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Days After Filing Chapter 11, Toys R Us Is Ready to Play

By Published on .

Toys R Us wants consumers to know it's business as usual—or actually, less business and more play.

The beleaguered toy retailer, which filed for Chapter 11 protection Sept. 18, unveiled a new brand messaging, "Today We Play," this week. Created with agency BBDO, the campaign—which a Toys R Us spokeswoman noted was in the works for months, and not a result of the bankruptcy filing—is meant to showcase Toys R Us as a brand of play and fun.

In one 60-second anthem TV spot, a young girl rallies a crowd of costume-clad kids to move beyond the tedium of academic lessons and instrument-practicing that their parents push. "Playing is the most fun thing in the whole universe and it's being taken away," the pint-sized ring leader cries. "I say today, we play!"

Of course, the playful tone comes at a serious time for the retailer, which is headquartered in Wayne, New Jersey. Increasing competition from Target, Walmart and Amazon, and a heavy debt load of nearly $5 billion, finally pushed the brand into its filing, in which it cited millions of dollars owed to creditors such as Mattel, Hasbro and Lego. Such companies are facing their own lackluster sales as consumers pull back on spending.

Experts say that now more than ever shoppers need to know that $11.5 billion Toys R Us—through its website and 1,600 still-open stores—is still a viable place to do their holiday buying.

"They have to continue to try and bring in consumers where they have fallen off a bit," says Jim Silver, chief executive and editor-in-chief at TTPM (Toys, Tots, Pets & More). However, he noted that Toys R Us needs to be more product-focused in its messaging to communicate to shoppers that must-have items, like last year's Hatchimals sell-out, are still on its shelves.

"This is a product-driven business," says Silver. "The message they have to get across is the exclusives they have—what the competition doesn't have." He noted other retailers are already pushing such marketing as the holiday season gets underway.

In response, the Toys R Us spokeswoman noted that the company is always looking at marketing strategies to leverage its exclusive product offerings, which include collaborations with Star Wars and Rusty Rivets, a TV show.

"We've been working on this vision for several months, but 'Today We Play' is a rally call for people to take action, and that couldn't be more coincidentally symbolic for us," says Carla Zakhem-Hassan, who joined the company as chief marketing officer from Pepsi earlier this year. The company, which also recently unveiled a rebranding for its Babies R Us division that offers a more realistic view of parenting, cited research that found children's free time has decreased by 25% since 1981.

As part of the new push, Toys R Us, which spent $58.9 million on measured media in the U.S. last year, a slight uptick over 2015's $56.3 million, according to Kantar Media, will also feature a new webpage—produced with nonprofit Playworks— containing research and engaging content around the power of play. It's also adding an experiential area called Play Lab, where kids can test out products and watch demonstrations, to its stores and investing in activations like a giant Etch-a-Sketch screen in a New York subway station next month.

Though Toys R Us representatives have repeated that the brand will not shutter any stores as part of its restructuring, experts say any closures would come after the holiday season, the brand's biggest sales opportunity.

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