Razor searches for the next big thing

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On the floor of the American International Toy Fair, there seem to be scooters around every corner-two-wheeled, three-wheeled, electric or push-and-go.

That's bad news for privately-held Razor USA, the company that created the scooter craze four years ago when it brought to the U.S. what had been a street fad in Japan. Razor is now looking at new product and new strategies to energize its brand as the scooter craze abates and competitors continue turning its main product into a commodity.

The company has gone to great lengths to protect the brand from knockoffs, said Katherine Mahoney, VP-marketing at Razor USA. "We hope not to become the Kleenex of the sporting-goods business," she said.

still seething

Ms. Mahoney still seethes remembering how, in the first two Toy Fairs she attended, she found not only knockoffs on the show floor, but also outright counterfeits, down to the Razor logo. The company fought back by enforcing its patents on the scooter mechanisms, successfully suing 16 companies for patent infringement.

But the scooter craze has cooled off considerably since its peak in the holiday of 2000, said Robbin Jaklin, president of C&R Research. The Chicago-based research company regularly polls a panel of more than 12,000 children. The company's annual Wish List poll of the most-wanted toys for the holidays found scooters were only mentioned by 1% to 2% of kids last year.

And as the scooter phenomenon has paled, so has the Razor brand's profile, Ms. Jaklin added.

Razor is coming back with new toys such as The Mean Machine, a tricycle with a large front wheel reminiscent of the Big Wheel, available in motorized and non-motor models; Ground Force, an electric go-kart; and the Pocket Rocket, a miniature electric motorcycle.

"We spent a lot of time thinking of what we'd like to be when we grew up," said Ms. Mahoney.

Expanding into other products is a smart move, said Julie Halpin, CEO of The Geppetto Group, New York, a WPP Group agency that specializes in marketing to kids. "They've realized they can't be a one-trick pony," said Ms. Halpin. "Their best line of defense is to continue to innovate."

Razor will expand its marketing plans this year, including a test of its first TV ads aimed at kids this spring, said Ms. Mahoney. If the test goes well, Razor may launch the ads nationally for the holiday 2004 season.

The company has usually focused its marketing on PR to reach parents and on Team Razor, a team of teens who perform scooter tricks at shows and competitions, to keep kids interested in the scooters.

`the nag factor'

The ads, created in-house, will focus on the extended Razor line, to interest kids in the non-scooter products and create "the nag factor" that makes kids ask their parents for a particular toy, she said.

Children's interest in brand-name product varies, said Ms. Halpin. Brands such as Barbie and Bratz have great brand loyalty, but other categories such as building blocks may not. Among more costly items, where the choice may be a generic version or no toy at all, brands may have less power, she said. But she added that, all things being equal, kids will be brand-loyal.

"It's totally up to the marketer. If the marketer has marketed the brand, the brand matters. If the marketer has marketed the product, the product matters," she said.

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