NEWS ANALYSIS: PROs put on toys alert in the run-up to Christmas - The sales opportunities for kids' Christmas presents has sent toy and game PROs into overdrive, says Alastair Ray

You could be forgiven for thinking that there will only be one toy

in town this Christmas. But while the avalanche of Harry Potter film and

merchandising news threatens to overwhelm both media folk and ordinary

consumers alike, there are a host of other products waiting in the wings

for their moment of fame.



Whether it's pogo sticks, Bob the Builder, board game Cranium or

Nutcracker Barbie that ultimately tops the Christmas chart, the festive

period is crucial for toy-makers and their PROs.



With a huge proportion of the toy business's turnover coming in the

run-up to the big day, success at Christmas can set a firm up for 12

months, but can equally blight the year ahead. So how do you persuade

journalists to run stories along the lines of 'can Drilling Bob

undermine Harry Potter?' and 'Is the pogo stick this year's

scooter?'



Like eager Christmas shoppers, the festive season starts early for

PROs.



Budgets are set as far as ahead as January and with long lead-time

magazines sections going to press as early as September, the hard work

kicks off in mid summer.



'As far as media relations is concerned, the run to Christmas started in

July,' says Sara Milne, board director at toy and games specialist PR

firm Clareville Consultancy.



By the time the media rolls round to write the traditional tale of

parents frantically trying to find this year's must-have toy, most of

the hard work has already been done.



Gary Bramwell, account manager at Brazen, which is handling Drilling

Bob's PR for Martin Yaffe International, says shows and fairs - such as

Totalfun, which ran at Olympia last month - can be a good place to

kick-start the process.



'Getting yourself at one of the big toy fairs in the run-up to Christmas

is key - "hustling" the media at these fairs can prove extremely

fruitful, knowing who's who and putting your product in the hands of the

right people can shift the emphasis onto your toy over the rest of the

competition,' he says.



Over at troubled Hamleys, a compulsory stop for any journalist on the

trail of a Christmas story, marketing manager Eva Saltman says the first

requests for its top ten toys now arrive in August. The premiere of

Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone - which brought 11 TV crews

into the store earlier this month - merely made the final Christmas rush

start that little bit earlier.



Saltman, whose company this week announced it had been hit hard by the

11 September aftermath, highlights the role PR plays in hitting one of

the two constituencies crucial for toy sales. Advertising may get the

message to the kids but articles in newspapers and magazines help

explain to adults exactly what it is that little Tommy actually

wants.



Merrigan Twelves, associate director at Attenborough Associates, which

handles PR for Tomy, says the crucial place to be is in the magazine and

supplement round-ups of the best of this year's Christmas shopping.

'People use them as a real bible,' she says.



Mattel PR account handler Lynsey Smedley backs this up, but stresses the

need to provide information about products right across the price range.

Its press packs include information about stocking fillers to ensure

journalists have information about products at every price point.



Toys also have the benefit of being highly visual. Moira Downie,

spokeswoman for the British Association of Toy Retailers, recalls a

successful press event from last year featuring a host of robot dogs -

the toy of the moment and tipped for repeated success this year with the

IBO 2 - being run through their paces with a mock Crufts judge to assess

their performance.



There is agreement in the toy PR sector that strategies involving TV and

radio PR tend to be news led and the tale being pitched needs to have an

element of topicality if it is to succeed.



Saltman says the store's kids panel of five to 11-year-olds has proved

highly popular at product launches, giving grown men and women a child's

assessment of a particular toy.



'Journalists all want to talk to our toy consultants because they get

the view of the actual end-users,' she says.



But not every toy story needs to be targeted at children. Twelves says

one element of this year's Tomy campaign has been to target the men's

press - and not because they might wish to buy something for little

Suzy.



With products such as dog.com - a robodog - in its catalogue, the aim is

to appeal to the adult's inner child as well as the school-age

consumer.



An added doubt is whether Barbie and her old-fashioned friends can

compete with the lure of video games. After all, Hamleys is predicting

that the Gameboy Advance will be its number one toy next month.



Downie concedes that traditional toys have a fight on their hands: 'We

have to work hard to keep market share.' But Bramwell insists the

perception of Christmas as a time for younger children helps keep the

media focus on more traditional products.



'Although computer games are seen as the new toys, Christmas will always

be associated with young children and toys,' he says. 'When it comes to

a Christmas toy campaign, the majority of media want actual toys.'



Although retailers may be openly cautious about their prospects this

Christmas, it's not all bad news. A recent survey by CIA MediaLab found

that consumers are planning to spend more than previous years this

Christmas.



The research found that spending on presents was likely to be the

biggest growth area, with an average increase in spend of nine per cent

in the toy and games sector. There's everything to play for.



TOP TEN CHRISTMAS TOYS

Top ten sellers in the run-up to Christmas so far:

Gameboy Advance

Harry Potter Lego

Radio Control Hovercraft

Harry Potter Book of Spells

Vectron

Cranium Board Game

Air-go Pogo Stick

Woodkins

Rock a bye Chou Chou

Wooden Noah's Ark

Source: Hamleys



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