OPINION: Retro toys

It?s been a trend for a while now, but it seems that more 80s and 90s brands than ever are gracing the toy aisles. Lou Ellerton from The Value Engineers takes a look at why we?re so enthralled with retrotainment?
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Read something about Care Bears recently? Cabbage Patch Kids? How about ThunderCats or My Little Pony?

Maybe The Smurfs, Strawberry Shortcake, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The list goes on.

All share three common factors: they found their way into kids’ hearts, were at their peak in the 80s and 90s and are now being re-born. In fact, they’ve all benefited from the rich industry of ‘brand necromancy’. 

So what’s behind this sudden drive to exhume the successful kids’ properties of yesteryear in today’s ‘retrotainment’? Well, it’s a combination of factors: audience demand, rising consumer trends and a strong commercial rationale. 

We’re all aware of Generation X – those born between 1963 and 1982. The happy coincidence of this group hitting their 20s as the internet went mainstream began the retrotainment trend that’s driving so much of kids’ marketing today. Suddenly nostalgia was ‘in’ – and this time, it was the games, toys, film and TV properties 20-somethings had loved as kids that were top of the heap. 

Now in their 30s and 40s, today’s Generation X are old enough to have children of their own. Many of today’s parents of under-tens have browsed sites like 80snostalgia.com, watching YouTube montages of ads from their childhood and listening to compilations from School Disco. The result is that we have a purchasing audience who are used to childhood loves being just a click away. 

It’s this desire to share their memories with the next generation – and to create new memories that incorporate characters, books, brands and toys they loved – that’s fuelling the new popularity of old favourites such as ThunderCats, Care Bears, My Little Pony and The Muppets. 

Of course, it’s not enough simply to slap a label on something and call it new. Today’s children are growing up in an interactive, immersive world, and they won’t settle for historical relics. It’s here that the brand necromancers begin their work, stripping down the bodies and pumping in new life. 

Though not infallible, the recipe for revival is clear: take the best-loved and most memorable elements of 80s or 90s toys, games and programming and ‘upcycle’ them – adding technology, CGI and interactivity. The expertise comes in with the decision of what to discard and retain, keeping the flavour the same while restoring the fizz. Think of the Game of Life Adventures edition, Lego Star Wars or The Smurfs.

Particularly when it comes to children’s TV properties, the reworked versions aren’t simply updated. They’re designed to communicate on two levels: a surface-level narrative and jokes for young viewers, plus cultural in-jokes, double-entendres and knowing ‘winks’ for adult audiences. 

The greatest consumer trends aren’t going to drive NPD without a strong commercial rationale. It would be nice to think studios, broadcasters and manufacturers have recognised consumer demand and responded accordingly. In fact, consumers are enabling the trend for brand necromancy, but aren’t driving it. 

Much of the power behind retrotainment comes from pure pragmatism: it’s cheaper to upcycle an old favourite than to create a new brand. Existing awareness of these old brands means upcycling is less risky, requiring less marketing spend to build momentum. 

But that’s not the only commercial argument for brand necromancy. Our research has shown a simple logic: Generation X parents are more likely to spend willingly on toys and games that tap into some familiar flavour from childhood, notwithstanding demand from their kids.

So what can the rest of us learn from the brand necromancers? Well, firstly, it’s a scary world out there at the moment, and parents are looking for brands which provide comfort and reassurance. Providing familiarity can help to shortcut the decision-making process and drive purchase.

Secondly, ‘new’ doesn’t have to mean new. What have you got buried at the back of the cupboard? Think about what you can extract and how you might combine it with modern capabilities and technologies to make it appealing for a new generation of kids and parents. 

The age of retrotainment has arrived with a bang, and it’s showing no signs of heading out again.


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