Image: T.M.X. Elmo
Mark Lennihan  /  AP file
It's not just Elmo, it's extreme Elmo. And it's one of the hot toys this holiday season.
updated 11/9/2006 7:14:02 PM ET 2006-11-10T00:14:02

Turning an ordinary holiday toy into a phenomenon isn't easy. In fact, it's often as much a matter of luck as anything else.

Most holiday seasons come and go without the craziness of the latest "gotta have it" toy.

As much as Mattel, Hasbro and other toy makers would like it to happen every year, it's a relatively rare phenomenon when one item takes shoppers by storm, sending parents scurrying near and far to find a store that's not out of stock of that magical gift the kiddies can't do without.

Remember the Cabbage Patch Kids of 1984, Tickle Me Elmo in 1996 and the Furby animals of 1998? Each transcended simple holiday popularity to practically take on cult status.

Cult status is what Mattel's aiming for with TMX Elmo (as in "tickle me extreme"), a technologically improved version of the 1996 sensation that had competing parents on the verge of blows as they plowed into stores to score that year's youth status symbol for their children. This year's Elmo takes things a step further than his decade-old predecessor, laughing harder and slapping the floor in hysterics. And parents are posed to gobble him up as quickly as they did the original. Mattel sold 250,000 of the dolls the first day it hit the market in September, according to industry estimates.

How does it happen that every so often a particular item, usually a toy, becomes an over-the-top "must have" gift item that consumers just can't do without? Experts say it's a matter of buzz over advertising, taking care to channel that buzz to the right audience, and plenty of sheer luck. Despite the millions toy companies invest in consumer research, most people aren't very effective at telling you what they want until they actually see the product after it's out, says New York City-based retail consultant Patricia Pao.

"It's a combination of understanding what your customer wants and just getting lucky," she says.

Companies that achieve a major product breakthrough at holiday time have succeeded in making effective use of word of mouth among relatively affluent buyers, and then minimizing production or delivery to limit the supply. Nothing makes an item hotter than the aura of scarcity. Cabbage Patch Kids got their initial buzz at local craft shows in the south before toy manufacturer Coleco took notice and swooped in to start mass-producing them.

The great paradox, says Milton Pedreaza, CEO of the Luxury Institute, is that when something is unique and rare, everyone wants it. For parents, getting their hands on such an item bestows instant status on their children relative to their peers.

"It's 'I want my son to have one,' " Pedreaza says. Companies typically shun mass advertising in favor of viral marketing — the use of creating interest among people of a particular social class, usually upper-middle class — to spread the word and hope it trickles down some. The key, he says, is using targeted media (now including blogs) and local promotions to get the buzz going among the target audience. Many of these efforts backfire, but every so often the result is the hottest child gift in years.

"It's chance with the right fundamentals in place," he says.

This year, one which the NPD Group says toys will lead holiday season growth along with clothing and music, Mattel seemed to do everything right in its strategy to capitalize on the tenth anniversary of the original Tickle Me Elmo. The company kept its marketing low key for several months, generating buzz by getting word of a product out there without revealing its exact features.

That led to a primed audience in advance of a big unveiling on Good Morning America. And the company has only put out enough inventory so far to satisfy about a third of consumer demand, according to Pao's estimates, helping to ensure a sense of urgency to get one.

"Mattel ran a brilliant marketing campaign," she says. And for the parents of youngsters, just think, only eight more weeks to go.

© 2012


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