Got an Idea for a Toy? Toymakers Want to Hear From You.

Got an Idea for a Toy? Toymakers Want to Hear From You.

Near the end of 2022, Lucas Bolt, an environmental artist and Lego enthusiast in Amsterdam, was working on a design for a Lego set the company had crowdsourced to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons, the tabletop role-playing game.

“I spent two very intense weeks working on it, every night, every weekend, all the time that I had,” he said.

Mr. Bolt was hoping to create the design for Lego Ideas, a program the toymaker started in 2008 to solicit ideas online directly from fans. Typically, designers post their concept on the platform, and if a design gets 10,000 votes, the company considers it for production. This case was different, though: It was the first time the company had given fans a concept to work with.

Mr. Bolt had been designing his own sets for a few years, primarily for his followers on Instagram, but this was the first time something he had produced had gained real traction. A panel of judges selected his set and four others for a shortlist, and in a vote fans chose his set as their favorite.

Lego Ideas is part of a growing strategy among companies that are creating divisions devoted to going directly to consumers for ideas. Lego takes a more personal approach, allowing fans to submit designs, while other companies poll consumers about what they would like to see or speak to inventors about their latest projects. These initiatives are finding particular success within niche groups of collectors and other highly dedicated fans.

Toy companies that have direct-to-consumer models do not have the same audience reach that distributors like Amazon have, but a unit devoted to direct sales still provides advantages for the overall business, said Jaime M. Katz, an analyst who covers the toy industry for Morningstar, a financial services company. The primary reason companies like direct sales is the speed at which they are able to get access to purchasing data from consumers.

That data can help toy companies bring products to market faster, Ms. Katz said, and capitalize on trends and purchasing patterns. There’s also less excess inventory and, by extension, fewer markdowns on items sold on the company’s websites.

“You don’t want to be the last adopter of the methodology,” she said, “Somebody might be able to move faster than you.”

Many companies, Ms. Katz added, see their direct-to-consumer divisions as the next iteration of a focus group. “You can collect the data in a much larger fashion,” she said, “It’s not like six people sitting in an office in Chicago and they’re asking, ‘Well, what do you think of Barbie?’”

As it turns out, Mattel does want to know what consumers think of Barbie, but it is taking a niche approach through its Mattel Creations website, where it runs crowdfunding campaigns tailored to its fan base for Barbie, Hot Wheels and other brands.

“The wealth of information, which we generate from our fans, is priceless,” said Sanjay Luthra, managing director of Mattel’s global direct-to-consumer portfolio.

Feeding into consumer obsession is a big part of Mattel’s product development strategy, said Mr. Luthra, who added that Mattel was constantly checking what fans were saying on social media to get product ideas. For example, Weird Barbie, which the toymaker sold on the Mattel Creations website after seeing the enormous response to the “Barbie” movie on social media, was the highest-selling doll ever on the platform, he said.

A design solicitation program like Lego Ideas can also help guide companies in their product development. “We have 10,000 people who told us they want this product,” said Monica Pedersen, marketing director for Lego Ideas. “That’s very special, because we don’t go out and test every single Lego product with 10,000 people.”

Magic: The Gathering, a trading card game owned by the gaming publisher Wizards of the Coast, uses a similar program, called Secret Lair, as a way to sell special cards that have added visual treatments like custom art.

Secret Lair gives the company “a pipeline of awareness that we just never had,” said Mark Heggen, vice president of collectibles at Wizards of the Coast, which is owned by Hasbro. “We have a little lens into reality, so we can understand how people are behaving, what’s exciting to them, if they’re coming back or if they’re lapsing.”

Spin Master, a toy company in Toronto, has been soliciting inventors for ideas since its inception in 1994. The company’s greatest advantage comes from the “mutual respect” it has with the inventor community, said Ben Dermer, senior vice president of toy innovation at Spin Master.

“I think at other companies over the years, inventors have oftentimes been maligned, not treated as well as they could have been,” he said.

There are about 300 professional inventors in the toy industry, Mr. Dermer said, and Spin Master is in regular contact with most of them. Typically, before an idea is formally submitted to Spin Master for consideration, a member of the company’s inventor relations department has already had lengthy discussions about the viability of the product.

For his work with Lego, Mr. Bolt will be rewarded with a 1 percent sales commission on each set, and 10 copies of the set for himself. The final set, called Red Dragon’s Tale, has 3,745 pieces and features a playable adventure and, of course, a dungeon and a dragon. It sells for $360 at Lego Stores, a price well above most of the company’s mass-market offerings.

Lego gets thousands of submissions through the Ideas program, but the bar is high for a set to make it to customers. Normally, if a set receives more than 10,000 votes from fans, the company considers it for production. Once made, the set is sold both directly from Lego and by retailers like Target and Amazon.

About a hundred sets a year reach the vote threshold (though that number increases every year), and from those only 56 sets, including Mr. Bolt’s design, have reached production since the program began in 2008. Compare that with the 916 sets the company released just in 2023.

The sets still go through Lego’s internal design and testing. The company meets with the designers working on Ideas sets once or twice a month to ensure the product is living up to their vision, Ms. Pedersen said.

“It was very special to see as a Lego builder how they approach it,” Mr. Bolt said of his experience with Lego testers. “It was a whole team of designers, which was really cool that they spent so much time designing something that I came up with.”

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