How Electronic Hamsters Became the Hottest Toy This Holiday Season

Thanks to Early Buzz from a Promotion-Driven Campaign, Zhu Zhu Pets Are Selling Out Everywhere

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YORK, Pa. ( -- The must-have toy this holiday season is the electronic hamster.

Zhu Zhu Pets, a line of five furry interactive hamsters (pronounced Zoo Zoo) have been selling so briskly they have gone missing from retailers' shelves for weeks. The little hamsters are so popular, Toys 'R' Us is using them as a Black Friday marketing centerpiece. Every Toys 'R' Us will have 100 of the furry bots for sale at midnight when the stores open for Black Friday shopping, with a limit of one per customer.

Walmart and Target aren't even bothering to advertise it in their circulars anymore as the shelves empty as soon as the little critters arrive. And the play pets' $8 price tag has risen accordingly. On eBay and Amazon, just one pet is now going for $60 to $100, if you can even find them at all.

The toy's manufacturer, Cepia, isn't marketing the product anymore either. A Cepia-created TV spot featuring the frenzied furballs and their Habitrail-like accessories, ran in late summer and early fall on children's cable channels such as Nickelodeon and the Disney XD, generating a lot of buzz before it was halted in mid-October. Beacon Media Group placed the media. Zhu Zhu's PR and promotions agency, the Martz Agency, Phoenix, is pushing back other marketing plans, such as a planned fourth-quarter promotional party at Toys 'R' Us in New York's Times Square, until the first quarter of 2010.

"It doesn't make sense to continue to build demand right now," said Carrie Martz, CEO of the Martz Agency. "They've gotten to where they want to be, the top of the toy lists."

Still it was marketing that helped Zhu Zhus get there. The Martz Agency helmed an event and promotion-driven campaign that began as a one-city test market in Phoenix in July. The agency mounted a strong PR push and partnered with the Arizona Diamondbacks major-league baseball team for a series of events including toy drop-offs at children's hospitals and a night at the ballpark with giveaways and trials, and even convinced a local dance troupe to create a routine for "Zhu Zhu Flow," a song created by a St. Louis rapper.

Influencer parties were key
Maria Bailey, CEO of BSM Media, joined the effort by putting on 40 "Mom Maven" influencer parties. The agency, which specializes in marketing to moms, created Zhu Zhu parties in a box with 12 hamsters and habitrails, featuring recipes (for Hamster Crunch) and games. Many of those moms were also bloggers who did their own giveaways online. To date, more than 300 in-home parties have been conducted for Zhu Zhu Pets.

The result? The Phoenix Toys 'R' Us sold out of Zhu Zhus in less than two weeks.

The Martz Agency then took the campaign nationwide, partnering with sports teams and hospitals in 25 markets, while BSM Media threw more than 300 hamster parties across the country, and hooked up with 10 city zoos for "Boo in the Zoo" parties. According to Ms. Bailey, 25% of all moms who attended the parties said they have told 21 or more moms about the Zhu Zhu Pets. And 80% of the moms who attended said they have told at least six other mothers about the hamsters, she said.

The latest marketing, and likely the last for now, was a Twitter party thrown by Ms. Bailey for mothers and kids together. Held from 7- 8 p.m. on Nov. 11, it generated more than 9,000 tweets and catapulted the #zhuzhupets hashtag into the trending topics top 10 list within 20 minutes, where it remained for an hour.

"It's very unusual. I can't remember when something took off like this from a company that is so under the radar," said Cliff Annicelli, editor in chief of Playthings magazine, although he noted that Cepia founder Russell Hornsby does have a long history in the toy business.

And while events and PR helped Zhu Zhu's case, TV advertising drove a lot of early recognition and interest. "Marketing is important for toys, and TV advertising is still the most important way to get your toy in front of kids," Mr. Annicelli said. "For a toy like this based on entertainment, TV is still best."

And oh yes: The hamsters got their own iPhone app on Tuesday. The $1.99 hamster game is officially sanctioned by the toy's maker Cepia, and it likely won't be long after school's out until it begins to creep up the chart-topper lists.

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