5 Marketing Lessons From The Craziest Holiday Fad Of All Time

tickle me elmo

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This article originally appeared at American Express OpenForumFifteen years ago, in all his giggly and shaky glory, Tickle Me Elmo took over.

The hottest toy of the 1996 holiday season caused shoppers to turn vicious, inspired a whole new kind of black market (the $35 dolls sold at a several-thousand-dollar markup) and sparked a salacious scandal. During Tickle Me Elmo’s epic reign, Tyco—the toy company behind the mega-craze—saw its sales soar from $70 million to an astounding $350 million, all thanks to a simple plush toy.

Since that mania a decade and a half ago, Tickle Me Elmo remains the benchmark for products’ must-have status. And there’s a few things you can learn from the genius marketing behind the frenzy.

Do your homework

Tyco knew that Sesame Street was the most-watched kids’ television program. Among its highly-recognisable cast of fuzzy, quirky and otherwise silly characters, research showed Elmo was the favourite. And so, the toy company settled on the friendly red muppet as the centrepiece for its huge holiday campaign.

The takeaway? It’s important to avoid making assumptions, particularly when you’re developing products and services. When possible, allow yourself the time, resources and energy to conduct focus groups or survey potential consumers or clients. Their insight matters on two levels: first, as the service or product distributor, you are too immersed in ideas and their development to have a truly objective understanding of them. And second, these are the people who will dictate the success (or failure) of your new items. So who better to listen to?

Don’t do media outreach willy-nilly

Mass emailing is a game that’s hard to win. Publications receive stacks of generic press releases every week, so it’s absolutely crucial to distinguish your product or idea from the heaps of uninteresting or irrelevant information. Rather than adopting the spaghetti-on-the-wall strategy, the Tyco team got specific. It came up with a list of editors of toy trade publications and other journalists they figured would help decide the must-have toys that season. Tyco hosted a hands-on preview event for those writers (and, more important, their children). Tickle Me Elmo went on to win several awards from top trade publications, which can rightly be attributed to both its quality and Tyco’s thorough outreach.

The takeaway? It might be tempting to rapid-fire a news release at every journalist in your market, but remind yourself that investing time in figuring out the key players will likely yield a greater return for you. If you can tailor your e-mails to the individual journalist you’re trying to reach, he or she will be more likely to open it, read it and consider following up. Be sure to explain why your news item is worthwhile, relevant and different. You probably don’t have the robust resources that Tyco had for its outreach efforts, but you probably don’t need them either.

Seek out prominent partners

Perhaps Tyco’s best move to get Tickle Me Elmo into the spotlight was to bring him into thousands of living rooms every day. Back before people lost interest in the first incarnation of comedienne Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show, Tyco outfitted her staff with 200 of the dolls to use in promotions. Producers devised a “secret word” contest during which audience members could win one of the toys, an effective way to build hype leading up to the holiday shopping rush. Tyco also distributed the toy to other popular outlets, including national morning news programs and other talk shows.

The takeaway? People trust the famous faces they see on television, in movies and around town. Even if you don’t have the kind of pull a giant company like Tyco does, you can still find innovative ways to partner with well-known figures. Start out by considering the audience you’re trying to reach. What do they do? What do they watch? Who do they trust? If your business is localised to a specific community, network with on-air news personalities or hometown athletes. If your company’s focus is a bit broader, seek out industry leaders or experts to endorse your products and boost your reputation.

Narrow your focus

Tickle Me Elmo’s popularity inspired Tyco to pursue a whole line of Sesame Street toys geared toward preschool-aged children. In 1997, one year after Tyco’s monstrous Elmo craze, offshoot toy Sing and Snore Ernie became the holiday season’s top seller. Instead of trying for a multitude of successful products at once, Tyco instead invested its resources into perfecting a single one and later building on that successful campaign. That move kept Tyco at the forefront of toy manufacturing for the Tickle Me Elmo demographic, because it has established its ability not only to compete, but to dominate by offering the hottest item.

The takeaway? Keep it simple. If you try to do too much at the outset, it’ll lead to mediocrity all around. Commit to executing one project well—even if your long-term vision is to expand that effort—and you’ve got a more viable shot at success, both immediately and later.

Know your actual audience

Tickle Me Elmo’s target demographic, youngsters between 18 months and 4 years old, are surely the ones who enjoyed the toy most. But Tyco didn’t advertise to them as much as they did another group: the parents, grandparents and other caregivers who ponied up for the toy. Creating a desire among kids to have the toy is a component of the strategy, but convincing the older group that the doll is one their children and grandchildren would enjoy spurs much more significant benefits. Especially because toddlers simply can’t make their own purchasing decisions, going after those who make those calls for them is crucial.

The takeaway? Think critically about the groups you must actually rely on to see your brand, product or idea take off, and prioritise accordingly. Be aware of any and all intermediaries between you and your ideal consumer or client.

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