In early 2011, Hasbro Chief Executive Officer Brian Goldner convened a team of designers, engineers and marketers to figure out the Next Big Toy.
They asked themselves a simple question: Whats the most alive thing a toy can do? After eight months of prototyping and kid focus groups, they had their answer: Reboot Furby, the cuddly robot that seems to develop a personality as you play and was one of Hasbros biggest hits.
In resurrecting a plaything that had its heyday when Bill Clinton was president, Hasbro is betting the toy will appeal to adults who once played with Furby themselves as well as tech-obsessed children this holiday season.
Still, a retro toy from the 1990s will be hard to market as a true innovation, said Sean McGowan, an analyst for Needham & Co. And at $60 – double the originals price – it may be a tough sell for shoppers recovering from the recession.
I dont want to denigrate the technical innovation, said McGowan, who is based in New York. In terms of the basic toy, yes, its probably better, but its the same.
The Furby reboot is one of the most expensive and complex product-development projects in the companys history. The largest U.S. toy sellers have also invested in its success: Wal-Mart Stores, Target and Toys R Us all put Furby on their lists of hot toys.
Hasbro could use a hit after revenue declined 7.6 percent to $1.46 billion during the first half of this year and is projected by analysts to be little changed in the quarter ended Sept. 30.
In part, the companys sagging sales reflect an industry being transformed by the surging popularity of mobile devices. As more kids turn to tablets such as Apples iPad for play, the more Hasbro and competitors such as Mattel need to invest in innovation, McGowan said.
Hasbros innovation is pointed in the right direction, and they are certainly taking it seriously, McGowan said. There just needs to be a lot more, and thats true for the entire industry.
The new Furby is the first of more than 20 products the company plans to bring to life with technology, said Kenny Davis, the marketing director of new brand franchises.
After years of contemplating a return of the puffball that sold more than 40 million units in the late 1990s, Hasbro indulged because advancements in computing power and robotics had become cheap enough for a substantial improvement to be affordable.
Its certainly something we couldnt have done in years past, said Davis, who was part of the innovation group. I wonder if we could have done it a year earlier.
Bringing back Furby was also a chance to leverage a built-in audience, a trend seen across toys as well as entertainment. Hasbro estimated that in 2000, when it stopped making Furby, half of U.S. girls and a third of boys ages 6 to 12 had one. At the peak of its popularity, the toy generated more than $500 million in annual sales.
It was a hold-your-breath, hope-you-get-it toy, McGowan said. Nothing had been done like that before.
While the new Furby resembles its predecessor, its innards feature an upgraded system of sensors and computer circuits. That, and eyes made from liquid-crystal displays, will bring Furby to life in new ways, according to Hasbro, and convince parents, teens and even shoppers in their 20s to shell out $60.
The original Furbys programming created the illusion of a customized experience. Play with it enough and it unveiled the same sounds and movements as it eventually migrated from speaking Furbish, its native tongue, to English.
The new version has a computerized brain that will alter its behavior depending on how its treated, according to Hasbro. For example, if you pet it nicely and play music for it, it may act more fun-loving. Shake it upside down, and it could become ornery.
Multiple Furbies can also interact when in the same room by sending out and reading inaudible tones from each other.
With the older one, everyone basically had the same Furby, said Kris Paulson, design manager of integrated play who worked on Furby. This one really adapts to who is playing with it.
Furby also works with mobile devices, the fastest-growing part of the computer market. A free application for Apples iOS operating software and one for Googles Android later this year allows users to translate what Furby is saying and feed him everything from coffee to a dirty sock. Depending on what is chosen, responses could be a burp or other rude noises.
While its unlikely Furby will be the phenomenon it was more than a decade ago, it doesnt have to replicate that to be considered a success, McGowan said. The reimagined Furby needs to sell well enough to demonstrate that Hasbros move into technology is working, he said.