Pay a visit to any toy shop and it’s likely you’ll be overwhelmed by the images, colours, shapes and sizes hitting you. It’s a bonanza for kids and creates plenty of headaches for parents, as pester power soon kicks in. And for the designers of packaging in the toy market, it poses several challenges.
Every brand has to work hard in a crowded marketplace, whether it’s food or personal care. But do toys have to work that bit harder? The signs are that some brands have decided to engage the consumer with high tech tools, taking advantage of the boom in smart phones. That’s not to say that it’s all about the graphics – a well thought through, and simple, approach to pack structure can pay dividends.
“Toy packaging has to work as hard as other categories but in very different ways,” says Ben Sillence, design strategist at Designworks. “Generally the toy market is less of a browsing category than say cosmetics or body care. Consumers, usually parents, will know what it is that they have to get before they get into the store – they just need to find it.”
Neil Hirst, director at design agency Seymourpowell adds that there isn’t, traditionally, anything particularly sophisticated about toy packaging. It’s about appealing to the consumer at a visual level. “For the brands, the packaging is seen as something that is there to protect the product. It is more difficult as the toy packaging also has to shout as loudly as it can.”
The result, explains Sillence, is hardly a subtle approach. The graphics are bold, bright and dazzling. Parents are given the sign that this is the product they’ve been looking or – a sense of reassurance.
“This tends to make them [the packs] very information-heavy and, unlike other markets, it’s less about promoting a lifestyle emotion or experience,” he adds. “Instead the strong communication contains a lot of details that are meant to reassure, such as age range, what’s actually inside the box and activities.”
Some brands have spotted an opportunity in communicating that product information. Smart phones or devices such as iPads have become the norm in many households and earlier this year Bandai came up with new approach for its ThunderCats toys. It linked up with technology firm Aurasma to create augmented reality packs. Consumers simply point the camera of their mobile device at the boxes and, courtesy of an augmented reality app, a lifelike model of a character is projected from the box.
A 3D model of an action figure isn’t the only angle for Bandai. The packs also allow consumers to see adverts for other brands.
“With Bandai, we wanted to make the packaging as fun and interactive as the toy itself, creating a buzz around the action figures,” explains Tamara Roukaerts, head of marketing at Aurasma. “By allowing shoppers to see the toys in action before opening the box, it heightens the excitement around
The technology works by using image and pattern recognition to blend the real world with interactive content such as videos or animations called ‘Auras’. Content can be created through Aurasma’s online studio. “They [partners or agencies] can log in, upload a trigger image and then associate it with the digital content they wish to share,” adds Roukaerts. “After adding links the ‘Aura’ can be published and whenever viewed with Aurasma, the trigger image will come to life.” Roukaerts believes that this technology is a natural for with toy packaging as “it allows the manufacturers to link the physical with digital assets such as cartoons or games”.
But not everyone sees it that way and Seymourpowell’s Hirst wonders if there are enough children with access to smartphone technology to make it work. And while fancy graphics can help, structure has a role to play as well. Both Hirst and Designworks’ Sillence note that many products have “try-me’s”, where children can press buttons and sample the toy through the packaging.
“For toys, colour, graphics and shape are vital as is the ability to sometimes touch and play with part of the product within the packaging before purchase,” says Less Packaging client partner Ian Bates. “Strong graphics and a 3D structure are vital ingredients in the delivery of strong brand communication, which stimulates all the human senses. It’s these things that separate icon brands from me-too products within a crowded retail space.”
Sillence adds that for the more expensive toys, the packaging tends to be bigger – it’s all about meeting the consumer’s perception. “Quite often we receive briefs where the price point has determined the packaging size, without consideration for the product, which then has to be designed within the limitations of that pack size or shape,” explains Sillence.
But the amount of toy packaging has lead to a well publicised backlash among consumers and politicians. As noted in last year’s Markets feature (Packaging News, November 2011), the drive to reduce toy packaging is in top gear.
“The challenge is how to make toys appealing using the maximum amount of instant visual impact with the minimum amount of long term environmental impact,” says Bates. “This juxtaposition is faced by every toy brand on the planet that is trying to sell more using less.”
Perhaps London-based designer Oscar Diaz has the ultimate answer with toy packaging that is reusable and interactive. He’s the man behind Tube Toys, a series of cardboard tubes housing parts to build a vehicle – the range includes a car, train, tractor and fire engine. Each tube has pre-cut slots to place the wheels’ axis and other components.
“Analysing the life cycle of the product I realised that the product didn’t need too much packaging,” explains Diaz. “It’s also well known that children often enjoy more playing with the packaging than with the toy itself. Children enjoy playing with boxes, and parents are more and more aware of ecological issues and willing to make a contribution.”
While Tube Toys and Bandai’s ThunderCats packaging might appear to be poles apart in terms of technology, they both share one common and fundamental theme – it’s all about engaging the consumer, whether that’s an adult with a smart phone or a child with an imagination. Toy packaging is working harder than ever to connect with the consumer.