms of the frequency of bidding for these projects,” said Wood. “What the full lasting effect will not be known for at least a year. “

Hasbro launched its e-commerce site, Hasbro Pulse, in 2015 to offer popular toys from its Star Wars and Transformers lines, among others, as well as insider previews and access to exclusive products. Three years later, the site expands to include HasLab, its crowdfunding platform for high-end toys. The first project was a 49-inch-long replica of Jabba’s “Return of the Jedi” sailing barge.

“It was a crazy idea that some of our designers had,” said Brian Chapman, head of global design and development for Hasbro. But the company doubted its ability to sell. “We had to throw it all out the window,” Chapman said. “It was new to us.”

Even at a price of $ 500, the sailing barge exceeded its fundraising target, a success that prompted Hasbro to offer other high-end items, including a $ 350 Sentinel action figure from Marvel Comics and a Razor vehicle. $ 350 crest from “The Mandalorian”. The company experimented with offering basic and premium packages and incentives to encourage funders, as well as posting production videos and interviews with designers.

“We go where the consumer needs us,” said Kwamina Crankson, managing director and vice president of Hasbro Pulse. “We have a solid track record of Dream Items coming up.”

Only one project was not funded, a $ 300 Cookie Monster plush replica, but Mr Crankson said backers were not billed and the failed project offered valuable information for the business.

Next: a 32-inch, $ 400 version of Galactus, a Marvel Comics villain big enough to consume a real planet. The company is also planning a crowdfunding project for the Rancor of “Return of the Jedi,” the first product from its first Star Wars: The Black Series line to appear on HasLab.

Because of the high price tag and the long delivery window, the challenge for toy makers is to be able to maintain a sense of anticipation, said Mr. Wood of The Fwoosh. A production cycle can take up to a year and buyers can get nervous, which means companies need to stay in touch with regular updates.

“There is a weaker barrier to entry to the web, but there is a different kind of work on their side to be connected and build that base,” said Wood. “From the point of view of the initial risk, it’s easier, but later, you have to hold on. “

Mattel opted for a simpler model, skipping crowdfunding and instead opting for limited series of exclusive products on its website, Mattel Creations. Projects include collaborations with artists like Madsaki and Gianni Lee and companies like Herschel Supply and Tesla. Mattel even dove into the digital art world with an auction of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, of classic Hot Wheels cars.

With Comic-Con International, the annual pop culture festival in San Diego, Calif., Going virtual again this year due to the pandemic, Mattel will take the opportunity to sell its convention exclusives on Mattel Creations, including a Masters of the Universe $ 50 Mega construction set in collaboration with artist Frank Kozik and a $ 35 Scare Glow action figure from the Netflix series “Masters of the Universe: Revelation”.

“The world has changed from an e-commerce perspective,” said Richard Dickson, president and chief operating officer of Mattel, who sees Mattel Creations as a way to showcase company history while delivering new products that appeal to fans as well as art collectors. .

Some of these items include a $ 75 Barbie doll made of translucent resin and a $ 300 Masters of the Universe figure, Shogun Warriors Skeletor, which stands almost two feet tall. (Of course, Mr. Brandt bought that one too.)

“We work with passionate collectors,” Mr. Dickson said. “They may get too big for toys, but they never stop being fans.”

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