Sep 22, 2022 - Economy

Toy companies are scrambling to get hot on social media

Illustration of a stuffed animal plush toy in the shape of the Tiktok logo

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Not only has TikTok become the preferred search engine of young people, it has also become the main place kids go to discover the toys they want (and beg their parents for).

Why it matters: The places where "hot" toys catch on guide the whole advertising industry — and this season's hot holiday toys are heavily tied to apps, video games, and social media influencers.

  • Manufacturers are hastily shifting their marketing dollars from TV to TikTok, YouTube, and other places where influencers strut their stuff.

Driving the news: At a "hot" holiday toy preview event at New York City's Chelsea Piers this week, toy brands were talking up their products' social media cred and the licensing deals they had with influencers and video game franchises.

  • "It's one thing to have a show on the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon," said Joel Alicea, marketing director of Bonkers Toys. "The reality is, kids are watching YouTube, kids are on TikTok."
  • All his company's toys — which include a line of Addison Rae dolls and figurines tied to the YouTube video gamer Aphmau — are yoked to specific influencers.
  • A lot of toys had tie-ins to games kids play on Roblox and Nintendo Switch.
    • For instance, each "Twilight Daycare" collectible baby doll comes with a code redeemable for goods on the super-popular Roblox game.

Case study: A shape-puzzle toy called Kanoodle has had an unexpected burst of popularity thanks to a math tutor who calls herself Miss Arlene and posts superfan videos on TikTok and Instagram (using a hashtag she coined: #kanoodlechallenge).

  • "This game is 16 years old and it’s had an amazing resurgence because of TikTok" — and Miss Arlene in particular, Educational Insights senior marketing manager Lee Parkhurst, told Axios.
  • Videos by Miss Arlene — whose screen name is Silentmath — have inspired a product the company will introduce next year: Kanoodle Pyramid.

What they're saying: "My budget for TV this year is zero,” Canal Toys president and CEO Bill Uzell told Forbes in 2021. "Last year I only used influencers, and this year only influencers, and I don’t see myself going back."

Yes, but: Blockbuster movies still have the power to drive toy sales. The industry's 2% growth in the first half of 2022 was abetted by the release of "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" in April and "Jurassic World: Dominion" in June, said NPD, the market research firm.

  • And some bestsellers have no big connections to media properties: Squishmallows — the huggable stuffed animals that are the Beanie Babies of the moment — represented seven of the top 15 selling toys from January through June, NPD said.

Where it stands: At the holiday preview sponsored by Toy Insider, "hot" toys included a lot of products with STEM tie-ins as well as an emerging category: Toys that cater to kids' sensory or emotional wellbeing.

  • A new doll line called "Fidgie Friends" features clothing and accessories that are meant to be manipulated like a fidget toy.
  • Nary a wooden block was in sight.

There were, however, lots of modern twists on old favorites, like a new Spirograph set with 3D glasses and Rubik's Phantom, a heat-activated cube in which the warmth of your fingers temporarily reveals the tile color, for extra solving furor.

  • Another sign of the times: The "Level Up Gaming Chair" from Vtech is a video-gaming chair for toddlers, complete with a joystick and pretend headphones. (So much for the wooden rocking horse...)

Between the lines: Kids aren't just watching TikTok — they're also producing content.

  • Toys like "Studio Creator" help children make "professional-looking digital content" like "dance videos, vlogs, baking videos, [and] unboxing" videos. (Tagline: "Become the next BIG influencer!")

The business angle: The toy-buying slump that followed Toys R Us' 2017 bankruptcy has been followed by a rebound, including record-breaking sales in 2020 and 2021, per NPD.

  • Amazon, Target and Walmart beefed up their toy departments.
  • Pandemic lockdowns and boredom sent parents racing to buy playthings.

What's next: The return of Toys R Us in Macy's stores next month is expected to goose toy sales, as is this this fall's Amazon Prime Day.

  • "I expect the toy industry to continue to outperform other general merchandise categories for the remainder of the year,” said Juli Lennett, NPD's toy expert.
A new Rubik's cube being solved (left) and a display of a game called Kanoodle.
At left, Thompson Clarke, a speed-solving champion who works for Spin Master toys, demonstrates the Rubik's Phantom, which looks like a dark cube until the heat of your hands reveals the tile colors. Right: Lee Parkhurst demonstrates the Kanoodle. Photos: Jennifer A. Kingson/Axios
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