Toy makers use transmedia storytelling to drive sales

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Toy manufacturers are using the power of storytelling to promote sales of new toys on Black Friday.

Rather than rely on popular films to generate buzz for new products, toy companies are creating in-house studios to produce their own video content to get kids excited about new toy lines.

The idea is to create a narrative that engages kids at various points in their day, across television, YouTube, comic books and mobile devices. The technique, called transmedia storytelling, is the future of toy advertising, as it teaches kids how to play with the toys that star in their favorite shows.

Hot Wheels designer Alton Takeyasu explains how his team worked with Mattel's marketing team to develop the Team Hot Wheels Origin of Awewome, a new toy line and cartoon series produced inside the company's design center in El Segundo.

Hot Wheels designers in El Segundo work with script writers to create new shows optimized for commercialization.

Ever since the original Star Wars films made more money from toy merchandising than from ticket sales, Hollywood and toy makers have recognized the power of linking toys to popular films.

An engaging story-line proved so effective at driving sales that toy giants like Hasbro and others started producing children’s television programming based around popular toy lines in the 1980s and 1990s.

Remember those cartoon classics like G.I. Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony, Conan the Barbarian and The Tick? They were all produced by Sunbow Entertainment, an animation studio run by a Hasbro-funded advertising agency from New York.

Toy companies continue to produce Hollywood blockbusters based on their toys, and licensing popular films like Disney’s Frozen — the most popular animated film ever — will always be a part of toy manufacturers’ business plan.

Larger toy companies are morphing into full-blown entertainment power houses that put toys designers and story creators under one roof to create fictional universes optimized for peddling new products.

“It used to be, we’ve made this movie, do you think there’s toys in it?’ Now, it’s ‘We’re making this movie. As we develop the story, how do we merchandise this?’ ” says Christopher Byrne, content director of Time To Play Magazine and author of the book “A Profile of the United States Toy Industry: Serious Fun.”

I visited Mattel’s design center in El Segundo and spoke with marketers and designers in the Hot Wheels division. Here’s how they explained the strategy behind Mattel’s new media studio, Playground Productions: