What Has­bro’s Pie Face tells us about the fu­ture of fun

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY SARAH HALZACK

When K.C. Miller got her seven grand­chil­dren to­gether for the hol­i­days, things got a lit­tle messy in the kitchen.

They weren’t cook­ing some elab­o­rate recipe: They were playing Pie Face, a game in which a dol­lop of whipped cream is served up from a plas­tic “throw­ing arm” to some­one who has po­si­tioned his face in its path. As ev­ery­one tried to re­main stoic while get­ting bopped with a white blob, Miller took pho­tos and videos on her iPhone.

“We’d play th­ese videos and we’d just howl at how funny they were,” said Miller, a 62-year-old res­i­dent of Gil­bert, Ariz. And then she posted some of them

on Facebook, want­ing to share the high jinks with oth­ers.

Pie Face, made by Has­bro, was the sin­gle best-sell­ing item in the games cat­e­gory in 2016 and the fourth best-sell­ing toy over­all, ac­cord­ing to mar­ket re­search firm NPD Group. And Miller was hardly alone in shar­ing her fam­ily’s laughs on­line: Has­bro’s cus­tomer re­search found that over 50 per­cent of peo­ple who buy Pie Face make and share a video of them­selves playing it.

Pie Face is a sym­bol of a new era in toy­mak­ing, one in which so­cial me­dia is al­low­ing the in­dus­try to mar­shal you, the ev­ery­day shop­per, to be­come a prod­uct’s most pow­er­ful ad­ver­tiser. And its mega pop­u­lar­ity has helped fuel a flurry of ac­tion from toy­mak­ers to cre­ate games that of­fer a “share­able mo­ment” — a brief vis­ual morsel that par­ents and grand­par­ents will post on Instagram or Facebook and that teens will put on Snapchat or YouTube.

It’s a new breed of toy that can’t just be fun for play­ers in real time. It has to be demon­stra­tive. Per­for­ma­tive, even.

The de­sire to strike so­cial gold is shap­ing the game busi­ness in a va­ri­ety of ways: Toy­mak­ers are min­ing vi­ral so­cial clips for in­spi­ra­tion for new prod­ucts. They are scram­bling to crank out new games faster than ever to ride dig­i­tal waves be­fore they crest. And they are ap­proach­ing their mar­ket­ing cam­paigns dif­fer­ently, know­ing that your shared clips might do a fair amount of the lift­ing.

Pie Face, in fact, first came on Has­bro’s radar thanks to so­cial shar­ing. In 2015, the team there spot­ted a vi­ral clip of a grand­fa­ther and grand­son playing the game, which was orig­i­nally pro­duced in lim­ited num­bers by a small com­pany in Bri­tain. Has­bro moved ag­gres­sively to buy the rights to man­u­fac­ture and dis­trib­ute the game.

Other com­pa­nies, too, are look­ing to so­cial phe­nom­ena for cues. This sum­mer, Buf­falo Games & Puz­zles is set to re­lease a game called Flip Tricks, a riff on the cadre of “bot­tle flip chal­lenge” videos that have sprung up on YouTube. In the clips, peo­ple toss plas­tic bot­tles in the air, try­ing to make them som­er­sault mid­flight but land right side up. Flip Tricks at­tempts to cod­ify the phe­nom­e­non a bit, pro­vid­ing more durable bot­tles and spelling out head-to-head or solo chal­lenges.

“If some­thing’s already gone vi­ral, and you’re build­ing a prod­uct around that, then you already have this built-in mar­ket­ing that is stronger than any tra­di­tional ad­ver­tis­ing,” said Ben James­son, a vice pres­i­dent at Buf­falo Games.

So­cial trends go boom and bust at warp speed, and so toy­mak­ers say that they have to move at a break­neck pace to cap­i­tal­ize on them. Such was the case with Speak Out, an­other Has­bro cre­ation. In this game, play­ers wear a mouth­guard-like plas­tic mold that stretches their faces to look car­toon­ish and makes it hard to talk. Play­ers must say a phrase to a part­ner and get them to guess their gar­bled words.

Has­bro typ­i­cally takes 12 to 18 months to con­cep­tu­al­ize and man­u­fac­ture a game from scratch. With Speak Out, the process was com­pressed to 11 weeks. The idea for it was sparked by Web videos of peo­ple putting in den­tal mouth­pieces and get­ting the gig­gles when they tried to speak clearly, and Has­bro didn’t want to be late to the so­cial-shar­ing party.

“Ev­ery­thing has changed. The mind­set is the big­gest thing — we have to act like en­trepreneurs,” said Jonathan Berkowitz, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of Has­bro Gam­ing. “We just have to run when we see an op­por­tu­nity.”

Mak­ing a game into an Instagram or Facebook lode­stone doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean the idea for it starts on so­cial me­dia.

Josh Lo­erzel, vice pres­i­dent of sales and mar­ket­ing at Zing Toys, says there’s a par­tic­u­lar aes­thetic that lends it­self to a grabby, share-wor­thy bit: There’s got to be some “vis­ual eye candy,” Lo­erzel said, and a goofy sense of hu­mor.

A Zing prod­uct called Wet Head is an ex­am­ple of this: In the game, one player wears a yel­low hel­met equipped with a wa­ter cham­ber. Oth­ers take turns pulling pegs out of the hel­met, and even­tu­ally, one of those pulls ends up soak­ing the wearer with wa­ter.

A ver­sion of the game was re­leased about a decade ago, but was sent to the dust­bin be­cause it didn’t catch on. But when Zing ac­quired the com­pany that orig­i­nally made it, ex­ec­u­tives de­cided to re­vive it, bet­ting it would take off this time thanks to so­cial me­dia shar­ing. They’ve now sold over a mil­lion of them in North Amer­ica.

“You look re­ally funny with the hat on,” Lo­erzel said. “And then there’s that re­ac­tion mo­ment when you get wet and ev­ery­one’s laugh­ing at you. It’s re­ally funny to watch.”

Has­bro is count­ing on sim­i­lar, so­cial­friendly laughs with Egged On, a game to be re­leased later this year in which play­ers take a set of rub­ber­ized eggs and fill some of them with wa­ter. You take turns break­ing them on your head, and even­tu­ally, some­one gets soaked.

Juli Len­nett, toy in­dus­try an­a­lyst at NPD Group, says toy­mak­ers are smart to cap­i­tal­ize on a shop­per mind-set that her firm is see­ing ap­ply to a va­ri­ety of con­sumer goods.

“The way we look at it is that, en­abled by so­cial me­dia, to­day’s con­sumer doesn’t want to fol­low the stars — she wants to BE a star,” Len­nett said in an email. “He doesn’t covet sta­tus brands — he wants to build HIS OWN brand.”

Put an­other way: We want an ap­prov­ing au­di­ence for what­ever we’re do­ing.

That is why toy­mak­ers are not just think­ing about how th­ese prin­ci­ples ap­ply specif­i­cally to games, but to a wide va­ri­ety of prod­ucts. Take Stik­bots, a line of brightly-col­ored, plas­tic stick peo­ple made by Zing that are de­signed to be the stars of home­made stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion videos. Stik­bots cost about $5, and a re­lated app en­ables kids to make short movies with the fig­ures that can be posted on Instagram or YouTube.

“It con­nects to the core of where kids are to­day,” Lo­erzel said. “Back in the day, I’d get a new pair of Nike Jor­dans to look cool and get peo­ple lik­ing me at school. Now it’s, ‘I want to post cool stuff on YouTube.’ ”

At Zing’s head­quar­ters, ex­ec­u­tives have moved out of their of­fices to con­vert those spa­ces into tiny movie stu­dios. They’ve hired 15 peo­ple — stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tors, video ed­i­tors and oth­ers — to feed the so­cial me­dia beast with new con­tent.

If they want kids to share their own videos, they the­o­rize, there’s got to be a rich well of con­tent out there car­ry­ing the Stik­bots hash­tag. And there’s got to be a rea­son to share: Zing em­ploy­ees scour YouTube and Facebook for th­ese posts each day and re­post es­pe­cially strong ones.

“They’re be­com­ing the ad­ver­tis­ers for us,” Lo­erzel said. “It gets them likes, it gets them fol­lows. And it just raises the aware­ness of the prod­uct.”

And that means Zing can think dif­fer­ently about mar­ket­ing th­ese prod­ucts: With Stik­bots, it is mov­ing away from TV ad­ver­tis­ing in the United States to an en­tirely dig­i­tal cam­paign. Buf­falo Games, too, said that it might al­lo­cate a mar­ket­ing bud­get quite dif­fer­ently for a so­cial-in­spired game such as Flip Tricks or Watch Ya Mouth, a game from Buf­falo sim­i­lar to Speak Out.

“Once th­ese things re­ally go vi­ral and hit that tip­ping point,” James­son said, “you may be bet­ter off not spend­ing that money on any­thing tra­di­tional.”

“We’d play th­ese videos and we’d just howl at how funny they were.” K.C. Miller of Gil­bert, Ariz.

JULIE NGUYEN

Doc Nguyen’s whirl with Pie Face was shared with the world on Facebook.

LEFT TO RIGHT: COUR­TESY OF AN­GELINA KIM; TREVOR HOLM; AND KELLY STEARNS

Pie Face’s mega-pop­u­lar­ity has helped fuel a flurry of ac­tion from toy­mak­ers to cre­ate games that of­fer a “share­able mo­ment” — a brief vis­ual morsel that can be shared on so­cial me­dia by fam­ily mem­bers of all ages. Eric Kim, left, and son Luca Kim play the game, as do Jace Ray­mond Holm, 2, of Scap­poose, Ore., and Kelly Stearns, a speech lan­guage pathol­o­gist as­sis­tant for Gwin­nett County pub­lic schools in Ge­or­gia.

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