Demise of the must-have toy is no cause for festive cheer

Children are viewing less and less linear TV than ever before, says the head of planning at Maxus.

Whether it is Furbies, Tickle Me Elmo, Nintendo Wii, Buzz Lightyear, Tracy Island, or Minecraft, every Christmas comes with a must have toy to excite children and infuriate parents.

However, Christmas 2015 could be different as there appears to be no item that is leading the pack – surely some solace for those of us who have to hunt down dwindling supplies like treasure hunters.

The reason for this apparent lack of a festive front runner has nothing to do with a sudden dip in the desirability of toys – heaven forbid – but lies in our changing media consumption habits. Media planners are used to dealing with it for adult markets, but it is also having an effect on our kids.

Children are viewing less and less linear TV than ever before - viewing figures are in freefall and have been so since 2008. Households with children are over 10 per cent more likely to subscribe to Netflix than average. Children are therefore seeing fewer ads which has led to this year’s lack of a ‘must have toy’.

For parents fearful of thousands of marketing messages a day, this sounds like great news. Who wants their child exposed to advertising that will simply produce a massive wants list of this year’s hot items? 

However there is a downside. The letter to Father Christmas is actually a very handy piece of customer data that can be disseminated among friends and family who may want to buy Christmas presents. Think of the hundreds and thousands of adults wandering around toy departments making poorly informed purchase decisions. And think of all those sad Christmas Day faces when they get it wrong – unlike adults, children don’t really do feigned delight.

Frankly, faced with a list that includes an iPad and no budget friendly present requests, most of us would struggle to come up with a present that delivers.

Toy manufacturers, heavily reliant on an end of year spike, can’t afford to get it wrong, which is why they will have to adapt their advertising strategies. For some, it will mean going over the heads of children and advertising directly to parents. Mattel has taken this approach to bolster Barbie with a new campaign that is heavy on nostalgia and the feel-good aspects of make believe and play. The Star Wars franchise has also taken a multi-generational approach, encouraging parents and children to share their passion for Luke, Chewie et al.

Large toy brands could go back to the future with a return to the 1980s strategy of having a toy and a TV show as Hasbro did with its rockstar doll, Jem. The value of owned media can also be seen with brands such as Lego which operates a CRM programme that engages directly with 4-12 year olds through a quarterly magazine, as well as an interactive website.

Lego has also successfully worked with traditional media owners (Daily Mail) for toy giveaways, showing that there may be scope to step in and create bespoke kids titles. The Funday Times may be long gone, but Piers Morgan’s weekly First News aimed at 7-14 year olds, shows new possibilities. By bundling in child friendly digital content, there is a resulting potential to close the loop with licensed properties.

Like their parents, children now live in a fragmented, multimedia society within which information comes from a variety of channels. There are also more in control of what they receive than ever before, so for brands to become part of their world, they have to add value. And that insight isn’t just for Christmas… it’s for life.

Jen Smith is the head of planning at Maxus

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