Are we speaking the same language?
There are plenty of factors affecting culture, one of the most obvious and greatest factors is language. There are approximately 6,500 languages spoken in the world, with many different systems of writing and speaking. Content is usually produced for one lead language, and as such tends to reflect the culture of both the nationality and language of the production. Whilst we may be used to having to deal with different language versions of products for some categories and might be used to having to cram many legal lines in on small labels and packaging in some other cases, the challenges caused by countries with different languages abound. The reality of course is that these challenges have to be managed in order to successfully sell product to the maximum extent in each market.
One of the best examples we have of the effect of language is the Nordic region, where each country has a different language, and the text tends to be especially long. This can make for some difficult decisions in terms of which languages to include on packaging. Because each Nordic market is not that big, it makes more sense to try to sell the same product across the entire Nordic region, but for some products the language on packaging is particularly important. For a Plush toy, this is usually not so much of an issue but for a board game, science kit or hobby kit where text is needed to explain and to sell the product, we can see quite clearly that trying to fit 4 or 5 different (long) languages on to the pack, and for it to still communicate effectively to the consumer in each separate market is quite difficult. In the past we worked on some products where the Nordic region could not always justify localisation, but due to the very high levels of English speaking in that part of the world, the U.S. version could sell into the market albeit in significantly lower quantities. So, the bottom line on language is that there are challenges to manage, but there are tried and tested ways to deal with this on a practical basis.
Content is king
It could be argued that in some ways social media and content platforms such as YouTube have somewhat eroded the cultural differences between countries speaking the same language. While there are still many specifically American, British or Australian TV shows being produced, their share of the content universe is less than it was before user generated content became such a major time magnet, especially for children.
Nevertheless, there are often opportunities to be found in locally produced content. Whereas the major global toy companies will often compete for major global licenses, in each country or region around the world there are many highly popular brands, TV shows, YouTubers and influencers who all have enough audience and brand equity to drive merchandise sales locally.
On a more international scale, there is a reason why massive Hollywood blockbuster movies go global – because they are based on physical action & quite simple dialogue, which is more likely to make sense across the world, versus a more complicate narrative and nuance filled movie, which will tend to make less sense in other countries where culture is vastly different, and therefore find a smaller audience outside the country where the content was produced.
Play patterns & parenting styles
A further major cultural factor toy companies need to consider is the difference in the way children play, and the way parents see their role from country to country. While British parents are most likely to let their children choose toys, German parents integrate educational toys into their children’s daily routine. Either in the UK or in Germany, there are of course exceptions to the rule. Accordingly, the UK toy market is balanced more towards child preferences for licensed toys, whereas the German toy market is more heavily balanced towards parent approved toys like wooden materials, and socially and developmentally beneficial toys and play patterns.
Family structure also plays a big part in creating cultural differences. Southern European countries tend to be more likely to live in larger family units, and even where several generations are not living together, they are much more likely to be integrated into each other’s daily lives and regular social occasions. This clearly increases the role of grandparents in both the upbringing of children and the gifting of toys to the child.
Another example of family structure playing a big part in the crossover between toys and culture is China. Following decades of the ‘One child policy’ in China, combined with incredible economic growth and increases in disposable income, this tends to mean that even though the limit to one child per family has now been relaxed, there is still an ongoing culture of having only one child per family, and as a result therefore the one child in the family tends to get a lot of focus, gifting and also without siblings may tend to play in a different, less inherently social way versus children in households with multiple children.
Geography also plays a part in defining the cultural factors affecting the toy business. Those countries, and regions enjoying better weather are more likely to have a larger Spring-Summer season, and those countries with generally worse weather will tend to see Outdoor toys having a lesser market share. By way of example, if we again look at Southern Europe, where summers are long and typically glorious, and then compare that with the often washed out and grey summers in the Northern parts of the UK, then it becomes obvious that consumers in Southern Europe will be buying and playing with different toys versus parts of the UK.
If we look at the Nordic region again, in a place where winters are very dark, homebound social play is far more likely. This is at least part of the region why Scandinavia has always been a strong board games market, due to the abundance of in-home play opportunities through those ultra-dark days.
Growing cultural complexity
Effectively managing cultural differences is a key part of being successful in the toy business, but it is not always easy. Maximising sales potential as well as operational efficiencies creates significant challenges. Looking forward, it doesn’t seem like these cultural challenges will get any easer with the rapid growth of economies and consumerism in Asia. The Number two and three toy markets in the world are China and Japan, with significantly different market characteristics in each. However, with other Asian countries also rapidly growing we are likely to need to understand and manage more cultural complexities in the future, not less.