Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Networked Toybox: Websites Go From Promoters to Part of the Product

I remember my various toy collections when I was a kid. Some of them are still hiding out in boxes at my father's house. I had Transformers (who have just made a comeback), Go-Bots, Legos and some sort of motorized dinosaurs that you put together from parts, kind of like an erector set. I'm entering middle age, so there weren't any websites around back when I had these toys, but if there were I'm sure they would have been marketing them pretty hard, trying to get me to collect all the different characters and variations available. The truth is, it would have worked pretty well on me.

Times have changed, and now every toy brand has a website. Some are laughable, some are spectacular, but up until recently, they have all just been part of the marketing plans for the toys. Times, they are a-changing. A new trend seems to be emerging, where the website goes from being just a marketing tool to being an actual part of the product offering. Instead of being standalone items ("networked" through the imaginations of the kids playing with them), these new toys are the keys to unlock worlds of interactive online content and activities.

From the standpoint of brand development, this is brilliant. The toys keep the brand conversation going. While the kids play with the toy(s) they have, the manufacturers get to continue to expose them to new variations that they can beg mommy and daddy to buy for them. They also have the opportunity to combat boredom by releasing new content over time.

By the time Christmas 2007 rolls around, I'm sure there will be dozens of variations on this trend, but for now, here are four that have popped up recently:

by Mattel (
Clearly inspired by the trendy vinyl toy underground, these small figurines unlock parts of a virtual world filled with games, character background, etc. The software communicates with the website for updates. (Personal note: I give this product line good points for visual style)

Shining Stars
by Russ Berrie and Company (
This one is from the folks who made oodles of cash peddling Beanie Babies. A cuddly stuffed animal provides the key to an online portal of games and point-based activities. The hook here is that for each animal, the child gets to name a star after it, apparently from real celestial maps. Of course, there is a notable disclaimer that this name registry is not officially recognized by anyone else, but at least the child gets to claim that one unique star within this online world.
by MGA Entertainment (
Another one based on plush stuffed animals. Once the toy is purchased, the child goes to the website to register and complete the "adoption" process. From that point, it's all about personalization, activities and caring for this virtual pet. This seems like the old Tamagotchis in a newer form.

by Spinmaster (
This one's about as virtual as you can get without doing away with the product altogether! The only physical thing you get is a USB swipe card reader and some collectible plastic cards that you can swipe through it. Each card gives the kid access to either a particular car, an upgrade or "mod", or a weapon of some sort. By collecting, they can create a customized ride that they can then race against other players through the Swypeout website.

My one final thought on this new trend is that I'm conflicted. The marketer in me loves the potential for creative marketing, branding and entertainment, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I'm worried that our kids are going to be able to experience any part of life without sitting in front of a computer.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Bob Dylan: Master of Viral Marketing?

Bob Dylan has always been a pioneer, a messenger with messages to deliver and a true gift for musical communication. Now, with the help of a UK design firm, he is part of the new era of viral marketing.

Dylan Messaging, a very cool microsite promoting the upcoming release of his greatest hits compilation, allows visitors to send out a custom message to their friends in a very unique way. Your message, chopped into 10 small pieces, is superimposed on the stack of posters revealed one by one by a very young Bob Dylan in the famous opening scene of the documentary "Don't Look Back" (the popular INXS video for "Mediate" was an homage to this same scene).

In addition to being very well implemented, this viral marketing vehicle helps demonstrate a winning formula:

(cultural phenomenon)
+ (personalization)
+ (activity focused on broadcast) = viral marketing success

This same formula was immensely successful for the online marketing efforts for the movie "Snakes on a Plane", featuring customized voicemail messages from Samuel L. Jackson. While Dylan Messaging may not have the same broad audience appeal, I'm sure it will be a big hit among its target demographic of Bob Dylan fans.

Back to the Business of Branding

Sorry for the hiatus, folks. I know it's been a while since I posted anything. In addition to the usual game of "dueling vacations" between ourselves and our clients, expanding our office and making several high-powered additions to our team, we're embarking on our own, exciting rebranding process. I may post some intermittent updates on this initiative, or I may just hold back and make it all a big surprise!

At any rate, back to business and some new posts about online branding...