Educational-toy company VTech has just launched V-Motion, a video-game console for 3- to 7-year-olds -- kind of a Wii for preschoolers. The company is backing it with a marketing push this fall that comprises TV, print, online and social media, including seeding units to mommy bloggers.
The effort is part of VTech's revived marketing strategy to build a formidable brand presence in the kids'-electronics market. The $1.55 billion Hong Kong-based company sells cordless phones and consumer electronics, but educational toys account for nearly 40% of its sales. VTech reported that electronic learning products were up 8% to $615.7 million in its 2008 fiscal year, and the division's North American sales were $291.1 million, up 3.5%.
A lot of the division's success has been riding on the V.Smile TV and hand-held game systems, introduced in 2004. But as sales for V.Smile TV "mature," as the company put it in its most recent fiscal report, the platform is accounting for a dwindling number of sales: 40.1% of the electronic-learning-products division's total in fiscal 2008 vs. 51% the year before.
Enter V-Motion, which adds wireless and motion capability that gets kids off the couch, providing an extra lure for moms.
"We said, 'Let's turn guilt into gold. Let's let moms say yes to video games,'" said Julia Fitzgerald, VP-marketing for VTech. "We focus on fun for the child and an age-appropriate curriculum for mom."
VTech is tapping into the trend of children playing video games younger and younger. That trend is fueled by the long-held desire of youngsters to do what their older siblings are doing but also -- as video gaming passes its 30th anniversary -- to do what their parents are doing.
The average age at which kids first use a video-game console is now just 6.3, according to NPD Group's Kids and Consumer Electronics study. However, more than a third of 4- and 5-year-olds have played some kind of video game.
"We don't create these trends," Ms. Fitzgerald said. "We do ask, though: What's a better alternative for moms? That's what we set out to provide."
NPD analyst Anita Frazier, who has seen firsthand the longing kids have for "grown-up" video games -- her twin boys used to have Leapster hand-held games they referred to as Game Boys -- said it's not just the kids who want the video games.
"Parents' desire to jump-start their kids' education also plays a huge role in the popularity of these products," she said in an e-mail interview. "Having an educational component is important to the marketing because that is what makes it enticing to the parents to purchase. Some parents may have an uneasy feeling about just pure video gaming, wanting to limit their kids' overall screen time, but if it's educational, it makes it much more acceptable, even desirable."
The added physical movement that comes with V-Motion might also appeal to parents. A study out this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that children burn four times as many calories playing active video games as they do playing while sitting down.
For its new marketing push, VTech is shifting its focus away from talking to kids and reaching out directly to moms. For instance, instead of buying traditional toy media slots during Saturday-morning cartoons, the V-Motion will get product placements on "The View," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and TLC's "Jon and Kate Plus Eight." Ad agency Energy BBDO, Chicago (which VTech hired in February), and longtime PR agency Edelman helped prompt the company's change in direction with consumer research.