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High-Touch Tech

Today’s kids are not just Digital Natives. They were born of a world that is just as much about touch as it is about tech.


I want to be part of the resurgence of things that are tangible, beautiful and soulful, rather than just give in to the digital age. But when I talk to people about this they just say, 'Yeah, I know what you mean,' and stare at their mobiles. - Jack White

ONE TREND: Tech Extended

For anyone without “digital” in their job title, the rapid changes in the tech landscape can make them feel obsolete. For companies that design playful products, every hum, ding and ring that a device makes might sound like a death knoll. But recently, we’ve seen more and more evidence that digital experts, especially in the kid and family space, understand that the world in which kids play isn’t just virtual – it’s intimately connected, if not contingent upon, the experience that kids and families have I.R.L. (in real life). And while until recently, experts on kids’ culture have looked to pit TV against digital (or vice versa), today’s smartest and most successful brands are borrowing a page from an old model – property-based consumer products – to make sure their digital brands stand out from the crowd. We might think of Webkins as the forefather of this emerging movement. Or we might have to admit that the old models aren’t as useful as we might hope. The companies and orgs below are not only developing great kid and family experiences, they’re also disrupting the old models for doing business:

  • Educational app provider DR. PANDA is a run-away success in China and Europe. What’s their next move? Not another app. In fact, they’re now promoting a decidedly offline offer – a plush panda that’s intended to allow kids to cuddle and touch the brand when they’re offline.
  • EDWIN THE DUCK “is no ordinary duck,” according to the company’s key messages. This traditional rubber duck lets kids enhance their play experiences – on the tablet and off – through smart software that lights it up, lets it interact with screens, and maintains its original role: it floats in the bathtub!
  • YO-KAI is a brand that borrows from some of the play dynamics that today’s and yesterday’s kids might associate with Pokemon. Instead of becoming more digital, this brand has become more hands – or wrists – on with a watch that allows kids to show off and activate different playing pieces.

These early success stories point to how important deeply engaging, offline and non-digital products play in kids’ culture.

ONE BRAND: Nexo Knights

Nexo Knights is hard to pin down as either a property or brand – but that’s the point. It’s not hard to argue that LEGO has cornered the market on cross-platform play over the past decade, seamlessly shifting their brand from one that stands for off-screen play, to one that puts the child’s experience in their hands, on TV and on their tablet or console without compromise. When Ninjago first appeared on Cartoon Network in January of 2011, it was apparent to many media watchers that this would appeal to kids. But few could predict that this saga (unusual in kids animated programing because it doesn’t wrap up plotlines within a 24 minute slot) would take hold. LEGO sets that featured the characters, their vehicles and their domains took off. The explosion of this property, centered on a decidedly “ancient” plot, paved the way for Chima, and now Nexo Knights. While knights and all things medieval have been a LEGO mainstay, Nexo Knights’ epic melds this traditional motif with high technology. The knight’s code is destroyed by fire – and replaced by one on tablets. On the surface, it might appear that the technology connection makes this story more salient among kids, but our perspective: great stories are great stories and kids are smart enough to notice the narrative behind the Nexo Knights screen.

ONE FACT: 15% of Parents of Kids 6-10 Years Old Say their Kids Play with App-enabled Toys Regularly.

While app-enabled toys, smart toys and the connected category of playthings might be in growth mode, they have not reached critical mass just yet. It’s important to keep in mind that a full 85% of kids aren’t there yet. But as we know, paradigms shift rapidly in the digital space and we think it’s wise to read the signs – they point to more hybrid toys in kids’ future.

Source: C+R Research/YouthBeat January through December 2015.