Mega Brands’ Vic Bertrand: Creativity to the rescue

Mega Brands COO Vic Bertrand grew up in the toy industry, where he developed an appreciation for creative play and a keen understanding of how a company can mature along with its customers. So last year, when it came time to rebrand the company his parents started in 1967 - which, thanks to expansion and acquisition, was now selling craft supplies, puzzles and stationery as well as its signature Mega Bloks construction toys - Bertrand jumped in with both feet and a strong vision.

Mega Brands COO Vic Bertrand grew up in the toy industry, where he developed an appreciation for creative play and a keen understanding of how a company can mature along with its customers. So last year, when it came time to rebrand the company his parents started in 1967 – which, thanks to expansion and acquisition, was now selling craft supplies, puzzles and stationery as well as its signature Mega Bloks construction toys – Bertrand jumped in with both feet and a strong vision.

The result is the innovative, multi-platform Creativity to the Rescue concept, a view of the glorious possibilities of unleashed artistic expression that is communicated to parents, teachers and children via a brightly coloured storybook starring a character called Creativity. There are also websites (kidsgetit.com and megabloks.com) with animations, games, videos, jokes, and more.

It’s all part of a marketing trend that relies less on the hard sell and more on a subtler, long-view approach – in this case, the idea of sparking creativity in kids and giving them tools to express themselves throughout their lives.

‘We’re talking about play media that nurture creativity at every step, from a child’s first grasp of Mega Bloks through school supplies and even into creative tools for adults,’ says Bertrand, 38. ‘And it’s really fun to have this string of creativity through the whole portfolio.’

In a sense, the concept is a logical progression for the Montreal-based family business that has employed Bertrand and his brother Marc, Mega’s president/CEO, for 20 years (their father, Victor Sr., is still chairman of the board).

‘When we were growing up, we thought toys were called samples,’ recalls Bertrand with a laugh. ‘It was a real family affair, so there was a lot of blurriness between home and work and fun, and that’s really integral to our

family dynamic.’

The company has since grown to employ 6,000 in 13 offices around the world, with sales of more than $550 million in 100 countries last year. With the acquisition of New Jersey’s Rose Art Industries, which makes pencil crayons and craft supplies, the idea of rebranding the company as the home of creativity took hold, and Mega Bloks became Mega Brands, with four core brands: Mega Bloks and Magnetix building toys, Rose Art and Board Dudes school supplies.

‘For us, Creativity to the Rescue is not a campaign,’ says Bertrand. ‘We see it as the accelerant to a new corporate culture that embraces our whole creative product portfolio.’

For the Creativity campaign, Mega turned to New York agency StrawberryFrog, headed by ex-pat Canadian Scott Goodson, to help execute the strategy.

‘We were looking to find a message that would strike a nerve, and build a culture around it,’ says Bertrand. ‘Way back when, we had three characters: a toddler, a preschooler and an older child. That’s always been our concept, growing with the family, and that’s where the brilliance of StrawberryFrog came in. They took the character and ran with it.’

The agency developed the storybook first, followed by a hilarious online video in which kids dressed as ketchup and mustard containers ask grownups outside the UN’s New York headquarters how to solve the world’s problems.

‘We told them we’re not big believers in traditional advertising,’ says Bertrand. ‘And I think when they’re briefed in that way, a group like StrawberryFrog can do really interesting things. We love that because you’ve got to do things that are different and memorable.’

‘Children’s toys are promotion-based, and it wasn’t normally something we’d be interested in,’ says Goodson. ‘But Vic had a vision that was very inspiring: to turn Mega Brands into a megabrand. He knew the key lay in its roots, the Mega Bloks, which are all about inspiring children to create. He felt strongly about paring back the messaging so it becomes a simple, universal message for parents around the globe – that creativity is the number one thing.

‘Canada doesn’t have a lot of international brands that trade on lifestyle, so Vic’s quite a maverick in that respect,’ he adds. ‘He sees that the spirit of Mega is bigger than a particular toy. The design is important, but it’s more about the spirit of creativity. I think it’s like the Nike or Apple of Canada – it’s huge, and it’s going to grow.’

Indeed, Bertrand has big plans for the future, including launching the Creativity to the Rescue Foundation, which will fund creative makeovers in schools. ‘So many schools no longer have art classes, or can’t fund programs,’ he says. ‘So we’ll go into a school and give the kids new supplies, and we’ll fund art teachers for a period of time.’

And Mega is staffing up for its new push. It’s just hired Harold Chizick as its new director of promotional marketing and public relations. Another recent hire, EVP/CMO Kathleen Campisano, heads a marketing department of 50 people working on promotions, advertising, PR, event management, retail marketing, web management and graphic design.

Bertrand says that Mega, which also works with Toronto-based Spider Marketing Solutions for web design, NYC-based Emanate for U.S. PR and Montreal’s Skuad Studios for CGI production, will have a more integrated marketing and advertising campaign this year. But the company’s focus will increasingly be on consumer interaction, with input from parents and child development experts on product development as well as marketing strategies.

‘We’re going to build community with parents,’ he says. ‘The website will become an area where they can share experiences and gain ideas about how to nurture creativity, or the developmental benefits of math or dexterity skills. There’ll be a whole grid coming together under what we’re calling playtogether.com.

‘It all comes back to the concept of conversation and community,’ says Bertrand. ‘We’re doing everything we can to always have a feedback system, so we can communicate and really change the paradigm of advertising. Obviously the traditional media is not broken, but there are so many opportunites to think differently and do things that have so much more impact. With traditional one-way advertising, you really have to be unique to stand out. These alternate channels are much more exciting, because there are feedback loops attached to them. That’s why the community approach is so much more authentic, and I think people appreciate it.’

FIVE QUESTIONS

What brand best understands how to talk to consumers?

Apple.

What’s the most bulletproof brand, and why?

I don’t think bulletproof exists. You have to stay with the consumer, and the consumer’s always moving.

What’s the last marcom effort that made you buy?

IPod video.

Who has created the best new retail brand experience?

Starbucks.

What’s your biggest inspiration?

Kids. I have four, ages seven to 18, and they help me get connected, that’s for sure.