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.
As 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.
The 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’.