Play: It's not just for toys anymore

Why more brands should pay as much consideration to "play" value as "brand benefit"

Where have all the toys gone? Well, the real question is: Where have all the traditional toys gone? As a youth marketer for more than 25 years, I have seen lots of changes in what kids play with. Some are small (remember the ascendance and disappearance of Pogs and Silly Bandz?) and others are more seismic (75% of kids under age eight have access to some sort of "smart" mobile device at home vs. just 52% two years ago). One of the biggest changes I’ve observed, however, is the migration of play.  

Play used to be the exclusive purview of the toy industry. Now, play is everywhere. (It’s even on the smart phones of most of my colleagues.) With this change comes great opportunity — the opportunity for kid marketers in all product categories to unlock a deeper understanding about the role their product plays in the lives of children. If companies that spend exhaustive amounts of time and money identifying their "brand benefit" or "core insight" were also willing to spend just a little time thinking about their "play value," then more and more products would have what they need to become truly relevant, meaningful and important in a child’s life.

For children, the idea of play is not limited to toys. In fact, developmental psychologists tell us that play is the very work of childhood. It is through play that kids discover who they are; how to behave; what they can do; and how they can express themselves. As adults, we have myriad ways to figure out who we are, and then to tell the world what we stand for, believe, and care about. We choose careers that suit our talents and preferences; we surround ourselves with homes that we design, and relationships and activities that nurture us and express who we are.

Kids? They play. They see what happens when they bend the rules in a board game; or when they act out a good-guys vs. bad-guys scene with their action figures. They experiment and explore the world with all sorts of tools — only some of which are traditional toys. They find tools for play everywhere.

As with any cultural shift, there are those companies and brands that are already paying attention and incorporating the power of play into their products and marketing campaigns. Makers of kid soaps that double as body paint know that drawing on oneself is much more fun than simply cleaning oneself. UK-based Kids Stuff Crazy Soap has already seen the power of unlocking the inherent play of bath-time in a way that’s a win/win for both kids and parents. Longer bath-time and more soap play means cleaner, happier kids. Apple sauce brands like Materne’s Go-Go Squeez unlocked an entirely new line of business by packaging the product in pouches rather than cups.  That simple package change unlocked and added an element of play to the eating’s so much more fun to squeeze and slurp than to eat carefully with a spoon.  And kid classics like Lunchables have maintained relevance over the years by marrying mom’s nutritional demands with kid demands for play.

But just as there are forward-thinking brands ahead of this particular curve, there are many more lagging behind. Think about snacks. Most snack foods build strategies based on food values like wholesome energy, indulgent or exotic taste, or the treat-mom-lets-me-have. How many new marketing and product ideas could be unlocked by thinking about snacks they way we think about toys—as a tool for imagination, creativity, self-expression, mastery, social interaction or learning?  Or consider home furnishings and room decor, and how naturally rugs, comforters and accessories lend themselves to an offer of play value in addition to design value.

Non-toy marketers can also learn from their toy industry colleagues about the power of surround-sound execution. The best toy marketers know that kids do not think in terms of product categories. They think in terms of experiences. They think in terms of story. "What world do I want to enter?" "What do I feel like doing?" "What do I want to experience?" Only after figuring out what they want to experience do kids then choose the right products to match. Look at the way Lego has leveraged rich backstories to expand the play experience of their products. Lego products enable children to step into multi-dimensional experiences that go way beyond the objects they hold in their hands. Legos are much more than a "construction toy"; they are a portal to immersive, imaginative and yes, constructive play. Why could a child’s beverage not engage children in the same immersive way.

Imagine a backstory that invites children into a magical land where the beverage is made; a package that’s designed with games, riddles and ways to engage with friends; and a digital experience that makes drinking the product even more playful, satisfying and fun. The possibilities are endless and exciting.

As new products continue to explode onto store shelves, the child market has become increasingly cluttered and competitive. It is no longer sufficient to simply have a reason-for-being or a clearly articulated positioning. It is necessary to think more broadly about how the child’s life is enhanced by your brand and to identify your own brand of play value. This next generation of kids and this next generation of kid products demands the next generation of strategic thinking to compete. What’s your play value?

Julie Halpin Anderson is president of Next Step Strategic Services as well as founder and former CEO of the Geppetto Group.

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