For starters, research is confirming what any parent will tell you: Kids are living in a strange new digital content age where established brands are less important. "American families see tablets as playmate, teacher and baby sitter," said a 2012 report from New York-based Nielsen. And this portable kids portal is essentially defined by the gobs of cheap content cash-strapped Internet companies are pouring into it.
Toy giants are reacting as similarly threatened movie, publishing and music companies did a decade ago. They are rushing to new technological platforms and brands without truly considering the cost, long odds and low margins they face in new markets. Mattel announced last week just such a new global game, cartoon and interactive franchise called Max Steel. "The multiplatform action-adventure entertainment franchise will also introduce a dynamic Web destination, featuring rich content, including interactive gameplay ... action figures, vehicles, role play items and a diverse line of consumer products," the company news release said. For sure, Max is kinda cool. I really do like the cartoon. But in the collapsing digital age, Max and Mattel must compete against the likes of Spider-Man, The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga and Harry Potter, to name a few. And all that, in turn, is under siege from a new generation of personal 3-D manufacturing options from companies such as MakerBot, Stratasys Systems and Desktop Factory. The new so-called 3D Cloud Printing Engine from France's Sculpteo, for example, allows any mom to build an intricately designed piece of plastic -- in other words, a toy -- for just a few bucks. And parents can even get paid for their trouble. The company is sponsoring something called the Made in 3D Challenge, in which winning designers can win an iPad. All of which makes our toymaker moms queens of the next-gen toybox. "It's kind of an interesting time, the shift between marketing giant products and an appreciation for locally made things, " is how O'Neil explained it to us. Considering the Chinese consider it a curse to live in "interesting times," Barbie, Ken and the entire toy business may be soon considering new career options.