The Toys that Teach Us: 4 Key Marketing Principles at Play in The Toys that Made Us.

Jul 31, 2018 · 14 min read
Image courtesy of Netflix

What marketers in 2018 can learn from the toys of the ’80s

Unlike Josh Baskin in Big, I’m far from a toy expert. I’ve never been paid to test toys, let alone design, concept, or market them. Back in the 1980s, however, I definitely played with a lot of them. I spent thousands of hours invading the Ewok village with a ragtag assortment of G.I. Joes and Battle Armor He-Man — because you never really know what’s going to happen on the forest moon of Endor.

A toy story

So it was with a mix of childhood memories and professional curiosity that I recently sat down to watch Netflix’s new documentary series, The Toys that Made Us.

Here were the toys I’d grown up with, but seen from a very different angle: a behind-the-scenes look into their creation stories. Now that I’m a Creative Director at Uber, I’ve had plenty of first-hand experience in product marketing and design. So I found it fascinating to reexamine these treasured objects as businesses, rather than just as toys.

A multibillion dollar game

Watching the gripping backstories of Kenner, Hasbro, Mattel and their fierce multi-year battles for the hearts and minds of children — and the billions of dollars that the victor of those battles would reap — made me appreciate that the people behind these businesses were playing for keeps.


And therein, I think, lies a fascinating tension. How did brands transform these bits and bobbles from disposable commodities into the eternal treasures of children everywhere? How did designers and marketers reposition these molded plastic figures into beloved artifacts forever emblazoned on our personal histories? I think the answer, as it so often is — is storytelling.

And since my business is advertising, I was reminded again and again of the 4 Ps of Marketing. So I thought it would be fun to explore the toy stories featured in The Toys that Made Us through the lens of the 4 Ps. I’m going to dig in a little extra on product and promotion, because those are my areas of focus, but I’ll cover all 4.

But first, a very important question: what exactly is a toy?

Is an iPod a toy? They sold them at Toys“R”Us. Does a toy have to be an action figure, or a doll? Is a bouncy ball a toy? What about a baseball? Is it something you can play with, or just something where you push play? According to the experts, a toy is technically categorized as a CPG:

What’s a CPG?

According to Investopedia: Consumer packaged goods (CPG) are a type of goods consumed every day by the average consumer. The goods that comprise this category are ones that need to be replaced frequently, compared to those that are usable for extended periods of time. While CPGs represent a market that will always have consumers, it is highly competitive due to high market saturation and low consumer switching costs. / Some CPGs from Kellogg’s, Procter & Gamble, etc.

Toys are like toothpaste?

I’d never considered Snake Eyes or Battle Cat in the same club as toothpaste or laundry detergent. Nor, frankly, had I thought of my toys as frequently replaceable, even though a few of mine had definitely been consumed by the sandbox/sarlacc pit at Johnny McCormick’s house. But, of course, toys are replaceable. Come to think of it, Pixar has made three movies about their very replaceability, which–from the perspective of Buzz and Woody–is a pretty frightening prospect. And this replaceability is one of the main reasons that the toy business is highly competitive, since it leads directly to “high market saturation and low switching costs”.

Of course Woody does the crossword in pen.

Marketing toys isn’t child’s play

In many ways, of course, the marketing environment today is vastly different from even that of 20 years ago, let alone 40 or 60. But while the channels and media have changed, the principles that allow brands to sell products haven’t. It’s a great illustration that — when it comes to storytelling in general, and marketing in particular — some things never change. And it all comes back to the 4 Ps.

What are the 4 Ps?

The “4 Ps of Marketing”, or the marketing mix, is a model found in the bedrock of modern marketing. First codified in 1960 by marketing professor and pioneer E. Jerome McCarthy, the 4 Ps give a useful frame for thinking about marketing across products.

They are:

Product: What you’re selling.

Price: How much you’re selling it for.

Promotion: How you are selling it.

Place: Where you are selling it.

Simple, right? But by tweaking each of these aspects, a unique marketing plan can be custom-made to fit any product.


This can either be a physical good or a service that, hopefully, somebody wants. Before you can market something, you’ve got to understand what it is, what it does, what its benefits are, and why people should care.

The creation stories of a couple of perennial favorites are particularly instructive here. In the beginning, there were Barbara and Joseph, two hyper-successful superstars that towered above them all. Better known by their nicknames, Barbie and (G.I.) Joe, this duo were poseable, dressable, and — at 12 inches tall — literally a big deal. And they were making big money, hand over tiny fist. Of course, Barbie and Joe weren’t the only show in town — dolls have been around for about as long as childhood has: / Pictured: An ancient Egyptian doll.

…but one thing that set them apart from most dolls of the time: they were aspirational. Rather than a baby to take care of, a teddy bear to cuddle, or a playmate to take on adventures, Barbie and G.I. Joe took their cues from paper dolls — elegant adults, powerful grown-up role models who could be endlessly accessorized. For Barbie, fashion choices soon morphed into entire careers. For Joe, the accessories were more martial — he had a wide array of weapons that helped him get the bad guys from land, sea, or air.

Barbie and G.I. Joe changed the popular conception of what a toy could be. But they wouldn’t be the last ones. The next major change came from a galaxy far, far away…

20th Century Fox

Oh, whoops, that’s the Spanish one…one sec…

20th Century Fox / Theeerrre we go.

Movies didn’t move merch

Kids’ TV shows had long been recognized as a great place to move product. From Howdy Doody and Davy Crockett to Rocky and Bullwinkle, toy companies knew that kids would want their very own versions of the adventures they lived week in and week out with their favorite friends and heroes. Movies, on the other hand, hadn’t really sold toys. They’d come out once a year, stick around for a month or two and then disappear. Nobody had VCRs. You couldn’t re-watch the movie. Flicks were as fleeting as Barbie’s brief stint as a rap musician in ’92. Basically, movies weren’t able to hold the fickle attentions of the kids because they didn’t stay on every week to remind you to buy a new toy.

Ralph McQuarrie / Lucasfilm: Original concept art

The hero’s journey

Then in the late ’70s, George Lucas started shopping some conceptual art for a new space opera with the big toy companies. He had a feeling his characters would make cool toys. He hit all the major houses, looking for a licensing deal, but they all turned him down. Movies didn’t sell toys, remember? Who knew the young director of American Graffiti was about to unleash the most popular toys in the world? A couple of guys in Ohio, that’s who.

The licensing is strong in this one

Things were getting desperate when he connected with a small toy maker in Cincinnati named Kenner. They loved the script, and were blown away by the drawings and models. The Kenner team signed the best deal in the history of the universe giving them 95 cents on every dollar the toys earned. The deal didn’t last forever, but it lasted long enough...So far the movies have made around 7 billion dollars. The toys have made 14 billion.

So where’s the product?

Before anyone could make all that money, they had to make some actual toys. In 1977, Kenner had the exclusive licensing rights, but what they didn’t have was time. The problem was that the movie was coming out in 6 months, nowhere near long enough for them to make toys. Usually toys got shopped out 2 years before a release to give design and fabrication time to plan, sketch, and produce these toys in China and ship them to America. They had the designs and prototypes of Luke and Darth and Obi-Wan…but they just didn’t have the toys.

Kenner/ Empty Kenner toy box, holidays 1977. These are just pictures of toys.

Toy or toy not. There is no try.

For Star Wars’ first holiday season ever, Kenner was stuck selling what were essentially toy vouchers to eager kids and parents, promising them the toys when they actually, you know, existed. This was, not surprisingly, a tough sell. All the Ps are important, but you can’t do anything without product.

Launching anything is hard, timelines are crazy and delays happen, but just imagine that first holiday season in December of ’77 if Kenner had had the appropriate time necessary to get the toys on shelves. It might have been the biggest retail moment in the galaxy.


How much are you going to charge for this particular product? Too cheap and your margins don’t add up, too much and you limit your potential audience. What’s your strategy? Do you want everyone to have them, or everyone to want them? Will limited runs increase the scarcity and price? Did you know there are cheap knock-off LEGOs? It’s true. Which is probably why real LEGO say LEGO on every single little nub brick stud thing. LEGO isn’t the only line that’s been challenged on price.

A famous example from the ‘80s is the battle between Transformers and Gobots (get it? They’re Robots that go.). As is still true today, parent companies Tonka and Hasbro were major players at the time. Tonka was famous for its giant metal construction vehicles and trucks, and Hasbro had a ton of flagship products including G.I. Joe and My Little Pony. Transforming robots were already hugely popular in Japan, and Tonka and Hasbro raced to launch their own versions to the American market, landing their competing lines within months of each other. Now, for kids it was super easy to tell Transformers and Gobots apart. Play quality-wise, Transformers were way cooler. They turned into rad stuff, like semi trucks and F-16 jets, instead of uncool stuff, such as vespas. Plus, Transformers had better character differentiation between the good Autobots and the bad Decepticons, with handy faction symbols so you’d know if you were getting a good guy or a bad guy.

Good guy. Bad guy. Easy, right Mom?

But kids don’t control the budget. And plastic robot toys all look the same to Mom and Dad. So price was a key advantage for the Gobots. Because of that and what I would imagine were a lot of accidental parental GoBot purchases, the cheaper Gobots hung in for a few years, but eventually the better toy won out, because price can’t buy playground street cred.

The GoBots remind us of an important truth: when you’re dealing with CPGs, price can make you competitive, but if the soap doesn’t clean, or the robot doesn’t transform into something awesome, you won’t win on price alone.


Once you’ve got your product and you know how much it costs, you’re ready to tell people about it. This includes all your traditional marketing channels: advertising, PR, stunts, email, etc. If a product is a thing with features, and a price will determine who and how many folks can use that product, then the promotion is the story you tell about the product to imbue it with benefits and make it relevant and compelling to the audience.

How a doll became an action figure…

In the early ‘60s, Hasbro was trying to find a “boys’ toy” that could rival the popular acclaim Barbie had achieved. At the time, the idea of any kind of “doll” was seen as strictly being something that only girls should play with. Hasbro’s solution? Joe wouldn’t be a doll at all - he was an “Action Figure”, a “movable fighting man”. It was pure semantics, but it worked - and a legend was born.

…and soldiers became an “Adventure Team”.

The original Joe toys, representing all branches of the military, were doing just fine until the ’60s curdled into the ’70s, Vietnam kept on going, and parents weren’t as keen on Billy and Jimmy playing war games any more. Hence the “Adventure Team”. Joe was now braving the elements, surviving natural disasters and the dangers of the wild, rather than fighting Communists.

A decade later, in the more jingoistic ’80s, Joe would get yet another makeover, as “A Real American Hero”. Joe and his teammates now became an elite covert action unit of the U.S. military, dedicated to fighting a group of basically Satanic terrorists named COBRA. The massively popular Star Wars toys were doing sales like nobody had ever seen and so G.I. Joe relaunched a smaller G.I. Joe at the same 3 3/4 inch scale as Luke and the crew.

Teaming up with Marvel for comics and cartoons

Cobra plotting nefariousness.

To help promote these new anti-Cobra resized Joes, Hasbro partnered with Marvel to create both a comic and an animated TV commercial. The ad was so successful that they ended up producing two 5-part mini-series that aired in 1983 and 1984. Giving kids 30-minute cartoons about your toys is a surefire way to sell more toys. As the new LEGO movies (and LEGO Ninjago movies, and LEGO Batman movies…) have proven, people watching entertaining long-form promotional material definitely buy more of those products.

Promoting the backstory

The dotted line shows you where you need to cut to collect and save these. Which my brother and I definitely did. I think they are still in his room, actually.

As the generic soldiers of the ‘60s and ‘70s were replaced with individual characters in the ‘80s, Joe gave each G.I. Joe a rich and original backstory, filling their every action with purpose. You think Snake Eyes was living an ascetic life in the High Sierras with his wolf Timber for no reason? Think again. Hasbro’s ‘80s promotional genius was imbuing each character with a unique quality that played upon the childhood mania for categorization with its “collect them all” mentality. It’s such an effective strategy that it’s basically the sole purpose of past (and future?) toy fads like Beanie Babies and Pokemon. As the man says, “gotta catch ’em all.”


You’ve got a product, you’ve priced it, you’ve promoted it, now you really need to stick the landing and place it in the right place at the right time so that the people that want it can find it and buy it. Nowadays, the place is often digital, think shopping online, buying from Amazon, etc. But parents still go to Target, and Walmart, and when they do—they’re often with their kids. When that happens, you want to have the goods on the right shelves at the right height for the audience to cajole some purchasing power out of the grownups.

Before online was an option, people got most of their media from T.V. and film. It’s easy to forget nowadays with Disney-heightened Star Wars mania, but Star Wars toys weren’t always popular. Look at kids way back in 1988 when the movies had been out for a decade, an actual lifetime for 10-year-olds. Even, Return of the Jedi came out in ’83. The next new movie wouldn’t come out till 1999. Which meant there was a big 15 years of kid-dom where children were either too young or too old for Star Wars action figures. With no movies to build campaigns around, the merchandise struggled.

Image courtesy of Pinterest/Kenner ‘80s Star Wars toys on shelves.

Then a funny thing happened. With word that there would finally be new Star Wars movies, the first to come in 1999, the juggernaut of Star Wars tie-ins launched into action. Unlike way back in Christmas of ’77, this time they’d be prepared. They made new toys. A lot of new toys. New characters. Young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Toddler Darth Vader. Imperceptibly-younger-but-now-made-of-computer-graphics Yoda. And this guy:

Lots and lots of that guy. When it turned out that there was actually a finite market for some of these new characters, a lot of them ended up here:

The dreaded discount bin. The last place you want your toys/products to end up.

From here to Eternia

Mattel/ I have no idea how well this ad actually performed, but with that devastatingly poignant buy him toys before it’s too late “while he’s still a child” line I would guess it performed very, very well.

And that’s it. Those are the 4 Ps, and why I think our toys still have a lot to teach us. I watched the series through the lens of somebody whose job it is to anticipate audience desires and tell stories that create demand. But as a marketer, I was surprised at just how relevant the trials and tribulations of He-Man and Hello Kitty were to our current creative sandbox.

What’s the story?

That’s why the 4Ps stand up. Because when you’re selling anything you’ve got to find the unique selling proposition for each product. What is it about that one toy that will break through and capture the imagination etc. With toys especially, you’re dealing with a market where everyone is yelling, the packaging, the commercials, if you don’t have a unique position, if you can’t communicate what makes that toy great for that target market, you’re going to have a hard time.

Woody, a giraffe, an alligator, construction trucks, a seal a penguin and some plastic bread. Makes sense.

The kids are alright

Now that I have kids, it’s fascinating to watch them create, imagine, and learn alongside these new figures. Kids are natural storytellers and the tribal toy knowledge of kid pop culture gets traded like goldfish around their lunchroom tables. While my kids haven’t yet seen Star Wars, they know all the characters’ names and general back stories. Just like how they could sing every word of the PJ Masks theme song at least a month before we watched a single episode at home.

Stories at play

I wondered at the beginning of this article how brands turned articulated plastic figures into the beloved characters we grew up with. The answer, of course, is that people love stories. Whether those people are little kids or big kids, stories are what bridge the gap between disposable colored plastic and the sacred totems of childhood.

Toys are memes you can hold on to

And maybe that’s because, fundamentally, kids are incredible meme generators and transmitters, and their toys are the first memes they ever encounter. They play with them while searching for connections. Seeking meaning. Exploring motive. Who’s good. Who’s bad? And what does everyone want? They learn, obsess and move on quicker than I can flick through my Netflix queue, jumping from Daniel Tiger to Wild Kratts to PJ Masks to Transformers to Spiderman to whatever they’ll be in love with when I pick them up this afternoon from school. And that’s because when you’re selling CPGs like toys, you’ve got to give kids something to hold on to…something that they can make real, believe in, and grow up with.

Toys are teachers because toys are stories that we tell each other, and we tell ourselves about who we are, who we want to be, and where we want to go, which, I think for most people, is to infinity…and beyond.

Thanks to Christopher Starr and Matthew Moore


Written by

Creative Director at Opendoor| Ex-Sandwich Artist, Movie Projectionist + Concessionaire

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