In a previous article I wrote regarding "marketing the now," I found great insight in one of the most peculiar places – the toy industry. Benny Kline, CEO for Tenacious Toys, has been a virtual friend of mine for some time now. His scrappy entrepreneurial wisdom always gives me a lot to think about. I hope the following interview with him benefits you as well.
I'm not sure exactly what it is that fuels the changing interests in the toy industry. I think the toy, more than any other item, is presented specifically as a disposable item. Not because you're supposed to throw it out, but because it's meant to entertain. And entertainment is fleeting these days.
Computers. Kids have a shorter attention span and thus need a greater number of different toys to make it through the day without boredom. Multiply that by 1 million, and factor in the fact that toys aren't just for children anymore, but are often marketed to and sold to adults (young adults today are the first adults ever who grew up surrounded by computers), and the result is an entire industry whose product life cycle is growing shorter by the year.
Interest in toys seem to change all the time. What drives that? And how do you forecast that evolution?
I deal with a fickle toy market on a monthly basis. An artist, designer, or company is hot one month – and all of a sudden the sales dry up.
I deal with this in two ways: Firstly, I am extremely active on social media and on my blog, sharing new and upcoming products and gauging the responses of my network. Soliciting feedback by entering, and in many cases, starting the conversation about a toy is my most effective strategy in making purchasing decisions. Instead of trying to predict the response of the ever-changing collector market, I just listen a lot. So much easier.
My second tactic is to have a backup plan for each item I end up purchasing. When will I discount it, what can I do online to increase interest in that item? Do I offer it to my core group of customers at an exclusive discount in order to move the remaining stock? And finally, if all else fails, can I use that stock as something of a barter to get myself something else of value, like exposure, building my email list, adding blog subscribers, or maybe I send to an artist to customize into a OOAK piece so that the item is more desirable once again?
Why does the Toy market move so fast?
My assertion is that the speed of technology – texts and Twitter and instant messaging - lead kids to have a shorter attention span, and this carries over to non-electronic entertainment as well.
If we're talking plastic toys, I have a feeling an average 6-year-old today will play with an action figure for like 20 minutes tops, whereas 30 years ago, a 6-year-old might ONLY have a couple action figures and would be FORCED to play with them for hours.
Now, people amass collections of the figures - disposable entertainment with shorter play value. Most adult collectors don't even take their $10 Funko figures out of the boxes. I own several FunkPOP figures, and I've never touched the surface of any of them. They're in the box still. A testament to my own fleeting interest ...
Now that I think about it, there's an interesting point to be made here: The issue at hand is the fleeting nature of consumer interest in any given product or genre of products. My assertion is that it is the existence of technology in our lives which generates this faster product cycle by limiting the attention span of the average consumer.
Yet, as I described earlier, my solution to this problem is also technology-based: I utilize social media (the source of the truncated attention span) to assess the economic feasibility and marketability of any given product. Computers / social media / technology is both the cause of, and solution to, the fickle toy industry. Weird.
How do you create interest or desire around new products?
I don't create desire, the desire already exists. Fortunately in the toy industry, the companies themselves do a ton of marketing. So all you're really dealing with is merchandising properly and making sure the interested customer knows he can get the product from your shop. That's all SEO and communication.
Talk to me about “Urban Vinyl” or “designer toys” as they are also known.
In my niche, which is a subset of the overall toy industry, there is a bit more opportunity to set trends, because an art toy shop is basically half toy shop, half gallery. The gallery aspect involves curation, which is a trend-setting endeavor. Galleries must pick and choose hot (or, even better, soon-to-be-hot) artists and brands to represent within a very limited set of curated art products. Art toy shops definitely get to set trends and influence the market a bit. Toys R Us doesn't, it basically just stocks everything, and they let the consumer decide what they want.
This is almost a “what is the meaning of life” question for marketers: What makes something cool?
A lot of the cool factor of the art toy involves a surprise - the customer has never seen the item before they walk into the shop. It's so limited they've never heard of it or laid eyes on it. That uniqueness is desirable, as far as art toys are concerned, so just displaying and selling a unique art toy can serve to set trends moving forward. Better yet, it establishes the shop as the nexus of trends, so that people keep coming back to see what's in stock. This essentially dictates the shop owners' assertion of what's cool right now. And as we discussed before, what's cool right now will most likely NOT be cool next month (according to the consumer AND according to the shop owner/curator). Thus the churn, turnover, and shift in attention and purchasing habits on a monthly basis.
How do industry sub-niches such as yours affect the larger whole of the industry vertical?
I AM seeing a bit of the art toy industry rubbing off on the big-box toy stores. This only started within the past few years. I noticed that Kidrobot and Toy2R started popping up in smaller chains like Urban Outfitters a few years ago. Now you can find The Loyal Subjects items in much larger chain stores. That transition was not surprising, as those items are mostly licensed products. Licensed products are supported by mass appeal. However, the interesting thing for me to see over the past year is The Loyal Subjects rolling out "exclusives" to these chain stores, such that a particular chain would be the only set of stores stocking a particular item. This is the same concept that indie art toy shops have been enjoying for decades, magnified x 1,000 to support the production numbers required to supply a chain of hundreds of stores.
What makes your marketing/approach unique?
That is a challenge. My No. 1 goal is to create an excellent buying experience that the customer wants more of. I write to customers myself, and deal with issues myself. And I employ blunt, self-effacing honesty when I discuss issues with people. I refund customers when there's an issue, I try to remain calm and detached when dealing with negative situations.
Basically, I want to make shopping at my shop a pleasing experience.
That's the primary way to win customers. Slowly, by word of mouth.
I wish my clients understood that! (laughs)
As far as my own marketing goes online, I have a social media motto: "Be everywhere, all the time." I employ tools to deliver my content to as many platforms as possible. I have an iPhone which allows me to check incoming messages across 5+ social platforms all day long.
Finally, I don't operate in a vacuum. If I do not have a product, I will steer a customer to a shop that does. Often I can reach out personally to an artist or company and get something for a customer that might not normally be available. I am happy to pass off a sale to another member of my community. By doing this, I ensure the possibility of them doing the same for me. In short, I am operating not as Team Tenacious but rather as Team Art Toys. Whether the other shops and personalities in the industry are on board, I don't care. That's how I operate. Supporting everyone.
It’s a very helpful and authentic way of being — I dig that. I dig you.
It's a total concept of my place inside the community. I am always aware of where I fit in and whether I am helping move the industry forward.
It probably makes me a shitty businessman as well. But I long ago abandoned the idea of getting rich off of art toys, in a financial sense. I'd rather just build this thing up as high as it'll get to benefit us all.
Thanks Benny — You rock!
Here's a link to Benny's efforts with a Toy Designer on Kickstarter too!
The "Four Horsies of the 'Pocalypse collectible art toy figures!"
For more on Benny & team see: