Tablets and Apps Reinvent Child's Play

Fisher-Price, Mattel Increase Spending on Toys Catering to Digital-Native Kids

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Now that the ubiquity of tablets is giving rise to a generation of babies who expect TV sets to have touch screens, toy companies are making products to conform to their young customers' changing instincts, many of which will be on display at the American International Toy Fair this week.

Imaginext Apptivity Fortress and Leapfrog Tablet
Imaginext Apptivity Fortress and Leapfrog Tablet

Toys that connect to parents' mobile devices and are intended for use with accompanying apps started coming into market last year, and now they're becoming more common. Take the Disney Princess Ultimate Dream Castle Mattel will showcase at Toy Fair. The $190 pink-and-purple castle is made for use with a "magic mirror" iOS app that can be used to scan labels in the princesses' rooms to unlock games and other content.

"With the advent of new digital platforms, we see it as an opportunity to amplify traditional play patterns," said Cathy Cline, VP-girls marketing for Mattel's North America division. She noted that marketing for the castle and for a Barbie Digital Makeover Mirror that enables girls to virtually try on lipstick and eye shadow will rely on TV ads, packaging and partnering with retailers to ensure that their websites contain product descriptions that convey the toys' potential. Pereira & O'Dell is Mattel's agency.

Some companies are having early success with the mostly nascent category of toys that can be used in conjunction with mobile devices or that are mobile devices themselves. LeapFrog produces a line of LeapPad tablets intended for children ages 4 to 7 that come in at No. 3 and No. 4 in research firm NPD's ranking of the top 10 toys of 2012 as ranked by dollar sales.

For LeapFrog, the revenue opportunity goes well beyond sales of the actual tablet, which retails for $100 at, and other hardware. It's created its own App Center, which can be tapped into by connecting the device to a Mac or PC and offers about 500 apps, and it's enlisted partners such as Scholastic to develop content like e-books, games and videos. Apps range from $5 to $25.

"It's not just about the tablet," said LeapFrog Chief Marketing Officer Greg Ahearn. "It's the fact that we as a company develop our content that's really striking a chord with parents."

Fisher-Price also intends to make a big bet on its existing Apptivity line of products, which includes toys and accompanying apps for both infants and preschoolers, this year. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, it presented prototypes of a toy barnyard and fortress that double as iPad cases and are intended for use with iOS apps that have been developed for them. The apps themselves will be free to download in the App Store, but some will enable in-app purchases of virtual goods by parents, though Fisher-Price is still awaiting approval of the apps from Apple and hasn't finalized price points, according to Fisher-Price VP-Marketing Yvonne Lopata.

While most of the marketing for the Apptivity line to date has been on the web, Ms. Lopata said Fisher-Price is preparing a TV campaign for the fall with its agency, Y&R, that it intends to spend significantly on. "It's higher than our normal advertising-to-sales ratio because we're investing heavily in making this a successful and long-term category," she said.

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