This post originally appeared on the Kilts Center Faculty Blog.
Holiday times is peak toy season. Children spend a lot of time thinking about the toys they want, often the hottest toys of the year. Parents spend a lot of time—and money—thinking about the toys they want to get their children, and about whether the toys will educate and broaden childrens' horizons.
This “duality” underlying toy marketing has been well understood by marketers and is perhaps best reflected in the marketing of the original Barbie doll in 1959. Ruth and Elliott Handler, the founders of Mattel Inc. and the creators of Barbie, used the Mickey Mouse Club as an advertising platform to reach young children who were the primary audience for the show. But even more importantly, the doll was positioned as a teaching tool that parents could use to teach their daughters various social graces. Since market research had indicated that parents would otherwise by reluctant to purchase for their kids a doll in the shape of an adult woman, the positioning strategy, suggested by a Viennese psychologist Ernest Dichter, was critical.
Fast forward to the present day, and we still see strong evidence of the duality. As fathers do more of the shopping and spend more time taking care of the children, there is an increased interest in buying toys that they can play with the kids. But how can dads engage with daughters who are interested in playing with their Barbies? Enter the Mega Bloks Barbie Build ’n Style construction line or Legos Friends construction sets, which let girls construct and decorate houses and other hangouts for their dolls. These products are targeted at young girls but also make it easier for dads to engage in their playtime activities.
At the same time, these products serve many other purposes. There appears to be an educational benefit, as kids playing with blocks and other construction sets can develop their spatial skills. Further, in the case of Barbie, the Mega Bloks line broadens the appeal of the core product by providing additional ways for the child to engage with the doll. After all, who wouldn’t want to build a cute dog house for Barbie’s puppy pals? And in the case of Lego, it allows the firm to reach a demographic that previously was less engaged with the product line, namely young girls who can now build cafes, houses, and clinics for a cast of characters—Andrea, Emma, Mia, Olivia, and Stephanie.
The desire to broaden the demographic appeal of a product line is fueled by several factors. First, it’s fueled by firms’ need to grow—witness Nintendo’s ability to engage girls and older consumers with their Wii console and games, which enabled the firm to fight back against Sony and Microsoft. Second, it’s fueled by the changing preferences of the target consumer.It’s no longer just “Ralphie” Parker from A Christmas Story who craves a Red Ryder BB gun; Princess Merida from the movie Brave receives a bow from her father, King Fergus, as a present. Indeed, Barbie itself suffered during the 1970s, when it was viewed as being “out of touch” with the consumer, before coming back strongly during the 1980s. Third, countries like Sweden would prefer gender neutrality in toy advertising. As was noted in the Wall Street Journal, comparing catalogs from Swedish toy retailer Top-Toy with some from its Danish counterparts shows that in Top-Toy, “girls have replaced boys in some photos featuring toy guns, and boys have swapped places with girls in photos featuring dolls and stuffed dogs.”
In broadening the demographic appeal of their products, marketers should keep in mind two critical lessons. One needs to have sufficient resources to direct towards the enterprise without starving the company’s core product line. Otherwise companies might end up feeling like Bilbo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, “sort of stretched, like... butter scraped over too much bread.” Second, the foray should not upset the core consumer of the business. Recall how McDonald’s advertised the Arch Deluxe, a burger targeted at adults. The ads showed young children, a core customer base for McDonald’s, looking at an Arch Deluxe burger and saying things like, "I don't get it," and "I don't understand what the big deal is." One even called the burger "yucky." Appealing to two audiences may be tricky, but you never want, or want to show, your core customers thumbing their noses at your products.