Hot Wheels or the internet? With more than 90 million web users globally under the age of 18, many traditional toy companies don't want to make kids decide.
The latest interactive sites provide fun and games that tie in directly with the company's products. The goal is to build brand awareness with a new generation. These sites are built not only around the latest high-tech toys and games, but also around some going back more than 50 years.
All Dolled Up
For instance, what's more classic than Barbie? While the brand still carries immediate name recognition, that alone isn't enough to keep young girls interested. At Barbie.com, fans of the beloved doll can find a range of interactive fun. "Barbie.com allows girls to deepen their experience and relationship with Barbie as they immerse themselves into Barbie's world," says Neil Friedman, president of Mattel Brands.
Girls can check out Barbie's spacious closet filled with clothes and accessories. They can choose an outfit, give Barbie a makeover, decorate her bedroom or explore the rooms of her house, which include a TV studio. There's also a chat room with selected responses to choose from. The very pink and very cheery site also lets girls play games, learn to dance and design a pet horse.
The new BarbieGirls.com beta site, launched in April, goes a step further by offering the option of creating online characters with customized looks. The characters can then hang out and chat with friends in user-designed rooms. The new site, which requires free registration, also lets girls buy clothing, accessories and even furniture for their room. "These are interactive experiences that connect to the heritage of the brand: fashion, beauty, aspiration and friendship," adds Friedman.
Barbie isn't the only doll going virtual. American Girl Dolls, another standard in the marketplace, is also turning to the internet. AmericanGirl.com features "Fun for Girls," an editorial-content section with games, polls, quizzes, craft and party ideas, book excerpts and other activities.
"We deepen a girl's connection to the brand and to a favorite doll or story through the interactive programs that are available," says Ellen L. Brothers, president of American Girl. "For instance, girls can explore the worlds of their favorite historical characters, play a game related to the new Girl of the Year character or try a craft featured in American Girl magazine."
Expanding the Experience
Of course, it's not just dolls moving to the web. The folks at LEGO, based in Billund, Denmark, have created an extensive site surrounding the multi-colored plastic bricks that have been a staple in toy stores internationally since their initial debut 56 years ago. Peter Hobolt Jensen, senior director for online communication, who is globally responsible for the LEGO.com site, says it gives kids a place to experience the products and be creative. LEGO enthusiasts can upload and share their own creations, take part in discussions on a message board and create a model in 3D using virtual bricks. They can even buy the model they create virtually in real bricks.
At Crayola's website, the emphasis is on coloring online with virtual products. "We're leveraging crayola.com to communicate the full benefits of our innovative products," says Rob Walker, internet marketing manager for Crayola.com.
Digi-Color, for instance, allows users to select crayons, colored pencils, paints, washable or erasable markers, Slick Stix or other Crayola products to draw virtually. In addition to virtual coloring, a host of cards for everything from birthdays to Mother's or Father's days are also available for designing and printing. "We've built the site around Crayola's core values, which means providing open-ended creative fun. We want it to be a place where kids can explore and have fun, while we showcase our products," adds Walker
From Mattel, the Hot Wheels website is one of the most popular sites for boys, bringing speed, power and performance to life through a variety of activities. "Boys love to race and compete against each other and these site elements invite them to experience the thrill of Hot Wheels driving, stunts, customization, blasting and crashing right on their own home computer," Friedman says.
HotWheels.com also lets boys create their own customized page to capture high scores and gives them a place to track their Hot Wheels collections online.
So is this approach working? LEGO.com boasts 11 million visitors monthly with an average time of 28 minutes spent on the site. The new BarbieGirls.com generated more than 1.5 million registered users in less than two months. "Fun for Girls" on American Girl.com is now attracting an average of 14.8 million visitors per year. It seems safe to say that kids are flocking to these kid-friendly interactive websites. And some of the most popular toys of recent generations are maintaining their popularity in the real world through virtual world applications.
Rich Mintzer is a journalist and author of more than 50 nonfiction books, including several on starting a business. He hails from Westchester, New York, where he lives with his family.