Spin Master’s power play

The Toronto-based global toy co is sending Redakai into battle in toy stores and on TV this year, but will it have the category-busting power that Bakugan did?

If Spin Master received a report card, it would no doubt say “Plays well with others.” After all, its breakout hit Bakugan was developed in partnership with Sega Toys in Japan and Toronto-based animation house Nelvana, and the franchise has gone on to include videogames with Activision, a film deal with Universal and even McDonald’s happy meals.  
The marketing plan for Bakugan – which leveraged TV, digital, word of mouth, experiential and retail partnerships – was a far cry from the traditional kids’ model of a commercial that yells the product name 96 times (though Spin Master does that sometimes too). It’s a transmedia success story that both the competition and potential partners would be wise to keep in mind as the Toronto-based global toy co gears up to do it all over again with a new property called Redakai, launching this summer. 
But let’s start with Bakugan. Centred on a card game and plastic marbles that pop open into little fighting characters, Bakugan launched in Canada in 2007 with an accompanying anime-style cartoon series called Bakugan Battle Brawlers (Spin Master’s first co-production). After finding its footing here at home, the brand entered the U.S. market in 2008 and by the holiday sales season, a Bakugan toy was being sold every 2.5 seconds.

As sales expanded worldwide, Bakugan became a billion-dollar franchise – one with enough cultural cachet to be parodied on The Simpsons and included in a Jeopardy! question.
“Bakugan was something extremely special because all of the elements sort of clicked together,” says Harold Chizick, VP, global communications and promotions, Spin Master. “We had a compelling entertainment property on its own and we also had an incredibly innovative toy on its own – I think either one of them could’ve been hugely successful without the other.”
Together they were unstoppable, propelling Spin Master to become North America’s fourth-largest toy company in 2008, after Mattel, Hasbro and Lego. Spin Master’s success with its first TV show also prompted the company to open its own entertainment division that year, focused on the design, development and production of cross-media entertainment properties.
But television wasn’t the only medium that helped fuel the Bakugan craze. Spin Master leveraged digital in all forms, including a brand site that houses product and gameplay information, Twitter and Facebook pages that encourage fan interaction, a podcast featuring interviews and event coverage, and a YouTube channel with product previews, commercials and tournament footage. It even took a page from Webkinz’s playbook (see “Ganz stays social”) in launching a multiplayer online world called Bakugan Dimensions. Third-season toys featured special access codes that allowed kids to enter the online world with their Bakugan characters, create their own avatar, chat and battle with other gamers.
As Bakugan’s popularity grew, Spin Master also went the experiential route, providing opportunities for kids to play against other Bakugan hotshots. The toy co teamed up with Toys “R” Us stores in Canada and the U.S. in 2010 to create the Bakugan Battle League, which saw kids play in-store tournaments with each other using their own supplies. Participants received a league membership card and certificate commemorating their participation, and had the chance to win prizes. That same year, Spin Master also hosted the first Baku-Con for American players, inviting kids in Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Orlando and New York to duke it out in regional tournaments, with the top 16 from each city flown out to the championships in New York City.
Part of Bakugan’s success was derived from offering play technology that neither kids nor parents had seen before. As Chizick points out, “There had been no innovation in basic marble play for hundreds of years, and here we come with this little transforming marble.”
For Spin Master’s new property, Redakai, the special technology is housed within the trading cards themselves, which use lenticular imaging to create 3D effects without the need for special glasses. Portions of the sturdy plastic cards are also transparent, allowing players to stack damage and enhancements onto other cards. Not only does the design offer up cool effects, it also makes it immediately clear who’s won each battle, without the need to keep score on paper.
Redakai’s straightforward game play is no accident. In developing the new game, Spin Master enlisted Justin Gary, who travelled the world as a Magic: The Gathering player in his late teens and early twenties, and later became a game developer. 

“That was a huge coup for us, getting someone who was able to help us develop a game that was strategic yet simple enough for six- to 10-year-olds to understand,” Chizick says. “Other trading card games are complicated, the scoring isn’t easy – boys buy the cards to collect them, but don’t really play the game.”
In addition to the cards, Spin Master will launch Redakai accessories and action figures this year, with more licensed goods to roll out through 2012. (Bakugan merch has included backpacks, books, clothes and lunchboxes.)
An animated TV series called Redakai: Conquer the Kairu will also launch in North America this year, focused on three teens on a quest to “gather magical Kairu energy, harness its power and defeat the evil forces of Lokar,” Chizick says. Co-produced with Zodiac Kids in France, the show will air on the Cartoon Network in the U.S. and YTV in Canada.
Global release dates for Redakai have not yet been issued, because as Chizick points out, “So much of it hinges on securing a broadcast partner. It’s one of the cornerstone elements of the property to create the story and help kids understand what Redakai is.”
It’s a strategy that worked for Bakugan. The animated series (about the lives of the creatures inside the balls, and the “battle brawlers” who possess them) not only educates kids on the brand’s mythology, its battle sequences also show viewers how the game is played.
As Spin Master readies Redakai for launch, Bakugan is just finishing its second season in Europe (two years behind North America) and is also seeing growth in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
“There are plenty of markets that are just hitting the peak of the mountain [in terms of Bakugan’s popularity],” Chizick says. “I think the best takeaway is that in every market we’ve entered with Bakugan, we’ve seen the exact same trajectory of how it takes off and explodes.”
Buoyed by the success of Bakugan’s brawling marbles, Spin Master recently opened up new offices in Amsterdam and Munich, adding to the locations it already had in Paris, London, Mexico, LA and Toronto.
The company’s global focus applies to more than just its expansion plans, however; it’s also evident in its trendspotting prowess. Spin Master recently noticed a booming collectible-eraser craze in Asia and brought it to North America, launching a line called Gomu in January.
“It’s one of the things that we’re famous for – finding hot trends, capitalizing on them and creating a brand out of it before other people can get to market so we become the lead brand,” Chizick says. 
Far too cute to actually erase with, Gomu collectibles come in shapes ranging from bunnies to iPods, with point values indicating how rare they are in the 100-plus item series. They sell for a suggested retail price of $1.49 each or $5.99 for a six-pack.
Each eraser is comprised of several separate pieces (one for each colour), so they can be disassembled and reassembled, like tiny puzzles. “It gives you that fiddle factor, where kids just want to hoard them and adults want to hoard them too,” Chizick says.

Gomu was launched with a TV spot produced in-house, featuring a jingle that leaves “Gomu! Gomu! Gomu!” ringing in your ears.
“We thought if we brought [this trend] to North America and put it on TV that we’d make enough people aware of it that it had the potential to be a big line for us,” Chizick says, “and so far so good.”
Gomu has been selling out at stores, and a YouTube search reveals plenty of user-submitted “unboxing” videos showing kids opening their eraser packs to see what’s inside.
While Bakugan, Redakai and Gomu are generating the most buzz at the moment, Spin Master has plenty else on the go. A new fashion-activity brand debuted at New York Toy Fair in February called Bizu mirrors the “fiddle factor” of Gomu, allowing girls to make a beaded bracelet that transforms into a cute animal – a product that may even woo kids away from their Silly Bandz.
Spin Master also recently entered the board game aisle by acquiring the distribution rights to Stratego and other games. This year it will release new remote-controlled vehicles featuring characters from Disney-Pixar’s upcoming Cars 2 movie, including a talking Lightning McQueen car and the gravity-defying, wall-climbing Finn McMissile. It’s also giving Barbie a run for her money with new additions to its Liv doll line.
 “People used to say we were like an item house – we’d have one item, it’d be in the market for a couple of years and then go away,” Chizick says. “Now we’ve really become a company that builds brands.”

ORIGINS: Spin Master was launched in 1994 by three university friends – Ronnen Harary, Anton Rabie and Ben Varadi – who started with a budget of $10,000 and a single product: The Earth Buddy. A surprise hit, the pantyhose-covered head sprouted grass “hair” when watered. The trio followed it up with a handful of novelty products, but didn’t find big success again until 1998, when Spin Master launched its first Air Hogs air-pressured airplane with help from two British inventors. Since then, Spin Master has introduced a slew of hot kids’ toys ranging from finger-skateboards and bikes (Tech Deck and Flick Trix, respectively) to Bakugan. It’s signed licensing agreements with major players such as Nickelodeon and Disney, secured distribution in over 50 countries, opened its own entertainment division and now employs a global staff of roughly 1,000.

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