Scott Derman was pissed.
The toy designer, whose colorful tattoos peek from under his sleeves, had asked Mattel’s Chem Lab for a substance that could stick but wasn’t sticky. He’d even sent along a scientific research paper detailing a wonder material with micro suction cups. The lab was incredulous. "They were like, ‘Awesome. It's a speculative article from a bleeding edge tech magazine. NASA doesn't use this stuff, but sure, we'll get on it!’" recalls fellow designer Raymond Makowski.
Mattel isn’t NASA, after all. Their chem facilities are restricted to being resourceful with well-known, kid-safe materials like Slime, Barbie hair dyes, and tubes of wax that melt into miniature cars—not for developing newly-synthesized nanomaterials like Gortex or Teflon.
So the team got to work mixing various polymers and setting them in golf ball like molds, thinking the large perforations might compress and cause a plunger effect when they hit a solid surface.
The idea failed in prototype after prototype. For months, nothing stuck.
Truth be told, Derman had grown restless over the last decade of crafting toys for Mattel’s lucrative licensees like Pixar and Warner Bros. He made the premiere toys for Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, collaborated with Pixar to make the toys for Toy Story, and the cars for Cars. Now Derman wanted to pursue ideas of his own.
And Mattel had finally given him a skeleton crew to devise a completely open-ended toy line of his devising. His only real constraints: It had to be a hit outdoor toy for boys. The possibilities were wide open, so long as it was S.W.N.S.B.—"something we’ve never seen before"—an acronym designers were fond of using to describe the lofty, ill-defined requests of Mattel’s VPs.
Maybe S.W.N.S.B. was possible. But first, Derman had to get this stupid substance to stick.
"I took this whole ball of crap and just threw it," Derman says.
Eureka. It stuck.
And not just a little bit! When Derman tried to remove the ball from a poster he’d struck on the wall, he realized it had splatted to the paper with all of the stretchy tack of a cartoon come to life. Because a moment later, the ball snapped back into his hand and regained its shape, perfectly.
At long last, Derman had his dream material for any number of outdoor games he could imagine. But more importantly, he had the ammo to build the one product he really wanted to make, the one product that had been in the back of his mind since he dissected his own Nerf blasters as a child: The ultimate toy gun.
For decades, Hasbro’s Nerf has been the gold standard in what the toy industry deems the "blaster" category. And despite loads of competitors like BuzzBeeToys, Xploderz, AirHunterz, and Vapor, Hasbro’s dominance, with 75% of the marketshare, remains relatively unchallenged—maybe because the only real potential competition, fellow toy titan Mattel, has historically stayed out of the gunfight, selling Matchbox cars and Barbies instead.
Now that changes, as Mattel introduces their first new line of toys in a decade: BOOMco., a prepubescent fantasy brought to life in the form of less-than-lethal plastic blasters. Their darts shoot straighter and fire faster than Nerf. Their tips stick perfectly to select targets while leaving no residue.
It might seem an odd strategy, to stalk Nerf into the blaster category over 20 years since their original yellow foam weaponry hit the market. Especially since the $500 million blaster market has been shrinking in the U.S. (though it’s growing a bit internationally). The truth is, the toy industry is stagnant, and both Mattel and Hasbro are hurting. Hasbro’s boy-toy category dropped 16% last year. And Mattel's stock recently hit a 52-week low following its disappointing holiday sales numbers. Mattel’s mega girl properties—Barbie, Monster High, and (licensed) Disney Princess dolls—remain perennial staples. But other than Hot Wheels, Mattel has no dominant presence in the boys aisle.
To change that, Mattel is engaged in a major strategic shift. Mattel recently purchased Canadian block company Mega to compete with Lego. They’ve announced plans to launch a 21st century GI Joe-inspired action figure line called Max Steel. And then there's BOOMco., potentially the most lethal prong of this attack. Talking to Mattel executives, the blaster category seemed to be their security blanket in a tumultuous time, tapping into what they saw as an intrinsic way kids—boys especially—play.
"If you give a kid a stick, it will be a gun. If it’s sharp, it will be a knife. And they will play through that." says Gary Swisher SVP Global Brands Creative. "You can give a kid a stick—try it! He will shoot you with it."
Nerf blasters are what the NPD calls one of the few annuity toys in the business. While breakout trends like Rainbow Loom come and go, a few franchises like Barbie and Hot Wheels are relatively stable each year, pulling in something shy of half a billion dollars apiece. But those franchises aren’t enough to hold the line, even for Mattel. In a toy industry that’s stagnant, the retailer shelf space for even these elite products is in question.
"You’ve got mass merchandisers for whom, frankly, it’s merchandising with a capital M," Crupnick tells Co.Design. "They’re going to use that space to get the greatest return on investment."
Nerf vs BOOMco. could be the Coke vs Pepsi of the toy world. And as a byproduct of that battle, Mattel wouldn’t simply watch as their retail shelf space shrunk away to phones, tablets, jeans, or whatever else Targets and Walmarts could stock their shelves with instead, but rather, would build a defensive perimeter over the turf of analog toys in the age of apps.
"I think that competition helps push the bigger companies to try to be more innovative," explains NPD’s SVP and lead toy analyst Russ Crupnick. "If you asked me why the toy industry isn’t down more, it’s because you have all of these companies pushing each other to innovate."
The strategy is sound: Start a gunfight with Hasbro, backed by loads of vocal marketing. Hasbro will retaliate with loads more vocal marketing. And somewhere in the shouting, everybody wins. But if Mattel was really going to take on Nerf, it needed more than mere strategy: It needed an arsenal that could succeed where decades of other products had failed. And Fast Company was granted exclusive access to the project’s development earlier this year.
On that fateful day, when Derman threw the ball of stuff and it stuck to the poster for the first time, he called over fellow designer Raymond Makowski, elated. Finally! They’d done it! Makowski whipped the ball at the same poster in triumph.
It bounced right off.
"I just thought you were a lunatic," Makowski tells Derman, as we sit in Mattel’s BOOMco. development studio—a generous euphemism for a bunch of cubicles decorated with toy gun schematics.
"I was like, ‘No, dude! It sticks! I swear to God, it sticks,’" Derman laughs.
What the team hadn’t realized was that part of the paper had been finished in one material that the polymer wasn't attracted to, and part of the paper was finished in another material that loved the ball like a shoe loves gum. The lab hadn’t anticipated this A/B, lock-and-key attraction. In fact, when the design duo brought the working sticky sample back to the lab, Mattel’s scientists were totally surprised by the effect.
I remember we immediately ran back to the chem lab guys and I was like, "You gave us something," Derman says. "They were like, "’Well…leave it here and we'll figure it out,’" Makowski finishes.
But the design team didn’t need to wait for the scientific explanation. If they had a ball that could stick to some surfaces and not others, they had a game, so they immediately started taping scraps of the wonder paper to one another to serve as sticky targets in an impromptu office battle.
In a random side room, just off the receptionist's desk where queen bee Barbie holds a welcome sign, Mattel has set up a firing range for my benefit. Here I see the full line of finished BOOMco. blasters, each gleaming on a pedestal with an electric red, green, and blue color scheme that looks sweet enough to cause cavities, each meticulously designed, researched, and manufactured to be the superbikes of the blaster world, teasing their pneumatic engines underneath superfluous, angular paneling straight out of the video game Borderlands (and in fact, one of the lead designers admitted to having a copy of the game on his desk), but most importantly, each built to be the epitome of fun to a youthful male demographic still ignorant of the appeals of French kissing.
The bold industrial design wasn’t enough to make a hit product, I’d been told by Mattel execs earlier. To woo the hearts and minds of youth, any new toy needed competitive advantages over the status quo—that alchemy of marketable features that might equate to a S.W.H.S.B. product. So just just how many advantages is enough to break into a new market?
"According to Doug, we always need one more thing than whatever we’ve done," Swisher laughs. "We give him four unique points of difference. He says, ‘All we need is five! All we need is five!’ If we give him five, it’s six. So, the number is always ‘plus one.’"
"It’s like clearance!" Doug Wadleigh, SVP, Global Brands Marketing admits. "How many innovations do you need? You need enough to make sure that you are delivering something to the consumer that is unexpected. That they didn’t even know existed and it solves a lot of their frustrations, right?"
So let’s check off those innovations, according to Mattel:
- Darts that stick (for quantifying a hit)
- Darts that fire straighter/faster
- Darts that come in different colors (no more fighting over whose dart is whose)
- Blasters that won’t jam (which apparently young playtesters complained about)
- Blasters that fire without batteries (unlike some of Nerf’s elite weaponry)
- Targets that allow a child to play alone
I’m keeping all of those competitive advantages in mind when I’m faced with the complete BOOMco. armament for the first time. I don’t reach for their big ticket, fully automatic, Rapid Madness machine gun, but a single-dart pea shooter called the Clipfire that looks small enough to fit on a keychain. Cocking the handle back, I pull the trigger. Then I feel the kickback and watch the bright bullet fly through the air and stick exactly where I’d been aiming.
Feeling a toy operate with such precision will make you giggle in nervous cognitive dissonance—and indeed, I watched as my camera crew and various PR folks try BOOMco. for the first time and experience that same first giggle through the day. You simply can’t anticipate how well these toys work—how straight and powerfully they shoot—or how perfectly they stick to their complementary targets. More than once, I was surprised when a dart bounced off the board—that was, until I rewatched the footage in slow motion. The dart hadn't bounced off the board, it hand bounced off other darts already stuck to the board. I was, in essence, splitting arrows with $50 in toy weaponry.
The darts fire via air pressure, powered by mechanical pumping rather than batteries or motors. The secret sauce is plain as day, in the dart’s build. The skeleton is not a piece of Nerf-like foam, but a tube of plastic reminiscent of a thick boba tea straw. So the darts have a natural air tight seal and very little drag. (You can also step on one, squeeze its edges back into place, and keep firing.)
In fact, the entire blaster line—despite that models start under $10 and will peak around $60—is the result of over engineering. I’m told that the blaster performance actually had to be tuned down for manufacturing.
For instance, the fully automatic Rapid Madness originally fired too fast to appreciate the game, since pulling the trigger for the briefest moment emptied the entire clip. And while engineers were able to produce great distance out of their blasters, Mattel found that most kids play within about 30 feet of one another, so the weaponry was attenuated to a shorter range.
Some of the tuning was for safety—making sure the blasters fired quietly enough to not damage little ears, and slowly enough not to poke out an eye. But much of the throttling was about designing the performance, not around velocity maximums, but maximum fun.
Wrapped around each BOOMco. blaster is the brand—what Mattel calls a "lifestyle brand for boys" that Mattel hopes will be bigger than one line of weaponry. Modeled after the X-Games in both logo aesthetic and play mentality, they’re promoting a sporting ideal of "nail it or fail it." Firing a dart isn’t just hitting a target or a friend, they say, it’s pulling off a crazy stunt. There’s no opportunity for mediocrity in BOOMco., just epic hits and misses.
"And when you pull it off, that what we feel emotionally is that moment of boom! Like, "Boom! I did it!" explains Wadleigh. "BOOMco. is the place in which we delivered boom. And when you talk about success, what I want to see? I want to see BOOMco. everywhere. I want to see BOOMco. locations that allow boys to go inside, have blaster play, have sport play, have active play, get kids' adrenaline, go in, get them excited."
Wadleigh’s boyish enthusiasm wrapped in the authority of a tie-less pressed suit is infectious, and his words have me imagining a franchise of Chuck E. Cheeses crossed with skate parks, or maybe a good old chain of laser-tag courses without the lasers. Basically, I’m seeing birthday parties from the 1970s and '80s, the utopia of play before home consoles and apps made ball pits and animatronic bands seem so antiquated.
I realize I’ve been sold on a grander vision that, if nothing else, has failed once before in recent history—and for reasons that had nothing to do with some darts not sticking or firing straight enough. Besides, even Barbie doesn’t have her own franchise of clothing boutiques.
But if you tune back the hyperbole a bit, you can spot Mattel’s real intent with BOOMco. It’s not just about a line of blasters, that much is true. BOOMco. is Mattel’s sleeper attempt to brand outdoor play itself, to buy up real estate that so much of the world has forgotten, then sell our youth on it in an all-out marketing battle with Hasbro, releasing more, diverse BOOMco. sticky-but-not-sticky-sport-toys along the way.
So will BOOMco. be an epic hit or an epic miss? Against Nerf guns, the Kleenex of the blaster world, BOOMco. will be somewhere in between, a slow-progressing battle of trench warfare, enlisting children 30 seconds at a time. But the value of a long-term, sporty umbrella brand is a powerful insurance policy for a company whose core competency is physical play. In the near future, BOOMco. will lose the battle against Nerf. But in the longer term future, it could win the war as an enticing, X-games-coated-prescription for a child’s Play60.
Somewhere deep within the cubicles of Mattel’s design headquarters, Derman sits at a video edit bay. He’s not designing the next line of BOOMco. blasters. In fact, once the mechanics and aesthetics were mostly finalized, he was pulled off the BOOMco. project altogether.
He’s now the art director for Playground Productions, Mattel’s newly formed production studio that will be creating both animations and live action, theatrical content. And in his new role, Derman doesn’t just oversee art and animations for Mattel’s studio, he develops new properties—characters, worlds, and even brands—just like the folks he once envied at Warner Bros. or Pixar.
"I pitch a show in conjunction with toys. Here’s what the story is. Here’s what the toys could be," Derman explains. "So everyone sees from the beginning how the two seamlessly come together."
Derman’s position is at the heart of Mattel’s future. In the immediate, yes, Mattel needs a hit boy’s toy, and some of that Nerf money would certainly be nice. And yes, Mattel needs to protect the turf of analog toys in the age of digital ones, and so they brought a gun to an app fight.
But most of all, Mattel has grander aspirations, just like Derman—to be on movie screens, TVs, and tablets—to make more of their own toys the celebrity.