T.M.X. Elmo debuts following 19 months of covert preparation

LOS ANGELES: Fisher-Price employed 19 months of cloak-and-dagger secrecy to prepare for this week's unveiling of T.M.X. Elmo, the 10th anniversary (or "extreme") edition of its wildly popular Tickle Me Elmo doll.

LOS ANGELES: Fisher-Price employed 19 months of cloak-and-dagger secrecy to prepare for this week's unveiling of T.M.X. Elmo, the 10th anniversary (or "extreme") edition of its wildly popular Tickle Me Elmo doll.

The toy's media debut took place on Good Morning America on September 19, the same day the toy was made available in stores globally. The in-store launch date was carefully selected to clearly avoid potential Monday or Friday headline conflicts, or news associated with September 11.

The GMA spot was one of the final steps in a carefully orchestrated plan that included Hispanic outreach, partnerships with retailers based solely on trust, and guarding the product from leaking to the media until the very end.

"We kicked off this program with PR right in the launch, [a] specific part of the program," said David Almark, GM of Fisher-Price Friends.

The PR program for this Elmo was significantly different from the original, said Freeman Public Relations CEO Bruce Maguire. Freeman was the agency responsible for both efforts.

Much of the original Tickle Me Elmo publicity happened organically, he said. "In this case, the bar was set so high, and the expectations would be so high, we had to ask, 'What do we do?'"

The concept of the toy was originally teased to the media in November 2005, at Mattel-Fisher-Price's annual sales toy fair show, said Ellie Bagli, Freeman SVP.

But journalists were not permitted to actually see the toy. Fisher-Price offered an identical presentation to buyers and media at the New York American International Toy Fair in February.

Independent toy analysts Jim Silver and Chris Byrne were the only two people outside of T.M.X. Elmo's immediate marketing, promotions, and development team to be given an advance glimpse at the product, Maguire said. Even for them, Fisher-Price reps were on hand to demonstrate it and asked for signed nondisclosures.

Even Freeman reps had to sign an agreement.

In 26 years of working with the toy industry, "I've never been made to sign a nondisclosure before," Maguire said.

The advertising, crafted by Foote, Cone & Belding in New York, also couldn't feature the toy.

"It was too much of a risk," Bagli said.

While not revealing the toy could have posed a problem, she added, it was also newsworthy: The Toy Fair presentation resulted in a USA Today piece about "all the buzz and excitement about keeping it secret," said Bagli. "[That was] the first big break to the media that something was up."

Another key strategy, Maguire said, was a sight-unseen partnership with retailers, including Wal-Mart, KBToys, Target, and Toys R Us, which provided "multiple voices telling the press it was going to be hot."

"T.M.X. Elmo has infused the industry with excitement very early in the holiday shopping season," noted Anita Frazier, a toy industry analyst with the NPD Group. "In any typical year, nearly 50% of annual toy sales are rung up in the last three months. Anything that gets excitement going earlier helps the industry overall."

The GMA debut was secured in March, noted Bagli. After GMA, T.M.X. Elmo's next stop was The View, an obvious choice, as co-host Rosie O'Donnell was instrumental in the launch of the original Elmo. In addition to auctioning off a special-edition T.M.X. Elmo - signed by Mattel Brands president Neil Freidman and Muppeteer Kevin Clash - The View was delivered enough products for every audience member to take one home.

Freeman and Fisher-Price organized launch-day events, including in-store demos and early store openings, which boosted coverage and word of mouth for both the toy and retailers. In the days prior to T.M.X. Elmo's release, Internet chat rooms and blogs buzzed with discussion about where Elmo fans would be camping out to get their Sesame Street fix first.

This time around, Fisher-Price also employed Hispanic outreach, overseen by Brenda Andolina, head of PR and brand development at the company. Working with Freeman and Hispanic PR firm MarketVision, Fisher-Price reached out to both in-language and English media - "the first time we did so in a big way," she said.

Another difference from the original Elmo effort, said Maguire, is how much more involved the firm was in the global launch. "We had to make sure everybody is on the same timeline," he said. "Nothing can happen [prior to] GMA."

Though T.M.X. Elmo has been revealed, Maguire said the firm's work is not done. "Our program now has to be re-evaluated because of what happened."

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