Whether you’re forty, fourteen, or four – age is irrelevant when it comes to a good toy. Seeing a Hot Wheels car, a Rubix Cube or a Barbie creates a rush of nostalgia for adults and sparks the imagination of the demographic it was built for.  Even today, we dare you to spot a bin full of LEGO and not at least stick a yellow piece to the flat green piece. As time passed, the simple assorted sets adults remember from their youth began to give way to a tsunami of brilliant, branded lines that includes Star Wars, Marvel and the Architecture series, which allowed consumers to grow with, rather than out of the brand. But as technology came into the mix, the electronic age created a new beast – the Net Generation. These consumers were no longer content to just play with their offline LEGO or Matchbox cars, and brands needed to evolve into the technology world in order to compete and survive. Change is the new constant as technophiles demand newer products and upgrades, and the onus is on the brands to keep them engaged and entertained. But how perfect a pairing is the retail world of toys with that of digital?

89% of kids who play video games in the U.S. are interested in Smart Toys.

For a broad stroke example of what toy brands are doing to stay top of mind one has only to look at MIT grad student Ayah Bdeir’s creation, LittleBits –  snap-together construction kits that contain tiny circuit boards, motors, sensors and lights that let kids play out their robot-building fantasies…all without the need for wiring. Touted as “LEGO for electronics”, the company has raised over 15$ million in funding and is being used in more than 1,800 schools.  The initative also helps move electronics from the hands of experts, to artists and creators of every stripe.

Looking at already-established toy brands making waves, Hot Wheels RC iNitro Speeders is an example of how companies are remaking some of their toys into new classics. These tiny RC vehicles look like their predecessors, with one big difference -- they’re radio controlled from your mobile device. Plug the iPhone adapter into the headphone jack of your iOS device to turn it into an RC controller; you will also need the Hot Wheel RC iNitro Speeders app - of course. Offering different control modes for you to set those wheels racing, and when the car needs to be recharged players still be occupied with the in-app drag racing game.

Even multinational food companies like McDonald’s have become experts in the digital space. In order to create a 360° experience, increase the life of their toys and keep their brand at top of mind, McDonald’s has launched HappyStudio.com - a free online world for kids where they can play games, explore, create ebooks, make friends and have online activation of their offline toys for bonus content. As a companion piece, download the free McDonald’s Happy Studio app to scan glyphs, unlock toys and mobile games while earning currency that kids can spend when they log into their Happy Studio.com account. There is also a gated section for parents where they can see how much time their kids are spending on the site, what games they are playing, view their finished creative activities and gift them with currency.

Important to note, however, is the relative paucity of these slam-dunk examples of retail/digital integration in toys. For every out-of-the-park hit like Activision’s toy-to-videogame juggernaut Skylanders, dozens of other attempts flounder, or fail to definitively show that the digital engagement means an increase in retail engagement. But the market and media are speaking very clearly – we are only beginning to see the executions that clever and creative brands are bringing to market.

The above examples make it very clear: even some of the most classic toy brands from our youth have grown and changed to stay fresh, but even more, proven why they remain top brands – they’ve innovated and evolved while remembering that it was always about the imagination and the love of play, whether that play was happening on an iPad or a living-room floor.

Commonsensemedia, Children’s Media usage in America, 2013

National Consumer League – July 2013

The NDP Group - “Kids and Consumer Electronics” 2013