Toy Awesomeness Part 3: Good Branding

hobbit games workshop escape from goblin townHow to make a great toy part 3: Good Branding

As I explained in my last ‘Toy Awesomeness’ post, just because a particular character is ‘in’ just now doesn’t mean it’ll still be popular with kids in six months time. That said, if you pick a tried-and-tested character (think Disney for starters) to hitch your wagon to, the hazards of the whims of children may effect you far less.

hulk avengers legoAs westerners we’re almost born knowing about Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Superman, Batman, Hulk, Snow White, etc., they’ve become more than simply characters; they’ve been appropriated as cultural symbols, for want of a better word they are the ‘gods’, ‘goddesses’ and ‘demi-gods’ of our culture. The companies responsible for these kinds of character are fully aware of their clout though, so matching with one of these brands may be expensive/difficult.

That said there are lesser known ‘icons’ who nonetheless seem unable to do wrong such as ‘Bob The Builder’, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, ‘Postman Pat’ etc. Their popularity does ebb and flow more than we see from the true ‘gods’ of the toy shelf but children will still be more willing to chose a toy if it has a character they recognise on it.

For example if Wow toys were (hypothetically) to produce a Postman Pat van I’m almost certain it would outsell all of their other sets. Speaking as a parent I would pick something like that because I trust the quality of Wow and I also identify with the character of Postman Pat.

That said character placement can often look a bit tacked-on, almost as though the company thought their product was slightly sub-standard. In cases like this, instead of fixing the problems with their toy a manufacturer pays for some licensing and sticks a picture of a popular character on it to push sales. There are so many of this kind of toy out there that I hardly feel the need to name and shame, they know who they are.

turtle lair by Lego

The Lego Turtle Lair is available from Fun Junction

lord of the rings riskThe brand and toy combo also has to make sense otherwise kids will just be perplexed (and they won’t want it). Branding and timelessness (quality) have to go hand in hand for it to work or you get stuck with a bit of rubbish with a character your child barely recognises stuck on it. When branding is done right though it can be incredible. Here are some examples of branding done right: Games Workshop’s ‘Hobbit’ set, ‘Lord of The Rings’ Risk, and Lego’s ‘Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles: Turtle Lair’.

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Toy Awesomeness Part 2: Timelessness and Quality

Brio Two-Way Battery Powered Engine red and yellow wooden railway

For this train (and other brilliant wooden railway items) follow this link

How to make a great toy part 2: Timelessness and Quality

Timelessness is hard to build into a toy, it has a lot more to do with how disconnected from popular culture the toy is and vitally how good it is at what it does. Luckily quality is something you can put into a toy. If your toy isn’t linked to a popular show, character, or (as is becoming more common nowadays) a popular app, then it’s important that the toy speaks for itself by being genuinely good at all things it’s supposed to do. For example, if it’s a toy phone it should ring, speak and perhaps even record voices for playback.

wind-up jumping frog, classic and simple, a great toy

wind-up jumping frog, classic and simple, a great toy

Children are pretty forgiving when a toy has a character they know on it; they’ll often overlook a lack of features or features that are less-than-brilliant, solely because they like the character on the toy. But do you really want your toy to be defined by a sticker or other added image, instead of the toy itself, especially when you consider that character brands often (though not always) come and go in popularity. If your toy doesn’t feature a famous character and you manage to get it working as a simple yet extremely playable manner, then you’re in with a chance of timelessness.

Put simply when you detach from branding and simply strive for a solid, robust and extremely fun product you might miss out on the highs associated with linking to a character but you’ll also avoid the lows. For example, the very fact that your toy doesn’t have a ‘Moshi Monster’ (or something else high in the public consciousness at the time) will make it immune to the fortunes of the Moshi Monster brand.

hama beads lions setPlaymobil motorised crane 5254Perfect examples of this kind of toy are: Wooden Railway systems, Hama beads, Playmobil, Wow toys and Games Workshop sets (Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000).

johnny jungle plane by wow toys   warhammer 40k 40,000, ork boyz

What particular toys do you value for their quality/timelessness? Are there any cynics out there who think that everything goes out of style eventually? Feel free to pop a comment in the box below and share your thoughts. And for more toy awesomeness click here. Cheers, John

For your enjoyment here’s some fun with ascending tracks:

The Kragle kills dreams! (Stop gluing Lego together!)

gluing lego toys together kragl cragle kragel cragl cragelLEGO MOVIE SPOILER ALERT! The Lego movie features a terrifying menace called ‘the Kragle’ (or as we might know it ‘krazy glue’), which President/Lord Business intends to use to glue all the people, things, and places in the lego world together, so that they’ll never be able to be anything different. Hopefully, for the majority of people, the notion of gluing Lego pieces together will sound insane or at least abhorrent but I’m sorry to report that it isn’t just an idea cooked up by the writers of the Lego movie. The Kragle is real! There really are parents in this world who super-glue Lego pieces together. I’ve met them and they don’t even realise that they’re doing anything wrong.

a picture of a packet of glueI’m sad to say that on more than one occasion I’ve had a customer in the shop who buys a lego set and then, as if it’s the most ordinary thing in the world, says “Oh yeh, better not forget, can I have a tube of super-glue as well, I don’t want to have to build this twice.” Inside my head all you can hear are screams, as I ring the glue up it feels like a small part of me dies. Luckily this has happened perhaps four times in the eight or so years that I’ve worked at Fun Junction but to be honest this is four times too many. This madness has to stop!

Lego kits, of course, come with instructions and the vast majority of kids want to open the box and build what they see in the picture. However, I would estimate that maybe 5% of the time I spent playing with Lego as a kid consisted of following the instructions. Once you’ve built your model and the novelty of the pictured toy wears off you break it up and build something else. I know I’m not alone here, that’s what my friends did and it’s what Logan does with his Lego now. Of course it’s great to have a space station to play with but how much more awesome is it when it gets overrun with pirates and sharks and they add their own touches?

weaponised ice cream truck legoThere are countless ways to stimulate creativity in children, Lego is arguably just a small part of that but it’s also one of the simplest forms of expression to master. For some kids Lego is the means by which they gain control of their world, it allows them to test out ideas and play around with concepts without first having to acquire a skill like drawing or writing. For me it was my first venture into unbounded creativity, I was too young for my writing or my drawing ability to be able to fully express the ideas I was trying to get out. Those little blocks helped me to make something that lived only inside my head into something I could see, touch, and importantly play with.

Raphael Lego figure teenage mutant ninja hero turtles

Turtle lair available from fun junction

hulk avengers legoWhen you glue Lego pieces together you are tying your child’s hands, you’re closing off a form of expression that could let you see inside their head and get a glimpse at the way their mind works at an age where even their words might not be able to show you these kinds of things. Please, I beg you, put the glue away. Initially your child might get upset that their scene from the Hobbit is in pieces but given time they may decide to make a Hobbit, Avengers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lair where Raphael, Hulk and Thorin Oakenshield can kick back and watch a magic show put on by Mia from Lego ‘Friends’.

thorin oakenshield hobbit legoMia Lego friends magic macigian setDon’t be that parent, don’t chose convenience and tidiness over your child’s development. If you leave them to it, during those times when you can steal five minutes of your day to sit on the floor and play with them you might be surprised at how much more fun you have together when you take the breaks off your imagination and just get lost in it.

Do any of you guys glue Lego together? Do you think I’ve been too harsh here? Is there ever a place for glued-together Lego? On a lighter note, what kind of crazy Lego creations did you put together as a child? I’d love to hear from you (and if you’ve still got pictures of your crazy creations that’s even better). As always I’m really glad you decided to stop by my blog and if you’ve enjoyed this post then click here to see more posts about the underbelly of play. Also don’t forget to follow me on twitter to catch up on toy news or just have a blether. All the best, John

AMENDMENT 28th MARCH: It’s been pointed out over on Reddit that kragling is quite common in the production of Lego displays. I completely understand the usefulness of it in cases like this but when Lego’s being used as a child’s toy/play thing I can only see kragling as taking something brilliant away from the play experience. Join in the Reddit conversation over here.

2ND AMENDMENT (nothing to do with gun control :P) 7th MAY: If you’d like to see a brilliant run-down and analysis of the nature of the Lego movie then pop on over to The L Palmer Chronicles (where Laura was kind enough to give a wee shout out to this article 🙂 )

3rd AMENDMENT (4th Aug 14) There’s a chance you’ve just arrived here from Puck Daddy)‘s hockey post (‘Everything is awesome about Frederik Andersen’s LEGO Ducks mask‘). I’m not a big follower of hockey myself but I felt I should give him a wee shout-out.

20150827135346492_0001ONE LAST THING: I also write children’s books. Currently I’m working on a fantasy series about a boy called Jack who accidentally tears holes between his world and a magical one called ‘Fey’. In the process he lets a host of weird creatures through, along with a girl who can turn into a polar bear. Jack sees it as his job to help the girl home and undo the damage he has done but more sinister forces are interested in Jack’s world too. Please take a look at the official site if you have the time (thanks in advance for popping over).

Toy Awesomeness Part 1: Multiple Play Levels

game about human biology for five 5, six 6, seven 7 eight 8, nine 9, ten 10, eleven 11, twelve 12 year olds and upHow to make a great toy part 1: Include Multiple levels of play

A key component in any good toy is finding a way to ensure that adding more people will somehow amp up the play. Sometimes this is as simple as adding a player to change (for example) a game/puzzle from a solitaire challenge into a competition. However there are other important ways in which a toy can gain something special by the addition of extra players.

For example, consider how different even a fairly basic colouring book can become when you add a parent (or another older individual). Suddenly the child gets the chance to learn new artistic skills that they may not have tried before, on top of this they’ve gained a contributor that can add features to the picture that the child may not have been able to accomplish themselves (‘Daddy can you put a dragon in flying over the house’).

If a toy lacks this, it becomes more solitary, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with solitary toys it’s just that the toy designer has missed an opportunity. With little to no extra components being added to the physical toy/game/puzzle etc. a whole new playing experience could potentially be opened up by simply paying attention to who else might join in when the toy is being played with, and designing the toy with this in mind.

Perfect Example:Anatomix‘ (pictured at the top of this post), this is a game about the human body by Green Board Games, which has two levels of challenge; the basic game is aimed at kids aged 5 and up but you can also add in a quiz component aimed at taxing the minds of children aged 12 and up.

What toys/games/puzzles have you come across that hit a new level when you add more players? Are there any other features that you think add something special to the playing experience a child has from a toy? As always comments are more than welcome, ether on here or over on my twitter account. Thanks for stopping by at John The Toy Shop Guy, if you’d like to receive future posts in your e-mail inbox you can enter your details in the ‘subscribe’ box to the right of this post.

Top 5 toys this March

night narcissusUnlike lists of ‘top 5 for Christmas’, in some ways these kinds of lists can give you a more honest idea about the kinds of things kids like. For starters the top 5 for different months of the year can be less influenced by advertising but more than that they often reflect pocket money/ holiday money spending. This kind of thing can give you a real insight into the kind of things children really want. What they spend their own money on can often be wildly different from the kinds of things they might ask Santa for.

So without further ado lets have a look at what toys/games etc. seem to be flying out this month:

brookite stunt kite5. Kites: There’s no doubt that this one is weather induced but who can blame them? The wind has been so strong it’s been blowing the door open all week (and it’s a heavy door), it’s definitely kite weather. Just today I’ve sold four large kites, one of them was a huge two handled stunt kite from Brookite, it’s actually got a warning on telling parents not to allow younger children to use it in case they take off (no I’m not joking). Given how windy it is at the moment I’m expecting to see children flying past any minute now.

shopload of books4. Books: We’ve just had world book day, kids seem to be excited about their favourite authors again and I have to say books would be much higher on my list if I was just just counting interest, as there’s been a huge increase in the amount of kids just hanging out at the book section and browsing through what we’ve got. Electronic games haven’t beaten the appeal of a good story just yet.

gruffalo jigsaw puzzle book3. Puzzles: Puzzles are pretty much a staple in Fun Junction with loads being bought for birthday presents. A lot of the time it’s one of the easiest ways to track down something featuring a favourite character but it’s also a popular gift for children just turning three as they move on from toddler toys and onto more advanced pre-schooler activities that stretch their skills and help with their development. I can vouch for this, I was really excited when both boys started doing puzzles, it was such a great thing to see their little brains getting powered up and developing motor skills and hand-eye coordination as they figured out where the pieces went and how to orientate them.

This isn’t to mention the 500 and 1000 piece puzzles we sell for grown ups which are becoming more and more popular in our Crieff shop (they already have a long-standing and loyal following through in Perth). With all this in mind I would expect puzzles to feature in the top 5 list of any month.

top-model-make-up2. Top Model: Like puzzles Top Model is a staple, it’s a brilliant yet simple range of fashion-orientated colouring books (for want of a better word). You get a book full of pages which are blank but for a simple line drawing picture of a ‘model’ which children dress in clothes of their own design and then colour in. It’s been in our top 5 sellers list for years and to be honest it doesn’t seem to be showing any signs of shifting.

lego movie space lego guy everything is awesome1. Lego Movie kits: Every now and again something toy related climbs into the public consciousness and if the company is lucky it’ll be for good reasons that lead to a massive level of awareness. The Lego Movie came out just a couple of weeks ago and it has just skyrocketed in public awareness. No advertising campaign could have done what this movie has done for Lego: it’s pushed Lego sales from a steady constant (high level) to something way beyond. We’re genuinely amazed at how much Lego is going this month but having watched the film with my boys a day or two after the premier I can safely say it’s simply too awesome a movie to disappear. I loved it and I’ve a feeling Logan will be after a bundle of Lego (and the DVD) when his birthday comes around in July (and I won’t have a problem with that at all).

This isn’t necessarily a list of my favourite toys, they’re just the biggest sellers I’ve noticed so far this month. That said I do like everything on the list and I’m pretty sure I’ll be requesting some Lego for my birthday next month. I’m expect that things will probably change a bit in the run up to Easter (20th April this year) as more and more people are starting to opt for an Easter gift which doesn’t feature too much chocolate. I’ll pop another ‘top 5 sellers this month’ in April and we can see how things have changed. I’d love to hear what other people think about the toys on this list and I’d really appreciate it if you would take a minute to share your views in the comments below. As always thanks for reading and don’t forget that you can subscribe to receive my blog posts straight to your inbox (new subscribers are awesome!), Cheers, John

Step asside Barbie, ‘Lammily’ is taking a turn in the spotlight!

LammilyNickolay Lamm has been at it again. You may remember his make-up free Barbie that I posted about a few months ago, well his next step was to re-imagine a Barbie-style doll which met the average proportions of a 19 year old (I assume in the US). His design prompted a demand for an actual working toy and so he put together a crowd-funding page to get the doll into production (with the help of ex-VP of manufacture at Mattel; Roger Rambeau). They’ve already exceeded their goal by double (as of 7th March 2014) so the doll is happening.

average_compositeThe opinions are starting to pour in, some of them surprisingly negative. The primary complaint seems to be that Lammily isn’t ‘average enough’, or that she’s ‘too pretty to be average’ and I don’t know what we could say to this. Is she pretty? Well yes, in an average kind of way, but there seems to be reams of research supporting the notion that when you average out a large number of faces you get an attractive (though perhaps not very distinctive) result. So that sorts the ‘too pretty to be average’ issue. To be honest given the research she’s too average not to be pretty.

The next issue is: is she really average? Do a large portion of young women have body shapes which look like Lammily’s? To be honest we may never get an answer on that. Every community you belong to may have women in it with a very different set of physical qualities. When you average their proportions out perhaps you’ll get something like Lammily’s dimensions but that doesn’t necessarily mean that any one young woman in that group will have those proportions herself.

All of that said it’s hard to deny the fact that Lammily looks less alien, a lot more human and, most importantly, a lot more healthy than I’ve ever seen Barbie look. I would agree that Nickolay Lamm hasn’t really succeeded in making the most expressive or dynamic wardrobe for Lammily but in his defence Barbie has 60 years and the brunt of Mattel behind her selection of clothing. Overall there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong with Lammily apart from one glaring issue (at least for me): Lammily is an average nineteen year old. What age are the girls who will make up the target-audience of Lammily? Possibly nine or ten at the most?

groovyLottie Pony Flag Race CompFor all of Lammily’s positive attributes I have to side with a more realistic girl doll like ‘Lottie’ or Manhattan’s ‘Groovy girls’. This isn’t just because we stock them, in fact we stock them precisely because they’re a more realistic image for a young girl to try and imitate. There’s definitely a place for the aspirational enjoyment of an ‘adult-looking’ fashion doll but when it comes to producing something relatable, and something that places less emphasis on the importance of growing up quickly, I have to side with Lottie and the Groovies every time.

What do you think? Is Lammily ‘average’? Would you still prefer a Barbie? Are fashion dolls in general too mature for girls or is there an important aspirational element to that kind of play? As always your comments are more that welcome either below this post or you can feel free to send me a tweet (you can also find my twitter feed to the right of this post). Thanks for reading, Cheers, John

P.S As a side note, here’s a defence of Barbie dolls ‘written by’ the plastic icon herself (makes for interesting reading).

‘Love bombing’

105918_04Nov11_love_bomb

Credit ‘Tesa

I came across the term ‘love bombing‘ the other day and despite a slightly ‘faddish’ feel it instantly made sense to me. Logan has recently been having problems at school, he’s been telling me that he has trouble joining in with other kids’ games and when I press it further it becomes pretty clear that he doesn’t like to do what they want.

I’m thinking this is a desire for control. I can see why this might be, since Christmas things seem to have gotten more hectic than usual at home, and family time is very much split across the desires of both our boys. Alexander is becoming more autonomous, assertive and self-aware, he won’t just do what Logan asks any more. I can see how this might make make Logan yearn for some control in his life and this is where ‘love bombing’ comes in. On Sunday Mum and Dad are going to divide and conquer.

love day simpsonsFor about 2 hours each child will have one-on-one time and then we’ll swap (if the boys want to). We’d planned this anyway but adding the ‘love bombing’ element may help Logan a lot. Basically ‘love bombing’ is where you give your child uninterrupted attention whilst they choose the activity you’ll both participate in. I have no idea what Logan will pick to do but I’m exited to see. It’s kind of fun to try and figure out what kind of thing he might want to do. Will we stay at home or leave the house? If we go out will we be catching a bus? If we stay at home will we be playing/watching a movie/reading/crafting?

I’ve not told Logan about this yet, I’ll tell him this afternoon when he’s done at school for the weekend. It’s weird but it’s kind of fun thinking I’ll be leaving how I spend my Sunday in the hands of a 5 year old. Stay tuned for a progress report on my first ‘love bombing’, thanks for reading and as always I welcome any comments, Cheers, John