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
Like eager Christmas shoppers, the festive season starts early for
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
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
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
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
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
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:
Harry Potter Lego
Radio Control Hovercraft
Harry Potter Book of Spells
Cranium Board Game
Air-go Pogo Stick
Rock a bye Chou Chou
Wooden Noah's Ark