Tiny Dolls Get Big Personalities in Hopes of Boosting Sales; Fisher-Price is revamping its Little People line of preschool dolls with an older appearance, personality traits and back stories. Will the move bring licensing riches?

March 27, 2013, 7:17 p.m. ET

Tiny Dolls Get Big Personalities in Hopes of Boosting Sales



The redesigned Little People dolls, on sale this summer, will have distinct personalities. From left to right: artistic Sofie, energetic Eddie, shy Mia, silly Kobe and twirly Tessa.

Little People dolls, a staple of the toddler playroom for more than half a century, have a problem: No one remembers their names.

Their maker, Fisher-Price Inc., is trying to change that. It hopes more memorable names lead to add-on riches like television shows and songs.

The visual changes in the figures—their first in 15 years—might seem subtle. They will be a tad taller (about 2½ inches high), thinner and less babyish looking. The dolls will wear updated clothing and hairstyles. No longer holding pets or playthings or snack food, their arms will be set in more expressive poses.

Most important, says the company, the painted plastic figures will have full-blown, identifiable personalities: Eddie is active and athletic. Mia is the shy, feminine one. Tessa loves to twirl like a ballerina.

The new dolls will go on sale this summer. Fisher-Price says the packaging will not include character details. It will direct parents to a revamped Little People website and YouTube channel where six short videos will introduce the characters and their stories. The company says it will also inform parents with email blasts and through social media.

The overhaul comes after a five-person team spent the last year interviewing parents, observing children and meeting with child-development experts. Fisher-Price says the new dolls reflect children’s tendency to connect better with well-defined characters, and believes that their older appearance, personality traits and back stories will help generate more lucrative licensing deals for songs, videos, electronic books, TV shows and the like. Now, parents and children often relate more to the play sets the figures come with—the house, the farm, the castle—than to the dolls themselves.

Not that the company hasn’t pursued such deals before. Over the past decade and a half, Little People have been featured in scores of Claymation videos, in family programming on Royal Caribbean cruises and through licensing partnerships withWalt Disney Co. DIS -0.28% and Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc. But while Fisher-Price says the Little People brand has seen “significant growth” over the past five years, it has never matched the runaway success of, say, Hit Entertainment Inc.’s Thomas & Friends franchise, which parlayed the exploits of a group of spunky and devilish rail-yard vehicles into a licensing juggernaut of more than 200 deals.

The difference, the company says, is that Little People were missing the crucial ingredient for plaything brand extensions: character. Parents and children told researchers they loved the dolls, but couldn’t remember their names or what they stood for. “There was no emotional attachment to the characters,” says Dave Ciganko, vice president of design at Fisher-Price, which is based in Aurora, N.Y., and owned by Mattel Inc.

Consulting with child-development experts who work with the Fisher-Price PlayLab, the team distilled preschooler attributes into five different types. In addition to shy Mia, energetic Eddie and twirly Tessa, they created Kobe, a boy who likes to act silly, and Sofie, a bespectacled artist. “We know that children identify with certain characters and want to be like characters,” says Elena Conti-Blatto, a Fisher-Price marketing executive who also worked on the team.

Children are drawn to toys with personality traits, says Elizabeth Hartline, education director at the Bank Street College of Education’s Head Start program in Manhattan. “Once they have a connection with something, say, they see on TV, they want it more than a generic toy,” she says.

Eddie sports a tousled mop of cowlicks and a crooked grin, meant to signal that he is active. Shy Mia holds her hands behind her back. The introduction of family histories and back stories should allow professional writers to better understand—and create narratives for—the characters, says Mr. Ciganko. Eddie’s dad, for instance, is a race-car driver. Sofie’s parents are artists and she fancies herself a fashionista, but her clothes never match.

Fisher-Price has beefed up its entertainment expertise, hiring several Emmy-award-winning children’s-entertainment veterans, including producer and writer Kevin Mowrer, who specializes in helping toy and entertainment companies create narratives from their products. Last year, the company acquired Hit Entertainment, giving it immediate access to the team of content creators, TV-placement experts and product-licensing pros behind Thomas & Friends.

Fisher-Price is planning two 11-minute episodes this fall and a 50-episode series to debut in 2014. The company says it hasn’t yet signed any distribution deals.

Beyond video, Fisher-Price hired singer-songwriter Genevieve Goings, who stars as a hip-hop train conductor in Disney Junior’s Choo Choo Soul, to create a Little People anthem and songs about each of the five characters. The toys will also be featured in a partnership with Azul Hotels by Karisma in Mexico, where a Little People family package includes branded room décor and kids’ robes, interactive skits featuring the characters and customized welcome voice mails from Eddie or Mia.

Fisher-Price had updated the five main dolls seven times in the last half century, first constructing them out of wood, then switching to plastic in the early ’60s. In the ’90s, the company made them chunkier to avoid choking hazards and added dolls of color. A big change came about 15 years ago when Fisher-Price decided to give the five dolls names, limbs and 3-dimensional facial features.

Mr. Ciganko says the designers made the dolls look less like toddlers on the theory that children like to emulate older kids. Fisher-Price won’t put a specific age on the dolls except to say, “they are still preschoolers,” says a spokeswoman. The play sets and dolls are geared toward children ages 1½ to 5.

Such a wide age range strengthened Little People’s brand-building potential, the company says. Young children tend to use Little People houses or farms for years, the team learned while perusing mommy blogs and talking to parents. Toddlers, for instance, like to drop a figure down the farm silo and watch it pop out the bottom. Older preschoolers, meanwhile, create more elaborate stories and incorporate events in their life, says Fisher-Price.

Ms. Hartline of Bank Street cautions that toys with built-in narratives can blunt imaginative play. “Providing children with open-ended materials is the best way to develop their critical thinking and imaginative skills,” she says. “A strong narrative funnels them into one way of playing and it takes an advanced child to break away from it.”

Nancy Close, an assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center, a department of the Yale University Medical School, agrees. “Broad outlines of character traits are probably OK,” she says. But “if the characters are too defined, the play is more rigid and limited and not as rich.”

Leslie Arthur, who has four grandchildren ages 1½ to 7, hopes Fisher-Price doesn’t overdo the refresh of the Little People, with whom her brood have played for years. Even her 7-year-old granddaughter still plays with them, driving Monster High dolls (friendly, fashionable ghouls made by parent company Mattel and aimed at older children) in a toy car to the plastic Little People house.

“They should have enough personality that it gives the kids ideas for stories,” says Ms. Arthur, a middle-school teacher who lives in the East Texas town of Trinidad, but “leave them bland enough so the kids can do what they want with them.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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