Kids go crazy for Crazy Bones

Four words: fun in a box. At its most basic level, says Michael Albert, that's what selling toys to youngsters is all about. Which is a point that marketers in this field do well to bear in mind. 'You can do...

Four words: fun in a box.

At its most basic level, says Michael Albert, that’s what selling toys to youngsters is all about. Which is a point that marketers in this field do well to bear in mind.

‘You can do testing and focus groups,’ says Albert, vice-president, marketing and product development, for Concord, Ont.-based Playtoy Industries. ‘You can go into it with all kinds of forecasts and soothsayers. And all that stuff can turn out to be wrong. But if you know that the product is going to deliver fun in a box, then you’ve at least got a fighting chance.’

Sounds simple enough. The catch, of course, is that you’ve got to figure out what’s likely to fall within the kid definition of ‘fun’ – a tricky proposition at best, since that definition is subject to rapid change without notice. (Does your nine-year-old still play with that Tamagotchi you hunted high and low for a couple of Christmases ago? Didn’t think so.)

These days, conventional wisdom would suggest that unless you can plug it in, kids won’t want to have anything to do with it. But as Playtoy’s experience with Crazy Bones has shown, you don’t necessarily need 64-bit technology to create a schoolyard sensation.

As toys go, Crazy Bones are about as low-tech as you can get. In fact, according to Albert, the ancestry of the product stretches back some 2,000 years.

Targeted to youngsters in the 4-12 age range, Crazy Bones are small, bone-shaped plastic pieces with cartoon faces. There are 196 pieces in all, each one a unique character. (Sample names: ‘Bad Boy,’ ‘Speedy,’ ‘Scissor Head,’ ‘Jaws’ – you get the idea.) A pack of three retails for $1.99.

Product shipped in August, Albert says, and retail sales have already topped 2.5 million packs.

The Crazy Bones characters are being sold in six limited-edition series, the second of which has just hit the market. There are a number of schoolyard games that kids can play by throwing, rolling or bouncing the pieces. And, of course, there are various accessories to be acquired, from the coffin-shaped Boneyard Carry Case, to the official handbook and sticker album.

‘Really what we’re doing here is marrying a whole bunch of tried-and-true concepts,’ Albert says. ‘You’ve got aspects of tiddlywinks, Pog, marbles, trading cards and action figures, all rolled into one package.’

Admittedly, PlayStation it’s not. But as Albert points out, there’s almost always a place for a simple low-priced item that kids can purchase with their allowance money and play with at recess. An element of collectibility will usually add considerably to such a product’s appeal.

The Crazy Bones concept is modeled on ‘Tabas,’ a popular children’s pastime of ancient Greece and Rome, which involved throwing and bouncing painted sheep knucklebones.

Crazy Bones were first introduced in Spain three years ago, and quickly spread through many Latin American countries. Playtoy is distributing the product in this country under license from Magic Box International.

In launching Crazy Bones into the Canadian market, Albert says he drew heavily upon experiences with similar products – in particular, his involvement in the introduction of Pog, while working for now-defunct Canada Games in 1995.

One of the keys to getting a craze like this off the ground, he says, is sampling. Lots and lots of sampling. ‘You’ve got to put these things into kids’ hands – several hundred thousand of them, free – and show them how they work.’

Prior to the launch, Playtoy conducted product demonstrations and sampling at summer camps across Ontario, in an effort to build awareness. A tour of schools and shopping malls followed in the autumn. Television advertising and public relations also supported the launch.

Albert says all of the marketing efforts have been targeted toward kids at the upper end of the 4-12 demographic, since youngsters invariably aspire upwards.

Limiting the supply is also a crucial tactic, Albert says. ‘If you overproduce, you overship. And if you overship, people get tired of the product very quickly.’

Right now, the craze is going strong in Ontario and Western Canada, but has yet to catch on in Quebec, Manitoba or Atlantic Canada. Playtoy has plans to continue rolling out new Crazy Bones series right through the third quarter of 1999, and anticipates retail sales of $35-$45 million.

For all the careful planning that goes into the launch of a product like this, Albert says, there’s always an element of unpredictability when dealing with the youth market.

The cross-gender appeal of Crazy Bones, for example, has taken Playtoy somewhat by surprise. In the case of Pog – an analogous product in many ways – boys were by far the predominant buyers. But with Crazy Bones, purchases have been split just about evenly along gender lines.

Why? ‘I have absolutely no idea,’ Albert laughs.

Also in this report:

- Candy makers pump up the volume: Hershey, Wrigley sponsor high school concents in effort to leverage hip image p.14

- Youth an elusive target p.14

- You must remember this…Marketers look back on their childhoods to recall the commercials that made a big impression p.18

- Youth Culture targets teens with a Bang p.24