Entertainment

TikTok is driving massive toy sales as play dates become less frequent during pandemic

Key Points
  • Social media influencers were the fourth-most cited reason for someone making a toy purchase.
  • More than 100 million Americans are monthly active users of TikTok.
  • With that many eyeballs, it's no wonder that toy companies are partnering with content creators to showcase products on the app.
  • A number of toy companies have cited paid partnerships with TikTok creators as reasons for toy sale surges.
ByteDance Ltd.'s TikTok website is displayed on a smartphone in an arranged photograph.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Social media has long been used by toy companies to reach kids, but as the coronavirus pandemic has taken play dates and recess off the table, apps like TikTok have become more important than ever. 

TikTok is widely popular in the U.S. with users under the age of 16 as it brings together the best parts of YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat — snackable content, limited barriers between content creators and consumers and authentic fun.

"While word-of-mouth is likely taking a backseat among the youngest of kids, especially since playdates are less frequent, with technology, kids have been getting access to what's new via other avenues," Juli Lennett, a toy industry analyst at market researcher NPD Group, wrote in an email to CNBC. "With all the extra time kids spend at home, I have to assume that they are spending more time than ever before on social media, watching TV/subscription video services, YouTube, etc."

According to NPD Group's consumer tracking service, social media influencers were the fourth-most cited reason for someone making a toy purchase. A recommendation from a friend or relative was the top reason, the item being on a top toy list was second and product reviews were third.

More than 100 million Americans are monthly active users of the social platform, TikTok said in August. That's up 800% since January 2018, when the application was used by around 11 million Americans. More than 50 million of those monthly users open the app every day.

With that many eyeballs, it's no wonder that toy companies are partnering with content creators to showcase products on the app.

The big reveal

Toy company Zuru told CNBC that TikTok has significantly impacted sales of its 5 Surprise Mini Brands, an unboxing toy that has miniature replicas of household products like Jell-O gelatin, Dove shampoo, Hostess Twinkies and more.

"A combination of fan-generated and TikTok influencer videos ignited the craze," Renee Lee, vice president of global marketing at Zuru, said.

The company has seen an average of 20 million to 25 million weekly views of videos that feature its product. At its height, Zuru was selling more than 250,000 capsules per week across North America.

During the fall, Zuru said its 5 Surprise Mini Brands are outperforming sales estimates. Its second series of capsules, which can include items like Miracle Whip and Jet-Puffed Marshmallows, are more than 60% sold out at its top retailers after debuting just a few weeks ago.

"TikTok is unique in the fact that a user does not require a large following in order for a video to go viral," Lee said. "So, we actively look for super creative, brand fans to work with versus just looking at high-profile influencers."

Unboxing toys have become increasingly popular in recent years as videos of people taking apart the toy's packaging and revealing its contents to viewers has become some of the top-viewed content on sites like YouTube and Instagram. That trend has crossed over to TikTok.

IMC Toys has seen success in its TikTok campaigns during the pandemic. The toy company makes VIP Pets, fashionable plastic dogs with super long hair. These toys must be submerged in water in order to reveal their unique color, making them a fun unboxing and reveal toy.

Last week, IMC Toy's TikTok campaign amassed more than 5.7 million views, 10 times the estimate the company had. The campaign, which featured TikTok influencers setting up home salons to style their VIP Pet's hair, saw double the number of link clicks and six times the engagement of a typical IMC Toy campaign.

These videos showcased the product's features, accessories and the fun that comes with taking the toy out of its packaging. 

"In the U.S., initial retail quantities sold out in just two weeks and retailers chased inventory to restock for the holiday season," IMC Toys told CNBC via email. "The buzz generated from TikTok and Instagram gave us an edge among competitors and boosted the overall appeal of this totally unique product."

The company has also invested $1.8 million in developing VIP Pets content, which includes an animated web series and a live-action digital series. Having fresh content for consumers can fuel toy sales even more.

TikTokers become toymakers

"A lot of the toy companies are not only doing advertising partnerships with the top personalities on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, but they are branding a lot of these toys along with these kids or they are creating toys that allow kids to emulate what they see their favorite creators doing," said James Zahn, senior editor of The Toy Insider and The Toy Book.

TikTok duo WeWearCute, sisters Ashley and Emma, have more than 9.9 million followers on the app and helped launch Mattel's Barbie Color Reveal line. These Barbie toys arrive in a plastic canister and are painted all one color. Kids have to dip the doll into water to wash off the color and reveal the skin tone, hair color and eye color of their toy.

Over the last year, WeWearCute has done paid sponsorships with Mattel, MGA Entertainment, Spin Master and Cra-Z-Art, and generated more than 250 million views on TikTok each month. Ashley, 19, and Emma, 17, have more than 500 million likes for their videos, which range from toy unboxings and collecting to baking challenges and arts and crafts.

"There's a direct correlation between what they do [on TikTok] and retail sales," said Jim Silver, CEO of TTPM, an online toy review site. Silver also represents WeWearCute as their business manager.

The pair have a toy line with Spin Master that will be sold exclusively at Walmart stores starting at the end of October. These toys include a Click N Color Marker set with interchangeable colored nibs and a Style N Create Light Desk for drawing and designing fashion outfits.

"WeWearCute were the perfect partners with a love of all things fashion, style, crafts and toys," Arlene Biran, Spin Master's senior vice president for activities and building sets, said in a statement to CNBC. "Ashley and Emma have a keen sense of style and value self-expression, which really shone through during product development."

The sisters have also partnered with Jay Franco and Culturefly for a line of bedding and home decor items and subscription boxes scheduled to ship in spring 2021. There is also a cosmetic set with Taste Beauty.

According to Silver, the duo turns down more paid sponsorship videos than they take, including popular sneaker brands and drink companies.

"It has to be authentic," Ashley said. "We never want to do a product we wouldn't use."

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