Saturday, August 29, 2015

Mr. Monopoly Mascot

Mr. Monopoly, aka Rich Uncle Pennybags, is one of the most endearing and enduring icons in the toy and game business. His formal top hat, tux, and perfectly coiffed mustache have been around for decades as the brand representative for Monopoly. He was created in one dimensional form to represent the wealthy money man who would dole out big bucks and rewards to eager board game players.

Today, the world is full of walking, talking, animated bigger-than-life brand icons often called mascots. They seem to be everywhere from professional sports arenas to institutions of higher learning to mass media screens. You see them interacting with fans, leading cheers from the sidelines, or on TV entertaining audiences with the beloved Big Bird, Barney, and others. No trip to Disney Land or Disney World would be complete without skipping along with Walt's costumed creations that have been instrumental in selling tons of toys and games.

Being one of these costumed icons is not for the faint of heart. Behind--or rather inside--Big Bird was Carroll Spinney who spent over four decades in anonymity making the giant Sesame Street character work. How Big Bird Costume Works For anyone thinking that there is a future animating an iconic figure, best they find out details of the difficult life inside an oversized mascot's costume,

Chuck Long, had a 38year career as game salesman for Milton Bradley and eventually Hasbro Games after MB merged with Parker Bros. He had a much simpler and direct route to his limited engagements as the Hasbro iconic figure, Mr. Monopoly. The costume required little other than top hat and tux. Whitening hair and a mustache transformed him into the personna that by 1995 got him gigs at retail customer sales meetings, store openings, and even corporate and international Hasbro sales meetings. Chuck Long became an expert on Monopoly history and fun facts even autographing his altered identity onto Monopoly games bought by customers.

Chuck Long remembers one memorable appearance as Mr. Monopoly about three years ago, "It was at a Power of Youth charity event held at Paramount movie studios in Hollywood. There was some buzz about Mr. Monopoly being there. But the real attention was given to a celebrity that may not have even been an avid Monopoly player. What I am sure of is that the celebrity of Monopoly, the game, has been around in the business longer than Bieber's popularity in pop culture. He'll have to perform many more years to catch-up to Monopoly." Words spoken like a true game salesman who happens to be a Mr. Monopoly look-alike!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Hello, Cartamundi...Goodbye, Milton Bradley

Cartamundi created a bit of an industry buzz by purchasing Hasbro's manufacturing facilities in Massachusetts and Ireland . Consensus thinking of business watchers seems to be it is good that the 1.1 million sq. foot East Longmeadow, MA factory and 350 employees are back with a management that has a "production mentality".

When I joined Milton Bradley decades ago, that recently opened MA "manufacturing" facility was an efficiently run operation with a great mixture of 1800 workers and state-of the-art machines plying ink to paper and chopping cardboard. In the '70s, then CEO James J. Shea Jr. took great pride in his "fully integrated manufacturing operation where raw materials came in Door 1 and left through Doors 44 to 64 as finished games packed in standardized shipping cartons". Such were the golden days of manufacturing at the world's No.1 game company.

In the mid-eighties, Hasbro acquired MB. A popular saying around the East Longmeadow office was "they"are marketers, "we"are manufacturers. I always thought that saying was a bit asinine. At the time, "we" were selling $500,000,000 in manufactured games. Didn't those sales require some marketing savvy? I felt that popular "we/they" saying could easily have been, "they" have toys and "we" have games thus eliminating the functional marketer/manufacturer designates.

There I was a member of the "manufacturer' team, albeit in the East Longmeadow office, but I didn't work in bib overalls and carry a lunch pail. Actually, company office dress code for male staff called for  button down shirts w/neckwear and wing tip shoes. On the other hand, many of our new owners/colleagues, the Hasbro "marketers" had relaxed attire of open collar business casual more suited to production line workers. ( I also recall some male "marketers" even sported fashionable facial hair barred in the East Longmeadow dress code.)

Fast forward to today. Hasbro, the "marketers" are masterfully piecing together toy and game brands into expanded platforms with strategic ventures allied with key entertainment licenses. The "manufacturers" in east Longmeadow will continue to do what they have done for so many years...manufacture the best quality board games and puzzles in the world, not as Milton Bradley but rather as Cartamundi.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Is Donald Trump an "ism"?

During my corporate days working with new products and inventors to find a mega-hit, (or at least a game that would justify a multi-million dollar TV promotion budget), there were certain directives offered by the Marketing Department to guide the new product search. I dubbed those directives, "isms". "Isms" were usually light on specifics for a new product's form but rather more suggestive of what to avoid in a game theme as envisioned by our marketers. After all, they had the research on game consumers' pulses as the basis for these "isms".

For inventors, "isms' were cautionary flags on what not to design into their new ideas. A wonderfully unique new game could be judged unsalable and rejected during the marketing selection process simply because the inventor stumbled onto an "ism" and unknowingly designed it into the new game idea.

Examples of "isms"from those years included: "Pirates won't sell". This "ism" prevailed in the days long before Johnny Depp starred in the popular Disney's series, Pirates of the Caribbean. The "ism" "Space won't sell", was wiped away by George Lucas as he created a toy licensing cash cow with his cinematic magic in the Star Wars block busters. An "ism" that may still prevail is "Clowns won't sell". Perhaps clown appearances in too many horror movies makes them less desirable as playthings.

Fast forward to more recent times when I had a neat co-development opportunity on a politically themed game somewhat similar to a former party game titled, "WWJD". Before progressing too far, I ran the idea by a highly respected and experienced game sales executive. Yikes, his reaction was yet another "ism" - "Politics won't sell". It seems a trade buyer's political party bias and the divisive topic of politics for U.S. voters were enough "ism" specifics to squelch the idea.

Today with non-stop news surrounding the 2016 POTUS campaign, we have the surprising emergence of a controversial personality who has made past appearances on mass-market games. Donald Trump was central to the theme of Trump: The Game released in1989 and again in 2004. The strength of his billionaire status and his Apprentice TV show were enough star power to get him onto games that did not deal with politics, Both were more related to Monopoly where acquisition and negotiating of properties generated mega-wealth. Who better than billionaire developer Donald Trump on a board game to let players fantasize about basking in billions? The games did not sell particularly well, and experienced only mediocre ratings from boardgamegeek and gamersalliance. They had short lives and quietly faded from retail store shelves.

Now with Donald clamoring around the prime time political scene, will a toy marketer ignore the "politics-ism" and give Trump another chance in the world of play? Perhaps Trump on board games was not the right fit. President Trump: The Game might make a provoking adult party game. Maybe Donald is better suited to non-game categories. A bloviated gobbledygook spewing action figure seems appropriate. Or a Dashboard Donald novelty with AC air ruffling his iconic mane might find a place on cars everywhere.

Trump's entry into the POTUS political arena will be a true test of the "politics-ism".  In Donald Trump's world, that test will be whether "HIS Politics will or won't sell" to a market much bigger than the one for toys and games.

My recollections of the Milton Bradley 1989 Trump: The Game introduction:

• Great NYC Toy Fair media buzz surrounded Donald's Game. . .

• Showroom exhibit was magnificent, energetic, and eye-popping. . .

• All  showroom personnel were  instructed to talk-up the game. . .

• Some Mid-west customers unfamiliar with Trump caused sales concerns. . .

• Donald's chopper delivered him to our E. Longmeadow office for short visit. . .

• Marketing colleagues started wearing Trump's iconic red ties. . .

• Several colleagues tried to emulate Trump's coif..I kept my close-cropped G.I. style. . .

• Game had strong trade sell-in, weak retail sell-through...didn't become an MB classic!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Not Your Father's Lego

According to NPD, 2014 retail sales of construction toys were $1.85 billion dollars with a significantportion coming from long popular Lego sets. Construction toys as a category in 2014 were up 13% over the previous year. With digital play increasing over use of traditional toys and games, it is encouraging to see that basic construction toys are steadfastly popular with kiddos where they cause imagination and hands on skills to build dimensional physical objects.

The creators of Boxly, a new construction toy using oversized corrugated panels, did considerable market research on existing construction toys before they decided to invent a product far from Lego but nonetheless a plaything that fits into the same industry category. For the three Stanford University design engineering students, their product originated as part of a class assignment rather than as a random idea for a commercial venture.  It was their decision to create a toy that would meet children's inquisitiveness and imagination in simple self-directed creative play. The playful band of three designers said on their website, " We believe creative play has the power to develop confidence and independence through hands on exploration." website

Boxly is a collection of single ply corrugated panels which uses uniquely designed connectors duringplay. The creators knew they had a viable construction toy after viewing hours of successful and engaging fun play by their ultimate consumers-- young children. When product prototypes were put into the hands of kids, there was no "adult assembly required"; the kids did the assembly and played and played and played all by themselves.
To produce Boxly for a broader audience, the design team turned to a funding effort on Kickstarter. Says Sasha Spivak, one of the three designers, "We are ecstatic to exceed our funding goal during the thirty day campaign on Kickstarter. Raising $31,425 confirmed that there are backers who share our vision for our new construction toy". The designers are now transitioning to producers and marketers of Boxly as they fulfill commitments to KS backers as well as fill new orders coming from the online store on their website. Looking at their pictures on that website, you see a team of three creators who will bring energy and enthusiasm to their efforts to carve out a place for Boxly in the construction toy market. Welcome to the toy industry, Boxly creators!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Changing With the Times

In the mid-1990s, ThinkUp was a recognized source in Hasbro Games' search for new opportunities. It was often scheduled into "show times" during sweeps to see toy inventor ideas in NYC. ThinkUp was and remains a creative, Philly-area studio with all the development skills to represent new ideas in illustrations, CAD designs, and looks-like/works-like playable models.

Jerry Cummings, the chief thinker at ThinkUp, knows the 100 to 1 odds against getting a mass-market toy or game idea licensed. As a talented artist, designer and inventor, he takes on the annual speculative challenge of creating toy and game ideas, ever hopeful his next creation will become an industry mega-hit.

ThinkUp has maintained the best of its design talents from pre-digital days and added new skills for today's world: the creation of "pitch" videos.  Video captures product features consumers see and can measure a potential marketing licensee's interest and commitment before model making. Even with 3-D printing, making a fully functional replica of an idea is time consuming--and expensive.

ThinkUp has expanded beyond licensing proprietary toy and game concepts into other consumer product categories as well. And the studio will digitize product concepts for other inventors, create marketers' promo videos, or even take pixel magic into playful animations with unique characters. A ThinkUp venture called My Pixel Kids uses those animation skills in a YouTube series of classic nursery rhymes. Five Little Monkeys

Says, Cummings of ThinkUp's transition and expansion from its early days of b-boards and model making," We work very closely with clients to minimize false starts or late stage rejection of concepts. Speculating exclusively on what might be the next hot toy or game in our studio only to have it rejected in a marketer's selection process just didn't seem to make full use of our creativity. We still love our own proprietary toy or game ideas, but we are not averse to helping another inventor or marketer create a success. We take delight in using our skills in any successful effort and not just limiting ourselves to a ThinkUp idea to get all the glory--and rewards".

Friday, May 29, 2015

Words from the Wise

The original edition of The Toy and Game Inventor's Handbook, included "profiles" of some eighty creatives, who could enter "occupation-professional toy inventor" on any application. These were high achievers in the speculative, high-risk world of licensing ideas to industry marketers. Time has taken some of these incredible talents from the industry like Ralph Baer, acknowledged "father of the video game business", and Fred Kroll, who pushed roller carts filled with new toy and game "opportunities" around the old 200 5th Ave. NYC Toy Center for sixty-six years! (Fortunately for Fred and Hasbro, Hungry, Hungry Hippos dropped off one of those carts!)

In our third edition ebook, some profiles have been altered but much of the advice and perspectives from eighty pros continue to ring true. For any inventor, who hopes to create new playthings,  thoughts from these old pros on what makes great toys and games and what sparks their original ideas are invaluable. They live the life captured in quotes of Thomas Edison, "Have a great idea, have lots of them" and "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." Inventors profiled in the Handbook averaged thirty ideas annually. (That's a lot of ideas and a lot of perspiration!)

Recently, several pros offered prospectives on challenges facing toy inventors today. Mary (Game Bird) Ellroy and Hank Atkins feel that "larger companies seem focused on brands rather than unrelated concepts no matter how good they are". Tim Moodie acknowledges, "the loss of larger game companies reduces likely licensees for his ideas." He shares Mary Ellroy's view, "that opportunities are emerging with new, interesting marketers". All three agree, "that new toy and game ideas need to compete with gadget play", and they favor "adding electronics or some novel technology if possible."

There is timeless cautionary advice as well. Seeing the advantage of now popular crowd-funding, Ken Evoy, Canadian licensor of many playthings, counsels,"Never mortgage the house. It is much safer to find venture capital. The worst thing is to spend your money on 10,000 pieces, sell a few thousand, and have the rest end up in your garage." Hank Atkins opines that a single license will not generate sustainable royalty income, saying, "Don't give up your day job." And co-author Richard C. Levy, with over 125 original concepts licensed and approaching 40 years in the business of fun and games advises, "Never give up, never grow up." To meet the challenges of inventing today, it makes sense for creatives to mix into their thinking several dashes of sound advice from the wise--and successful--pros.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Cat Paw! Toy on Letterman Goes Viral

Some of you may not have seen Anna Kendrick's reaction to the Cat Paw toy on the David Letterman late night show. Her rather risqué' comments in this video clip went viral resulting in great PR for this  new toy! If you missed it, check it out here.

Guess who invented it? None other than Richard C. Levy, my co-author of The Toy and Game Inventor's Handbook. In past NYC Toy Fairs, Richard and I gave numerous anecdotal presentations on the TIA's Creative Factor programs about toy and game invention and licensing new product ideas. At Javits 2015, Richard went solo in an interview with host, Michael Artsis of Be Terrific, offering fascinating snippets to chronicle his long and successful career in the toy and game industry. Artsis seemed mesmerized, yet playful, as Richard described his career in the professional inventing community punctuated with demonstrations of not only Cat Paw, but his other latest creations, Dirty Words Game, and The Electronic Waving Flag.

Richard's Be Terrific interview shares his thoughts on the creative process used by the author/inventor respectfully dubbed Mr. Outside in the introduction to the Handbook. Throughout his long and fascinating career, Richard has been an inventor creating outside the corporate walls while thinking outside the box as well! See his amazing story here.