80 Years of Ideas

Fisher-Price Plays, Laughs and Grows Into Global Brand

Toy Company Founded in Depression Has Evolved Into 'Children's Product Company' With Multiple Integrations

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YORK, Pa. (AdAge.com) -- It all started with Dr. Doodle.

In 1931, Herman Fisher, Irving Price and Helen Schelle introduced the wooden duck, along with 15 other products, at the International Toy Fair in New York City.

FISHER GROWS UP: 'As moms have changed, and media consumption has changed, so have we,' said Senior VP-Marketing Lisa Macuso.
FISHER GROWS UP: 'As moms have changed, and media consumption has changed, so have we,' said Senior VP-Marketing Lisa Macuso.
Dr. Doodle is no longer sold, but the principles that guided its creation are still at the core of Fisher Price. The company's five directives from Mr. Fisher, its first CEO and president, were that Fisher-Price products must have "intrinsic play value, ingenuity, strong construction, good value for the money and action."

While the creed remained the same, the company itself has morphed with the times. What began as toddler toy-making has grown up into a global brand that is now part of the Mattel empire. Fisher-Price (the "Toys" part of the name was dropped in 1984) still makes baby and kid toys, but also many other kinds of branded products for children from ages 0-6, including cribs, car seats, high chairs, monitors and even lamps.

"When the company was built in the midst of the Depression, it was really just a toy company, but it's evolved into a children's product company," said Lisa Mancuso, senior VP-marketing and a 20-year veteran of the company.

Pushing toys forward
Messrs. Fisher and Price and Ms. Schelle were veterans of the retail toy and games industry when they joined forces to create Fisher-Price in October 1930 in East Aurora, N.Y., with about 15 employees, including Mr. Price's wife, Margaret Evans Price, an artist, children's book author and illustrator.

Under their watch, the term "preschool toys" was coined, and was manifested in such classics as Snoopy Sniffer, a hound dog pull-toy that was Fisher-Price Toys' first big hit in 1938; Queen Buzzy Bee, the first toy to use plastic (for its wings) in 1950; the still-produced Snap-Lock Beads, Corn Popper and Xylophone, all introduced in 1957; and the still-popular Rock-a-Stack, launched in 1962.

To market their toy wares in the early years, Fisher-Price used in-store demos, as well as print and radio advertising with an emphasis on the educational value and quality construction of its toys.

During World War II, Fisher-Price joined many other companies in stopping production to help the war effort. Instead, its factory made medical chests, ammunition crates and repair parts for airplanes.

After the war, both the baby boom and the rise in consumerism proved a boon to Fisher-Price. By its 25th anniversary in 1955, the company had 355 employees and was well on its way to $25 million in sales in 1965, $50 million in 1969, and hit $75 million just one year later in 1970. (For the third quarter of 2009, Fisher Price had $784.8 million in sales, down 6%, according to Mattel financial filings).

Fisher-Price's first tagline when it opened its doors was "Our work is child's play" and was used in print and radio ads and later in TV ads on and off through the '90s. The tagline, "It's a great age for Fisher-Price," was used in the late '90s, and then about six years ago, Fisher-Price came up with its current popular tagline: "Play. Laugh. Grow."

While Fisher-Price used focus-group research from its earliest days, the company built an official "Play Laboratory" on its New York campus in 1961, and about 2,000 children each year come to the lab to play while employees observe. The company also completes some 20,000 research interviews with parents each year.

In 1965, Fisher-Price did its first TV advertising via "showcase" on "The Price Is Right." It chose that TV game show because its market research found that "The Price Is Right" reached the largest share of stay-at-home moms of any program. They began airing traditional TV commercials two years later in 1967.

In 1968, Fisher-Price was bought by Quaker Oats for $50 million, at a time when several other cereal companies were also buying toy companies (General Mills bought the makers of Play-Doh in 1965, and General Foods bought Kohner Brothers in 1969). Also at that time, Fisher-Price chose Quaker Oats' ad agency, Waring & LaRosa, New York, as its own. Waring was bought by Young & Rubicam in 1996 with the then-$50 million Fisher-Price account reported to be a key attraction. Y&R continues to be Fisher-Price's ad agency today.

Quaker spun off Fisher-Price in 1991, and the company was bought by Mattel in 1993, giving the preschool brand a much bigger global presence.

About five years ago, Fisher-Price added "experiential marketing," Ms. Mancuso said, with partners such as national zoos, where there are "Little People" shows; Lowe's Hotels, which offer toy-lending programs; and Royal Caribbean, which crafts and sponsors play areas onboard the line's ships.

Digital has become increasingly important over the past year, she said, and just last week, Fisher-Price added a dynamic Facebook app that allows parents to build and share a digital-memories timeline for their child, and also added its first iPhone apps targeted at parents of preschoolers.

"As moms have changed, and media consumption has changed, so have we," Ms. Mancuso said.

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