Just over a year ago, consumers were up in arms because of the lack of representation of "Star Wars" heroine Rey in the franchise's toys and games. The suspected dissing of the crucial character led to the hashtag #WheresRey and numerous excuses from fumbling marketers who missed the mark over equal gender representation. Now, in 2017, it seems toy brands are wising up.
More than 1,100 toy companies displayed their wares this weekend at the annual North American International Toy Fair, now in its 114th year, and many pushed messages of female empowerment and gender fluidity. The Manhattan-based trade show, which concluded Tuesday, attracted an estimated 30,000 attendees. Toy sales in the U.S. alone top $26 billion, up 5% between 2015 and 2016, according to market research firm NPD Group, and giant brands like Mattel and Hasbro command millions in measured media, but they are only now beginning to take risks with social norms.
"The toy industry has gotten more savvy than most marketers," said Steve Pasierb, president and chief executive of the Toy Industry Association, noting that brands are now dispersing of labels like boy toys or girl toys. Indeed, last year the TIA did away with its "Boy Toy of the Year" and "Girl Toy of the Year" awards in an effort to be more inclusive and modern with its strategy.
This year, Mattel has expanded its American Girl doll brand to include a boy—its first ever. But there's now more competition. American Girl's Luke will compete with newcomer brand Boy Story, a Tampa, Florida-based brand selling 18" male dolls that launched via Kickstarter last May. Though Boy Story dolls typically retail for $99, or $20 less than American Girl, the company sells a pricier $120 doll where 35% of the proceeds go to UN Women's HeForShe initiative for gender equality.
A mother of boys, Kristen Jarvis Johnson said she co-founded Boy Story to balance out the girl dolls already in existence. It's "marketed for all kids," she said, noting that the company has created individual face molds for different ethnicities to be truly representative.
Meanwhile, Hasbro is rolling out more variations on its decades-old Baby Alive doll. The product now sells boy and girl dolls in more than a half-dozen different ethnicities. New this year is a switch to "Daddy" play mode when the talking doll is programmed to say "Daddy."
"We have a doll for every kid—both boys and girls who are interested," said a spokeswoman for Pawtucket, RI-based Hasbro.
Similarly, toy maker Adora showcased doll accessories, such as a stroller and diaper bag, in green in order to attract more boys to its products. The Toy Fair even featured a transgender doll—Tonner Doll Co. created a doll version of transgender teen Jazz Jennings, who has a show on TLC.
"This political environment seemed like the right time to put this doll out," said Robert Tonner, chief executive, owner and designer, noting that the way kids look at beauty is socially transformable.
Many toy brands are also strengthening their coding and science-based offerings for girls. Hasbro plans to release its first coding toy this fall with Dance Code Belle, a Disney Princess Belle that is programmable via a free app where kids can learn basic coding technique.
Experts expect the innovation to continue as toymakers become more sophisticated with both product and marketing. Brands like American Girl and Barbie now host their own YouTube series, as does Hasbro's Littlest Petshop.
"They've made the transition to digital advertising in a heartbeat," said TIA's Mr. Pasierb.
As toy brands evolve, some of their retailers are struggling with the balancing act between brick-and-mortar and e-commerce. After a less-than-robust holiday shopping season, Toys R Us recently laid off 250 corporate staffers, or as much as 15% of staff, according to reports earlier this week.-