PLAYTIME TURNING PUGNACIOUS:FISHER-PRICE OFFERS FIRST TV ADS EVER IN OUTDOOR PLAY EQUIPMENT CATEGORY

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A backyard brawl is erupting in the kids' outdoor play equipment category.

Mattel's Fisher-Price division is bullying rivals with the first-ever TV campaign for kid-sized, molded plastic play structures, shaking things up in the estimated $250 million-$300 million market.

Analysts say Fisher-Price, currently No. 3 in the category, wants to challenge No. 1 Little Tikes for leadership, and the war has just begun.

Three 15-second commercials for Fisher-Price's new line of Grow With Me play equipment broke late last month on spot TV and cable via Waring & LaRosa, New York. The line includes a swing, teeter-totter and playhouse/gym.

PRESSURE ON RUBBERMAID

Fisher-Price's move puts serious pressure on Rubbermaid's Little Tikes division, which until now has sailed along as No. 1 in the business by selling its backyard cottages and castles for kids with nothing more than occasional print advertising.

A pioneer in the mushrooming industry over the last 25 years, Little Tikes is estimated by analysts to hold a 60% share while Fisher-Price, which only entered the market last year, already has approximately 15% share. Step2 Corp., launched in 1991 by former Little Tikes employees, has quietly coasted to No. 2 with minimal advertising and an estimated 20% share. A handful of smaller marketers make up the balance.

In addition to Little Tikes and Step2, Hasbro's Playskool unit is also threatened by Fisher-Price's new aggressiveness in the outdoor play equipment arena, where Playskool is attempting to gain a foothold.

Playskool is currently reviewing its $30 million toy account, which includes play equipment. Contenders include Arnold Communications, Boston; Bates USA, Grey Advertising, Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising and incumbent Griffin Bacal, all New York; a decision is expected next month.

RAPID GROWTH

"Outdoor play equipment has seen a lot of growth recently, with Fisher-Price coming on strong, backed by Mattel's impressive marketing muscle. Playskool is in a position to gain or lose a lot; you'll start to see some winners and losers emerge here soon," said Gary Jacobsen, a toy analyst with Jefferies & Co.

Fisher-Price has steadily increased its TV spending from under $10 million to more about $30 million since its 1993 acquisition by Mattel, which has always relied heavily on TV to advertise its toy brands.

"We think TV is a great way to put the spotlight on our new products, and leap ahead in awareness in this category," said Laurie Strong, Fisher-Price public relations manager.

NO TV FOR STEP2, TIKES

Step2, whose sales have doubled in the last three years, has no plans to advertise on TV. Little Tikes, too, says it has no plans to go onto TV and says sales are as robust as ever, although it will not release figures.

But this summer, Little Tikes will offer a rebate on its most popular items that will cut the cost of its best-selling $129 Country Cottage 23.3% to $99. Its most expensive item this year is the $700 SkyCenter Playhouse Climber with a swingset extension.

The volume leader for Little Tikes remains its $29.99 Cozy Coupe kids' minivan, introduced in 1979 and with more than 400,000 units sold last year.

"We're the best-known name in backyard toys, and we have a strong following among families and through word-of-mouth. We're not worried about losing our position, since we dominate this entire category," said Leslie Mapes, public relations manager for Little Tikes.

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