From Toys to Tales

Hasbro, founded in 1923, has long been recognized as a global toy manufacturer. But the company today is focused more broadly on creating play experiences through the art of storytelling—a subtle but profound shift in strategy.

April 20, 2015

Deconstructed, our lives tend toward a simple pattern: eat, sleep, spend time at work or school, commute back and forth, then, once again, eat and sleep. Hasbro is interested in those precious moments unaccounted for by this gloss, those spare hours when we have nowhere to be and nothing to do and take it upon ourselves to choose how to pass the time. “We compete for all of your, your brothers’ and sisters’, your aunts’ and uncles’, your moms’ and dads’ leisure time,” said John Frascotti, President, Hasbro Brands, in a recent talk for the Colloquium on Marketing Leadership.

And they do this, he explained, by telling stories.

Hasbro released its first toy in the 1940s—a product line of nurse and doctor kits. Mr. Potato Head arrived in 1952, and G.I. Joe followed soon after. In the 1980s, the company experimented with TV programs, like JEM and the Holograms and Transformers, but these were primarily vehicles to sell toys. “Over the last 10 years we’ve flipped that a little bit,” said Frascotti. The company has redefined its mission—Creating the world’s best play experiences—and turned its attention from the manufacture of toys to the creation of stories. “We’ve developed story for story’s sake as a way to bring brands alive for the consumer.”

To execute on this new mission, Hasbro applies what it refers to as the Brand Blueprint. A single brand, like Transformers or My Little Pony, sits at the center of any strategy. “This is our organizing principle,” explained Frascotti. From there, the company commercializes its most popular brands in four distinct and complementary markets: toys and games, immersive entertainment experiences (like movies and theme park rides), digital media (like mobile games), and lifestyle licensing (like backpacks and shoes). This single process, Frascotti said, encapsulates the company’s strategy.

Of course, what this process implies varies by brand. While Transformers has toys, computer games, and a multibillion dollar movie franchise, the experience around NERF looks quite different. When Hasbro noticed that NERF users were creating and sharing countless hours of community-generated battle videos, Hasbro nurtured this process and developed a new blaster with a built-in camera. The fans of NERF would help to tell the story.

“Our view is that these brands belong to us, but also belong to all our fans,” said Franscotti—a “new-school” approach to building out their Brand Blueprint. In another case like NERF, when fans began using 3D printers to create their own toys based on Hasbro brands like My Little Pony – a clear violation of intellectual property law—rather than slapping the movement down with lawsuits Hasbro partnered up to develop an online marketplace of fan-made products. “Within the boundaries of tastefulness and legality, we like to take an open source approach,” said Frascotti. All of these interactions allow Hasbro and its consumers to deepen the story and characters behind any given brand.

This growing commitment to storytelling is most transparent in the recent announcement of Allspark Pictures, a film label for producing original movies. The first feature-length films in queue are a live-action JEM and the Holograms and an animated My Little Pony.

As he drew to a close, Frascotti hammered home the value of good stories with a single numerical comparison: between 2012 and 2014, entertainment-backed brands—that is, toys with some form of entertainment behind them—grew at seven percent; growth of unbacked toys was flat or slightly down. “It’s a big, big headline in our business,” said Frascotti. “When you go into a store, the things that sell are the things that have story and character behind them.”

To Frascotti, this differentiation makes intuitive sense. Characters, he said, have a way of imprinting on our brains; when we think of movies we like, he said, we tend to recall the characters more than the specific plot points. Simply put, “children and adults relate to characters,” he said. “Storytelling is a way of taking brands and giving them a life that is so much more emotionally resonant than a physical product.”

Watch the full video of the talk here.

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