If recent reports are anything to go by, the global toy manufacturing sector is set for a prosperous 2016. According to data released by research company, The NPD Group, U.S. toy sales increased by 6.7 percent in 2015, succeeding the originally estimated 6.2 percent growth (1). And while, in accordance with tradition, products inspired by movies were definite leaders (Star Wars, I’m looking at you), there is certainly a lot of innovation taking place in this booming $19.4 billion industry. Augmented reality, connectivity and robotics: something tells me that we’ll see a lot more of these ground-breaking technologies in the world of toy development going forward, alongside products based on more traditional brands born in the movie or gaming space. With Hong Kong, London, Nuremberg and New York Toy Fairs all having just taken place, it is difficult not to speculate on which trends will dominate in the coming year.
Not too surprisingly, the 2015 toy industry was significantly disrupted by Disney’s eagerly anticipated release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens – which not only was one of the most talked about movie premieres of the year, but also an excellent example of how to bring innovation to the development and marketing of toys and other goods. Already a “force” to be reckoned with in the world of consumer products, Star Wars plush toys, dolls, pillows, games and action figures continued to be all over the toy fairs this year, and are estimated to have already generated over $700 billion in sales; a remarkable figure even for an entity as prominent as Disney (2). Perhaps not a shock then to witness the franchise’s significant presence across all four shows (although there were actually less products on display than I expected).
Another long-term dominator in the world of entertainment merchandise is Microsoft’s blockbuster science fiction game, Halo, which, since it first launched in 2001, has built a successful consumer products programme complete with toys, action figures, weapon replicas and more. At this year’s New York Toy Fair, the franchise announced a master licensing agreement with Mattel, one of the world’s leading toy manufacturers, for an expanded assortment of Halo toys and collectibles. Building on the incredible success of the brand’s existing ‘Mega Bloks’ range, the new additions feature an astonishing level of detail which is bound to speak to new and existing Halo fans alike. As a highly enthusiastic player, I was especially excited by the ‘Mattel BOOMco Halo UNSC MA5 Blaster’ – one of the most iconic, go-to weapons of in-game choice. I guess, after all, boys will always be boys.
Lastly, it is difficult to look back at last month’s toy fairs without mentioning the significant influence of new and innovative technologies. Recent years’ drone craze has made a definite mark on the industry with several players, including robotics company Sphero and Silicon Valley based Actev Motors, launching their own upgraded take on the (often camera-laden) flying toys. A controversial topic in the tech space for quite some time (primarily due to privacy and safety concerns), drones have still become increasingly popular with adult consumers in past years, so I guess it is no surprise that the younger demographics want a piece of the cake too. Worth noting is that these child-friendly drones are increasingly getting the “gaming treatment,” with companies using innovative technologies to create an amplified and immersive experience. For example, Spin Master’s Air Hogs Connect drone, controlled by a tablet app, allows users to create an augmented reality city through which to navigate the quadcopter and complete a variety of challenging missions. And similarly, WowWee unveiled a range of Robotic Enhanced Vehicles (REV) – drone-like race cars that allow players to battle against each other or an automatically chosen AI opponent. And as for Disney, on the heels of Sphero’s BB-8, the entertainment powerhouse has made its latest splash in the world of children’s robotics with the Nuremberg Toy Fair release of its very own Stars Wars ‘Millennium Falcon™ Radio Control Flying Drone.’ If this year’s toy fairs are anything to go by, I think we can expect gamified robotics to become one of the biggest toy trends of 2016.
Overall, it is clear to me that new technologies will have a greater than ever impact on the toy industry in coming years. With phenomena such as AR, VR, and the incredibly hyped “Internet of Things” playing an increasingly bigger part in every aspect of life, it is only natural for them to touch on industries relating to the next generation of consumers as well. What is interesting, however, is the continued presence of more traditional games and toys, as highlighted by the Star Wars franchise’s incredible success in the toy space last year. Is it possible, perhaps, that some of us are in need of a digital detoxification, hence seeking comfort in non-connected products based on traditional entertainment franchises? If anything, I think the diversity of products at this year’s toy shows indicates that this is a business sector where tradition and innovation can happily co-exist.
Dan Amos is Head of New Media of Tinderbox, the dedicated digital division of leading global brand extension agency, Beanstalk.
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