Everything you ever wanted to know about making toys, but didn't know who to ask.
Toy making. We all want to know about it right? Whether you are a parent, kid, collector or IP holder, toys are often the magical key product that unlocks an emotional connection that no other consumer product can do.
Whether it is "I have them all" or "I can do anything", toys have a way of inspiring the imagination and acting as avatars for childhood (and adult) fantasies.
I have been lucky enough to have been in the toy industry for the last 20 years, serving a variety of companies from the giant Mattel to independent Entertainment Earth. No matter the role I have helped with, whether working on toddler toys or adult collector prop replicas, one aspect that has remained consistent is the toy making process.
And that is what I get asked about the most.
Toys are full of joy, wonder and fun. The process...not always as much. But what I wanted to share a bit was some answers to some very common questions I get from many of my clients about the process; from idea to product on shelf.
THE TIME LINE:
For starters, the "toy timeline" is most commonly 2-3 years. Meaning from the time when an idea is first put on paper or presented to the decision makers, it can be anywhere from 2 to 3 years before that toy is in the hands of a consumer (kid, collector, store manager &c....) Now this isn't always 100% accurate. Many of the smaller toy companies have the ability to get items to market faster, and this is often one of their major competitive advantages. Think of the toy making process as a harbor, and the small companies are like motor boats that can turn around fast, but can't hold much. The bigger companies are like air craft carriers that can hold a lot of brands, but turning around and reacting to market trends is not something they can do quickly (or at all sometimes). Often when big companies try to work on a toy trend that is "on fire" at retail and is a new emerging trend, by the time they get product to market, the trend is often over. (which is why a lot of the big companies just stick to those "core brands" you always hear about in press releases, paying little attention to fly by night trends).
Oh, fans used to hate when I would say things online like "Logistics" are the cause of this delay or that. But it is true. When dealing with everything from IP owners approval to over seas factories, their are literally hundreds of factors that can effect the toy making process.
Finally, their are a lot of terms that pop up in the toy making process that often stump new comers and consumers a like. Here is a quick guide to some of these:
Tool - a tool is a giant metal mold that a toy is made from. Think of those vintage Play-doe molds where you would put Play-doe in the middle and squish them together to make a Play-doe person or animal. Well the toy industries uses a very similar process, except instead of small plastic molds with Play-doe, they have giant metal molds with hot plastic injected into them. These molds not only are large, but they weigh a ton and will cost from $20,000 to $75,000 per figure. Yup. That's right. Your Batman and Spiderman figures, if they require a full tool (i.e. no shared parts from a previous toy) the mold (or tool) for the figure can cost as much as a luxury car to produce.
Splicening - this is a relatively new term that refers to "over licensing" an IP (intellectual property, i.e. Star Wars, DC comics, Peppa Pig. &c....). Back in the day most major IP holders would extend what is called a "Master Toy License" to one company. Vintage Kenner Star Wars is a good example. This meant only one company had the rights to make toys based on an IP and could produce toys in essentially any scale or form factor (see below) they could. Fast forward to today, and the concept of a Master Toy License is virtually gone in the industry. Instead, IP holders are splitting up (or splicing up) licenses (hence "Splicening) IP into toy categories and giving them to different toy companies based on categories ranging from scale, to form factor, to material to even distribution channels.
Under this format, multiple companies are often producing virtually the same product for the same IP. Company #1 may have rights to make toys for an IP with 20% die cast parts, while another Company is given rights to make virtually the same toy with 80% die cast parts. (BTW, die cast refers to zinc alloy used to create "metal" parts on a toy, think Hot Wheels, back when they were made of metal).
While this procedure can result in more variety at retail, it can also result in a glut of too much merchandise from one IP holder to the point that toys begin cannibalizing each other. Think of a consumer who wants to spend XX dollars on a toy from XX brand. Well now instead of spending that money on Company 1's Master Toy License, they have 2, 3 or even 10 different companies making toys from XX brand.
Form Factor - Essentially this means a type of toy that works for numerous brands (or IPs). A common form factor is 6" action figures. One can find 6" action figures for any number of brands from Marvel to Star Wars to He-Man. Other common form factors include 3 3/4" figures, 10.5" dolls, 1" die cast cars and 4" non articulated figure (i.e. POPs!). When companies understand form factors and the emotional connection consumers (kids or collectors) have to them, they can enjoy success and sales. However, when a company makes a product simply because the form factor exists elsewhere for other brands it can lead to stale product.
In the end, everything about the toy making process is about understanding the emotional connection of the consumer to the product. No matter who is manufacturing toy product, the basic procedures of concept to shelf are very similar. However, when the manufacturer designs product with emotional connection centric design, it leads not only to better sales, but happier consumers.
If you would like to know more about the toy making process and why emotional connection centric design is important, drop us a line. We love talking toys and we love helping companies create more successful toy product.