‘Tis the season: Kids all over the world anxiously count down the days, excitedly refining their gift wish lists while Santa works diligently to deliver the goods. As holiday shopping season kicks into high gear, and gift purchasing takes priority in the lives of busy Santas everywhere, a number of trends play a role in their at-times manic pursuit.
Where today’s shopper purchases their gifts plays a leading role among toy trends. Major retailers, both online and off, vie to be the go-to for those coveted kids’ wish lists and grow their share of the $22 billion U.S. toy market.
To most consumers, mass toy retailers seem to offer a sea of sameness. Walmart, Target and Toys R Us Inc. (the original category-killing retailer that is now on the ropes and possibly on its last legs) brutally battle it out year after year, but tend to draw little distinct difference in their toy departments.
Exclusives are clearly mere tweaks of brands and products available at every other retailer. Independent specialty toy retailers deliver a difference, which is widely recognized as a more educational, nostalgic, exclusive and premium range of products. At this time of year, toys can be purchased nearly anywhere.
Grocery stores, drugstores, discount “dollar” stores, club stores and even home improvement centers, such as Menards, and fashion chains, such as Justice, also get in the holiday selling spirit. Fast-growing Five Below, which only sells products for $5 or less, has become the go-to store for many kid-to-kid, birthday and holiday gifts, as well as for Santas looking to round out their stocking stuffers and under-the-tree towers of gifts for their kids.
In this crowded retail space, the toy industry is looking for new ways to engage and excite kids and their caregivers. By keeping an eye of developing trends, designers and brand managers can avoid the trap of formulaic packaging that frustrates consumers. Here are five toy package design trends to watch:
Historically, most toys were definitively or largely, gender-specific. Sure, many products and their content are gender-neutral or family-oriented, but the vast majority are designed or implied to be specifically for boys or girls. Over the last century, social stereotypes drove this trend in gender-specific toys.
Current social trends are challenging the status quo. Brands, such as GoldieBlox, are bucking the “for-girls” stereotype of pink or purple products and packaging or disrupting what’s in the pink aisle by building games for girls to pretend to take on nontraditional roles.
Toys R Us in the U.K. “has agreed to remove gender assignments to toys in its stores,” i.e., the pink and blue aisles. A number of consumers have also begun a petition to Toys R Us seeking the same in the U.S.
Nerf reaches across the boy’s aisle with the launch of their Rebelle line. However, with naming such as Heartbreaker and purple, pink, white and black color schemes, the brand and packaging sits comfortably on the girls’ side and is reactive to the success of heroine themes such as Hunger Games.
Likewise, Lego’s Friends line has significantly increased its share within the girls’ demographic, not to mention their profits, but have been criticized for promoting gender stereotyping. Lego is among the most effective brand packaging in the toy world; consistently executed and rigidly managed across an enviable range of sub brands and thousands of SKUs.
Try me 2.0
“Try me” is a term and tactic often and long applied in the toy industry. The strategy solves the challenge of enticing and engaging an audience who cannot yet read.
Social networks have accelerated every consumer’s ability and desire to discover and share anything new, and today’s kids have spent their entire lives in this age of rampant technological innovation. They also have personal digital devices at earlier and earlier ages.
Today’s packaging has integrated technologies that take the try-me feature even further, using QR codes and newer augmented reality.
The use of on-pack QR and access codes, as well as dedicated apps, continues to be a trend, particularly on tech-enabled toys and collectibles. Brands such as Hasbro’s Furby line use both an app and QR code.
Sustainability and responsibility
Kids care deeply about their world. They care about their families, friends and the planet. They know things need to change. Our most critical challenges require kids’ involvement to create large-scale, concrete changes. Time and optimism are on their side in such efforts. The brands that will matter most in the future will stand for products that are good for people and good for the planet. They’ll help make a healthy future possible. But if they aren’t appealing, alluring and exciting that future will never exist. If they aren’t fun, no one will want them.
Quite a few toy brands have successfully tapped into the trend of doing good in the world, by contributing a portion of purchases to help others in need. Many of these brands are primarily geared to girls and largely in the doll category. Hearts For Hearts Girls by Playmates Toys are beautiful dolls in gorgeous, sophisticated, yet fairly traditional, fifth-panel window box doll packaging. The brand and package messages encourage girls to join their mission “to become agents of change in their communities, their countries and the world.”
Every purchase of a B.toy product benefits Free the Children. The nonprofit was started by 12-year-old Craig Kielburger in 1995, when he gathered 11 school friends to begin fighting child labor. Today, Free The Children’s mission is to create a world where young people are free to achieve their fullest potential as agents of change.
B. packaging is also intentionally different. It’s packaging, while beautiful, is also recycled, recyclable and reusable. The package design promotes repurposing and is often even reversible to be used as gift wrap. (Editor’s note: To learn more about B. toy packaging design strategy, take a look at the December 2011 issue of Package Design.)
Winning over kids and parents
Toy marketers know they need to engage two audiences—kids and those who care for them, via what we call bimodal messaging. Many of the aforementioned brands have achieved this balance to win with kids and their caregivers. For instance, B. toys and GoldieBlox appeal to both moms and kids directly in both style and mission.
It’s all about having fun
With so many things vying for kids’ attention and time, it’s important not to forget a basic design tenet for toy packaging: Those that are the most fun will always win in the end. Yes, packaging has to create a personal connection and have the proper balance of messaging for kid and caregiver/giftgiver. This is especially essential at the earliest ages.
But the packaging must engage the kid. After all, they are the end users.
The trick is to pay attention to how the messaging and marketing must shift as kids mature. The products and packaging must be fun on their terms, as they define it. And as kids grow, their expectations become much more difficult to meet.
Many brand managers and designers will find, though, that simply asking kids to help define that message is fun in itself.
Bill Goodwin is founder of Goodwin Design Group. Bill uses his insight as husband, father and designer to create family-oriented packaging for companies such as Campbell Soup Company, Colgate-Palmolive, Crayola, Disney, General Mills, Hasbro, Hershey, Johnson & Johnson, Kimberly-Clark, Mattel, Nickelodeon, Procter & Gamble and Toys R Us.
Shawne Goodwin is part of the husband-and-wife team at Goodwin Design Group. Shawne brings a background in education, from nearly a decade of experience as a special education teacher, and parenting in the care of her and Bill’s four children. Today, Shawne coordinates kid-and-mom consumer panels, which inspire and inform client projects with invaluable, first-hand insights, when she’s not lending her own unique perspectives, creativity and keen eye to the group’s projects.