Troubled Toys 'R' Us taps Leo for kid appeal

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Toys "R" Us, having dabbled in the grownup world of price/item advertising, has decided to rejuvenate its brand by focusing on kids once again.

The embattled retailer last week selected Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, as new agency for its estimated $50 million to $75 million ad account. And, according to Toys "R" Us Chief Marketing Officer Warren Kornblum, the choice in part came down to the agency's Kid Leo division.

"At the end of the day, the reason we went to [Burnett] was they just got the special relationship and the duality of targeting both kids and their family," he said.


The Kid Leo marketing unit operates much as Leo She does for women's marketing: Staffers with expertise from across the agency contribute experiences and insight to create a pool of resources.

"Toys `R' Us is very rich in iconography and in kids' minds. Just as adults, we might pick a dream place like a spa; kids pick Toys `R' Us," said Cheryl Berman, chief creative officer of Burnett. "We need to get both kids and parents to realize this is a really worthwhile experience."

To illustrate that idea, Ms. Berman wrote a song for the pitch that included the line: "Childhood only lasts a little while."

She said she doesn't know yet if ideas presented will be translated into future campaigns.


Despite all the efforts to keep the company young, don't expect the airwaves to be filled with those familiar refrains about not wanting to grow up.

"I look at it as a strong example of branding in the past," Mr. Kornblum said.

The retailer had worked for more than two decades with Linda Kaplan, who was with former Toys "R" Us agencies J. Walter Thompson USA and Wells, Rich, Greene, and now runs her own shop, Kaplan Thaler Group, New York. Ms. Kaplan developed the company's famous "I Want To Be a Toys 'R' Us Kid" jingle.

Even though the retailer last year dabbled in some new branding work, including a 50th anniversary effort, 1998 holiday sales proved to be disappointing with same-store sales down 7%, from a 4% increase in 1997.

Some of Toys "R" Us' problems were not of its own making: the absence of "big hit" toys, price deflation in videogame hardware and a drop in the popularity of bread-and-butter products such as Mattel action figures.

At the same time, the retailer was battered by discounters Wal-Mart Stores and Target Stores, as well as taking some hits from online upstarts such as E-Toys.


Mr. Kornblum said a key marketing misstep was the head-on price/item competition with the discounters, which excluded a nurturing of the brand.

"They let the brand look after itself," said Mr. Kornblum, who joined the company in January, hired by new CEO Robert Nakasone.

Mr. Kornblum put the account into review shortly after his arrival; Ms. Kaplan's agency initially was included but dropped out in the early rounds.

Other finalists were Deutsch, New York; Doner, Southfield, Mich.; and TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif.

Mr. Kornblum developed a new marketing strategy that focused on letting targeted customers know that Toys "R" Us has "the best selection in the business."

Overall, he wants to make sure the retailer is not just advertising a given product on a given day, but is letting consumers know there is no better place to buy toys than at Toys "R" Us.

The retailer is arming itself with other outside talent. In addition to Burnett and its Starcom USA media unit, Toys "R" Us hired Carlson Marketing Group, Minneapolis, as relationship-marketing agency and Simon Marketing, Los Angeles, as its first promotion agency.

Already, Toys "R" Us has begun to capitalize on the new "Star Wars" hype by opening its stores at midnight when the first day "Episode I the Phantom Menace" toys went on sale.


The new strategy also involves making stores more inviting. By fall, when Burnett's first "world-class effort" for the chain breaks, according to Mr. Kornblum, Toys "R" Us will have remodeled some 180 stores into its new C-3 model, highlighted by the "R" Zone electronics and videogame section. That section will be added to an additional 250 stores by the holiday sales season.

Overall, Toys "R" Us has 1,490 stores, with more than 200 Kids "R" Us clothing stores; more than 700 of its stores are in the U.S.

Toys "R" Us is developing a series of secondary "R" brands such as Babies "R" Us, a group of more than 100 stores that already are reporting double-digit same-store sales increases.

Its online store, www.toysrus.

com, has a new distribution center and is working to compete more effectively against eToys and other Web sites.

Contributing: Beth Snyder

Copyright May 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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