Communication lessons from The Toys that Made Us

I’m a massive sucker for a good business documentary, especially ones with communication lessons within. I know, nerdy, right?

Anyway, Netflix has been great for that. The Toys That Made Us documentary series is a classic example of this in action. It’s also a great mix of the toys that Generation X has grown up with.

There are some great stories about toy making as well as lots of pop culture references. And there are some great communication lessons within the documentary.

Here is what I uncovered communication lessons wise from the Toys that Made Us.

Always communicate what you want

Star Wars creator George Lucas was famously declined by a multitude of toy manufacturers before teaming up with the eventual company, Kenner Toys. Films historically had kind of sucked at merchandise and so a lot of companies simply weren’t interested.

Toys that Made us featured content all displayed together in a huddle including Barbie, Star Trek dolls, Ninja Turtles, He Man and Chewy from Star Wars.By the time Lucas found one that was, he famously negotiated a deal that made Kenner Toys exceedingly rich. Lucas however didn’t see those funds for himself.

He accepted that no one wanted to market his toys, so he didn’t protect their success.

The communication lessons from Lucas’ situation:

  • Don’t judge the next deal on the outcome of the last
  • Communicate what you want

Anticipation sells

By the time the Star Wars and Kenner Toy deal was struck, production was way behind the movie. The movie had gone on to be a success and kids (and likely adults) were hungry for merchandise. There wasn’t much in the way of toys to put out there yet, so Kenner Toys decided to reflect that.

They invented cards to promise the product that were redeemable once the product arrived.

This is massive because it kept sales steady at a time when interest was high. Kids can be notoriously fickle, so capturing that interest at the time was paramount. Plus, it also gave Star Wars several accidental waves of interest as the film petered out, then the toys arrived and rejuvenated interest all over again.

The communication lessons here are:

  • Anticipation can often be more intoxicating than getting your hands on the product. Playing the long game can increase, not reduce interest in a product
  • Strike while the iron is hot. If you can make people secure in the knowledge, they will eventually get what they need from you, they will line up for it

Story can carry ideas

In marketing and business, people can get a little hung up on thinking everything has to be perfect. The reality is, we have the ability to think around corners. We don’t need perfect to be satisfied.

Throughout the Toys that Made Us documentary, there were examples of that.

Battle Cat is out of proportion with He-Man. Star Wars and Star Trek figures are not correct to the show characters or the weapons or other accessories, yet they still sell.

The interesting thing is we expect Comic Book Guy style critique of everything we do. And so, we think we have to have perfection on display. Yet even Comic Book Guy isn’t entirely on board with this need for perfection. You only need to see how the incorrect and inappropriate collectibles are valued. Or if you have a book with a massive misprint or film with a deleted scene.

What we do with story is find new ways to carry it. We know our imaginations are powerful and that they can fill in major gaps.

This is why we can have websites that are ugly, missing parts of the puzzle and all sorts of plot holes in a Tarantino film yet people still raving about them.

We focus on the story and create a place for ourselves within it.

The communication lessons here are:

  • People like to see themselves in the frame. When kids play with toys, we read books or so on, we include ourselves in the process. We are an observer and a character within the narrative. The same is true of business and marketing. Your audience want to be present in the story
  • Perfection is for people that can’t let go. Ultimately in business, marketing, story telling and creative practice, you have to be willing to let go. You have to make the story strong enough to withhold it’s adoption by the audience without making it feel like there is no room for them to join in

Rejection happens

Your product will not be for everyone and it will likely be rejected. Barbie and the Star Wars toys are classic examples of that.

Both highly successful toy franchises were rejected time and time again. No one thought the ideas were valuable. But they persisted. That persistence eventually paid off.

If you tie yourself up in knots and aren’t willing to try for fear of rejection, you won’t get very far.

Therefore, your communication lessons have to be:

  • Learn to learn from rejection to move your ideas forward
  • Don’t accept rejection as the defining moment for your idea as it may have another future ahead of it
  • Rejection is a tool for defining what audience is yours in the long run (and yes, audience definition matters because you cannot be all things to all customers)

Look for connection

One of the reasons why so many of these stories worked and went on to be great toys is because they respected and paid homage to stories we’re already familiar with.

Star Wars and Star Trek are both westerns set in space. They include the usual features of reluctant heroes, star crossed lovers and philosophies of learning about yourself through others.

He-Man was an ode to fables and allegorical tales with a dose of mythology thrown in.

Film makers often play on characters and stories we already know because that familiarity makes them easy to understand. In business, you can see this in action in the start-up scene. The use of “We’re the Uber of pets” or analogies like that are that adventure on a small scale.

You can also see the opportunity to expand by connection that seems logical. It’s logical to have a TV show, expand to a movie and then give the action figures to play with. It can also work in reverse, like with Barbie.

Barbie and Star Trek (and Star Wars to a lesser extent) have also made travelling through time part of their appeal as well. They’ve stayed relevant by mirroring the challenges of the culture in which they dwell. Your business has the same sorts of life-cycle challenges through early adopters through to laggards. Or as the relationship with your product grows.

The communication lessons here are:

  • People want a balance between what they know and what is new. By leveraging that well, you avoid having to get into nitty gritty to explain your story or idea
  • Think about natural extensions for your ideas and products. Maturing with your customers through technology, tastes and the ages can make you incredibly powerful

Want help communicating your business needs? Check out my communication and content offerings now. 

Have you watched The Toys That Made Us on Netflix yet? What did you think? 

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