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Toy Makers Relaunching Classic Brands

Tuesday, 17 Feb 2009 | 9:59 AM ET

Toy makers are going back to basics.

Looking to cash in on nostalgia, many companies are updating hit dolls and games of the past to appeal to a new generation of kids as well as rekindle the interest of their original customers.

Joseph Pisani/CNBC.com

"Nostalgia has a dual marketing component," said Reyne Rice, a trend specialist with the Toy Industry Association. "Parents and grandparents want their children and grandchildren to have that same experience they hand with that brand."

Helping to drive the revival concept are a number of milestone anniversaries for several toy brands. Barbie is turning 50, as are the Fisher-Price Little People. G.I. Joe will hit 45, the Transformers 25.

Mattel is going all out for Barbie's golden birthday by releasing an update of her townhouse and camper that were originally sold in the 1970s. The company is also re-releasing five of the best-selling Barbie dolls from the past 50 years. On the doll's actual anniversary, March 9, 2009, Mattel will be unveiling a new look for Barbie dolls going forward by making changes to the doll's face.

Fisher-Price, a subsidiary of Mattel, is bringing back its farm and school house play sets to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its Little People line.

Another company is going back to square one, so to speak, by updating one of the most popular low-tech toys of recent decades. The Rubik's Cube is getting an iPhone-like makeover from toy company Techno Source. The new touch-screen technology allows users to swipe a finger across the squares to move a row of colors around the way one used to move the individual cubes. The cube now has colored lights, sound effects and the ability to solve the puzzle and teach you how to do it.

Jakks Pacificis trying to make marbles popular again, by rebranding them as MARBS. The company has also signed licensing agreements with brands popular with collectors and is thus releasing a collection of Marvel Comics and Star Wars MARBS this year.

New design and branding may be helpful but they are not always enough. These days, a key tool in keeping classic brands relevant is through new movies, television shows and video games based on the toys.

"The only reason these toys survive is that they keep appealing to kids," said Chris Byrne, a toy analyst at timetoplaymag.com.

Hasbro, for example, has toy lines with live action films coming out this year. The follow up to the first Transformers is due in the summer. The first movie grossed $319.2 million domestically in 2007, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.

Also due out is the first live movie based on Hasbro's G.I. Joe.

These movies, says Byrne, are "going to drive it into the consciousness of kids."

Joseph Pisani/CNBC.com

Mattel is doing the same with Hot Wheels, producing a television show on Time Warner'sCartoon Network called "Hot Wheels: Battle Force 5." Mattel will sell the toy version of the cars as soon as the animated series begins this fall.

Meanwhile at LEGO, its line of "LEGO Star Wars" video games are spurring sales of traditional play sets, says Michael McNally, brand relations director at LEGO.

The company is celebrating its 10th year making Star Wars branded LEGO sets. The "LEGO Star Wars" video games have kept the brand fresh with children, says McNally, who cites research showing that kids who play the game are more likely to buy a physical LEGO product. The three different LEGO Star Wars video games have sold over 20 million units; while the Star Wars branded LEGO sets have sold 106 million units worldwide.

Nostalgia is also working for LEGO. McNally points out that the first "Star Wars" film was released in 1977, around the time the companies products started gaining popularity in the United States.

"This is the first generation of American parents who grew up with LEGO themselves, and are buying it for their kids," said McNally.

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