Toy Industry trends: What toy brands can learn from the L.O.L. Surprise dolls phenomenon

For a very long time, Barbie dolls were unbeatable. Since its first release in 1959, Barbies have dominated the toy doll market, constantly adapting to changes in customers’ preferences to please women and girls around the world.

However, in December 2016, things changed a little. Barbie gained a worthy opponent: L.O.L Surprise burst into the doll scene, capturing children’s attention.

The Quilt AI Methodology

To understand the reasons behind the L.O.L’s phenomenon, we extracted 600 social media posts from the official brand accounts of Barbie and L.O.L Surprise.

Then, our AI machines semiotically clustered the posts, helping us identify the key emotions, words and images used by each brand.

We also pulled over 1600 reviews of each brand’s top 10 e-commerce products. We ran the text through our cultural analytics models in order to understand consumers’ perception of these products.

Finally, from these insights, we identified 3 key lessons for toy brands to take away.

What are the reasons for the L.O.L dolls’ massive popularity?

People Power: They tap on the power of content-sharing platforms

Many credit the brand’s meteoric success to their strategy: leveraging on the growing demographic of children consuming content on YouTube, and the unboxing trend that was happening on the video sharing platform.

L.O.L Surprise dolls were perfect for the popular video sharing website: the toy and its accessories came in layers of opaque packaging making the unwrapping itself a gift (a pleasant, suspenseful experience that children long for).

An unboxing video on Youtube

It’s possible to say that the product experience starts even before they own the toy: from the moment they watch the ‘‘unboxing videos’’, the anticipation for the purchase of L.O.L dolls starts to kick in. It makes them think that just like the kid unpacking the doll in the video, they’ll have a fun, exciting experience finding what doll they’ll collect next.

Playing a guessing game: the L.O.L Surprise appeal

A huge part of L.O.L’s appeal relates to the doll’s surprise element: By hiding their dolls’ identity and making the unwrapping an experience, children become invested in ‘unlocking’ and collecting as many unique dolls as they can.

Mystery adds a thrilling element to the customer experience — with each purchase really being mini gambles of their own. Would you get the model that the coolest girl in school just got? Or would you get a repeat of an existing doll you already have? Who knows!

L.O.L. Surprise brings the adrenaline of a carnival ring toss game into the doll market, except we’re truly all winners here — either way, a toy with social prestige would be won.

Just like mature toy collectors, the kids’ joy comes from seeing and owning the doll, not necessarily playing with it (it is a common complaint from parents that their kids don’t play with their L.O.L. Surprise toys once they unwrap them — a possible sign that maybe the biggest kick in owning the toy is actually in the unwrapping!).

The Proven Success of the Collector model

We’ve seen how this surprise element worked out stunningly well in the past generations. Any kid who grew up in the 2000s probably remembers the thrill of buying a packet of stickers, not knowing if they would finally fill their sticker album or if they would have to swap stickers with a friend.

A vivid memory some of our colleagues had from the early 2000s was getting to school and seeing boys playing with yu-gi-oh cards every day before class. The excitement of hopefully getting a ‘‘rare card’’ to show off to other card enthusiast mates certainly drove the sales of this product. Yu-Gi-Oh cards first conquered the Asian market in 1996 and became a global phenomenon in 2002 as it reached the shores of North America, quickly followed by Europe and other territories.

The element of surprise and the enthusiasm for finishing a collection is part of the excitement of being a collector. Add the social aspect to it and there you go: you have a winning formula to attract kids. Children can be easily persuaded to try new trends especially if their mates (and favourite YouTubers nowadays) are giving it a go.

For many years, collectible toys were marketed for boys, and they were clearly successful, so why not try the same trend with girls? L.O.L’s innovative strategy was perfect for the growing, unfulfilled need of their target audience, and we love this!

The kids are alright: L.O.L targets children seeking more than instant gratification

It’s very clear that children nowadays have more than their healthy dose of instant gratification due to the fast paced Internet age that we live in. Want to watch Peppa Pig’s next episode? Not to worry, the whole season is available on Netflix. Want to know what everyone else thinks of your picture? No sweat, they’ll see it in the next few minutes on Instagram.

It’s easy to assume that a generation so used to instant gratification would be frustrated experiencing delayed gratification, but it’s quite the opposite. (p.s. We found a 2018 study published by the American Psychological Association that suggested that today’s kids can delay gratification longer than children in the 1960s and 1980s.)

Collecting is an activity for the long run. When it comes to the L.O.L dolls, we’re seeing that the kids don’t mind that they don’t get to choose the exact doll they want. It makes satisfaction so much sweeter when they finally get what they desire.

Insights from our AI-led consumer research:

Examining Visual Cues…

The focus on Barbies’ looks remain strong as ever, hence why sensuality was detected in their images. But looks are not enough to attract consumers: Barbie’s line of different career women empowers their young consumers, showing the kind of woman they would see on a daily basis. This sense of ‘‘familiarity’’ and the use of pastel colours, create an atmosphere of comfort, leading to happiness as the top detected emotion by our Culture AI.

When it comes to the L.O.L. Surprise dolls, there is a focus on fashion, whether it’s the doll’s eye-catching versions of stage outfits, or celebrity outfits. This is why affiliation is detected in their images, as the outfits are all about being part of wider fashion trends that even young children are exposed to. This toy also emphasises creating a stage for children to explore their creativity. It’s all about dreaming up fantastical and glamorous scenes.

Product Marketing: The Classic Doll Experience Vs The Collector Experience

word cloud of top words
word cloud of top words
Word cloud showing the top used words in Barbie’s social media posts

The language in Barbie’s marketing posts convey two themes.

The first is girly innocence. With words like “imagination”, “sparkle” and “fashion”, Barbie communicates to consumers that their dolls bring their daughters a familiar, wholesome childhood where they can indulge in play.

The second is empowerment, showing girls that they have the power to do anything.

word cloud
word cloud
Word cloud of the top used words in L.O.L. Surprise’s social media posts

Meanwhile, L.O.L focuses on child’s joy for surprises: their posts use words like “dollcollector” and “unboxing”, directly relating to the anticipation of trying to find all the dolls in a line. L.O.L conveys that the dolls have unique, powerful personalities and features through words like “fierce” and “queen”, which encourages children to aspire to be the same.

Review Analysis: What do product reviews tell us?

Barbie dolls are seen more as a toy or long-term collectible. The reviews talk about the mobility of joints, or anger at damaged packaging that will not look good when displayed. When there’s criticism, it’s usually referred to the quality or style of clothing options.

Finally, the reviews praise the inclusivity of the dolls, which extends past skin tones into jobs, disabilities and a variety of historical figures who are now Barbies. The diversity appeals to many more buyers of all ages.

L.O.L. dolls are focused on collectability too (although, unlike Barbie, mainly on a short term), offering numerous toys and accessories to collect. The unboxing element is one of the main attractions, even though a lot of parents dislike the quantity of packaging needed for the surprise element.

The quality of the dolls’ clothes or make-up is another common complaint among parents. There’s also uncertainty regarding the long-term collectability, or ability to play with the dolls. Yet, they mention that their children still love and play with the toy, enjoying the new addition to their collection.

What can toy brands do to stay relevant?

Keep up with the times

In the words of Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’! We can’t deny that Barbie rides the current trend of gender equality by taking on its appearance (offering more diverse dolls). Yet, it is unable to encapsulate the trend’s more edgy and contemporary soul.

Culturally speaking, this is because the Barbie brand has a reputation for pink, gentle, feminine messaging. L.O.L Surprise, being a new player in the toy market, is able to incorporate the sassy, fluorescent aspects of contemporary feminism into its toys and marketing.

Brands should be ready to adapt its products to consumers’ new needs. New times create new expectations and those who don’t evolve, adapt with the tone of the attitudes, get left behind.

If you’re up against a giant, carve your own playing field

L.OL. Surprise found a gap in the toy market that had yet to be fulfilled, and so seized the opportunity to nurture a new kind of toy collector: one who’s mainly keen on riding the adrenaline high of acquiring, not so much the follow-up things that come with owning a doll.

Pay attention to those who hold purchasing power too:

Gen Z is only just having spending power, so it’s safe to say that Generation Alpha is far from it (for now). Appealing to kids is great, but ultimately, parents are the ones who decide to buy a toy or not, and they’re the ones who write reviews. It would be wise for toy brands to take parents’ opinions into account, and solve them.

For example, parents had often voiced their concerns about the environmental impact of the massive amounts of plastic wrapping from unboxing L.O.L. Surprise dolls. However, the layers of plastic wrapping is a critical component of their success. In response to this, the brand came up with a recycling program, accepting all packaging, accessories and products.

Once again, we love to see it.

Want to do more research on the Generation Alpha consumer, or just want to chat? Email anurag.banerjee@quilt.ai to find out more about our research tools and services.

A little about us…

Quilt.AI is an artificial intelligence-led market research consultancy. Our team of anthropologists, semioticians and data scientists are culturally-informed and conduct market research at scale and speed, with proprietary AI tools to analyse data across multiple social and web streams.

Operating out of Singapore, New York, London, and Delhi, our cultural data tools work across platforms worldwide to deliver projects regardless of geographical boundaries.

Quilt.AI creates culturally intelligent AI products to drive impact at scale. More here: https://quilt.ai