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Small Toymakers Aim for Buzz

December 20, 2000

CHICAGO (AP) _ For every Barbie and Hot Wheels, a thousand quirky or undermarketed inventions await discovery as the next blockbuster toy.

If you’re the brains behind Gus Gutz, Flip-Itz or Flutter Wings, it could be a long wait _ especially without a multimillion-dollar holiday ad budget. But this is no time to sit and mope. For toy underdogs, this and every season are all about being aggressive, creative and wacky.

From grassroots marketing to giveaways and gimmicks, small toymakers are forced to go to extra lengths to try to create a buzz for their products at Christmas and beyond.

``This is a total David-and-Goliath game,″ said Dan Lauer, president and co-founder of Haystack Toys, a new company based in St. Louis. ``We’re up against massive advertising budgets.″

The ‘Davids’ counter their disadvantage by working hard on what Rumpus Toys chief Larry Schwarz calls ``show-and-tell advertising″ _ kids telling other kids about cool new toys.

Schwarz also got downright sneaky in his efforts to get his business off the ground.

The New York toymaker was convinced he had a hit in the making in 1997 with Gus Gutz, a tall, goofy doll whose internal organs come out when a child reaches down his fleece throat. When he couldn’t persuade a New Jersey store to stock them, Schwarz and a co-worker smuggled in bagfuls of Gus and another Rumpus toy, Monster In My Closet, and put them on the shelves themselves.

The point was proved, to no avail _ the kids liked his toys, but the store was furious, he recalls with a chuckle.

Undaunted, he tried another ruse. Taking advantage of the name coincidence, he called FAO Schwarz, the Manhattan toy palace, and got put straight through to a hard-to-reach executive by letting the staff think it was all in the family (it wasn’t).

The executive was impressed, a breakthrough for the lesser-known Schwarz. Three years later, the 30-year-old oversees 42 employees and a company with a growing reputation.

But the marketing stunts continue _ from necessity, he says, and for fun.

He has trotted out a live rooster to show that his Wake Me Willy talking alarm clock was more enjoyable in the morning than a rooster’s screams. The rumpus.com Web site shows animated cartoons and movies. In summer, a wildly colorful bus called the Rumpus Road Rocket visits camps, state fairs and hospitals to attract attention.

``It’s not the kind of impact you can get by spending $50 million on a TV advertising campaign,″ Schwarz said. ``But if you don’t have that kind of money, either you don’t do anything and keep your product kind of a secret or you get out there and do funky kinds of things.″

David Gantner, who promotes Flip-Itz as vice president of small Itz Toys, also does funky things to plug his product. He gives them away whenever possible _ he once threw samples off the top of a van at a toy fair _ and will sit down in a store aisle to show a child how it works.

But his biggest marketing weapon is recounting how it was invented.

Two 8-year-olds from the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Ill. _ Matthew Balick and Justin Lewis _ were so bored at a basketball banquet three years ago that they invented a game with the three-legged pieces of plastic used to keep pizza cheese from sticking to the top of delivery boxes.

With the help of their dads, Gantner and Gantner’s brother, who earlier promoted Pogs and Crazy Bones, several games were devised for the doo-dads, which fly through the air when pressed down. Human, animal and alien faces were added, along with names, colors and biographies. Flip-Itz were born.

But the toy promoters’ work had just begun. Gantner, 32, says he practically lives and breathes Flip-Itz around the clock, doing a grassroots blitz. He’s shown the product to thousands of kids at schools, YMCAs, restaurants, bowling alleys, a courthouse _ wherever he goes.

``If you just stuck it on the shelf it wouldn’t sell, and if you just did advertising it wouldn’t sell,″ Gantner said. ``You have to unlock the magic of a product.″

Flip-Itz finally achieved broad nationwide distribution this fall, and by early December about 150,000 four-packs had been sold. ``For a small startup company, it’s doing pretty good,″ Gantner declared.

With no advertising budget, Haystack Toys, too, relies on word-of-mouth advertising. But the fledgling company got steamrollered for much of this holiday season by an unexpected foe: the election recount.

Exhaustive media coverage of the 36-day drama in Florida wiped out TV talk show appearances that would have provided invaluable exposure for Flutter Wings, its huge wearable butterfly wing toy, and AirMaze, an air-conditioned play tent.

How hard has the company been plugging Flutter Wings? It even paid some runners to wear them in the Chicago Marathon this fall. But the company admits a costly ad campaign might be more effective.

If small toymakers have it rough, they can at least be thankful for the one great equalizer that now makes it possible to compete against the Goliaths: the World Wide Web.

``The Internet levels the playing field,″ Lauer says. ``Instead of going to a buyer, you can go directly to a mom or a dad or a grandma.″

___

On the Net:

Toy Manufacturers of America: www.toy-tma.com

www.flipitz.com

www.rumpustoys.com

www.haystacktoys.com

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