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Q&A with Mark Zeller of Fisher Price: Predicting what toys will be hot 18 months out

Ohio native Mark Zeller was studying marketing, on course for an advertising career when he realized he only cared about one of the industry’s hallmark “four P’s.” Forget placement, price and promotion – all he cared about was the product.

That led him to a career in product design that has spanned more than 20 years; first as a senior designer at behemoth toy conglomerate Hasbro (while also teaching toy design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology), then for Tyco Preschool, which was later acquired by Mattel.

About a year ago, he became senior vice president of design at Fisher-Price, and splits his time at the company’s New York and East Aurora offices.

Samantha Christmann: What has been first on your list to dive into here?

Mark Zeller: I think for this particular office it’s really about amping up the collaboration between the two Fisher-Price offices in New York City and East Aurora.

We’ve been sending a lot of designers down there to brainstorm and go cool hunting and trend hunting in New York City and vice versa.

SC: How do they go cool hunting?

MZ: Most recently the team went out to smaller boutiques in Brooklyn. They can also go to large trade shows.

I’ll give you a trick of the trade: New York Magazine is the most amazing resource in terms of listing all the small retail boutiques, inspirational outlets, and galleries in each location throughout the city, so we use that to make sure they’re seeing things that are outside of the box.

SC: What are they looking for? Designs? Color schemes?

MZ: Trends and influences. That’s one way – boots on the ground exploring. But we also work with a lot of trending services that are forecasting trends 18 months out and that’s in home decor, fashion, retailing, materials.

SC: How has what parents look for in baby gear changed?

MZ: The design overall and the use of technology. The millennial parent is really the first generation that has been exposed to amazing industrial design. If you think about Apple or Samsung, beautiful design is not a “nice-to-have,” it’s a “you-have-to-have-it.”

Gear is really important because it’s their first introduction into Fisher-Price. So if you think about it, they’re actually shopping before they have the baby. So it’s really the gateway for all our Fisher-Price products.

SC: Does what children respond to change over the years or do their preferences stay the same?

MZ: It does change, just like any other trend. Whether it’s the design or that audible component. So you’re really trying to be more current in what the toy will sound like.

SC: What sounds current?

MZ: Well, I wouldn’t say we’re going out into the clubs and recording, but there is an understanding of what’s out there in terms of melodies, beats, hooks that feel a little bit more current than your classic nursery rhymes.

SC: What do parents look at when shopping for gear?

MZ: They’re definitely looking for safety features, and Fisher-Price puts a great emphasis on that trust. For us we’re really excited about the infusion of technology and what Bluetooth can bring to make their experience with gear meaningful and important.

Also, what’s really important in gear – it takes up a substantial piece of real estate in someone’s house. It has to feel like they could look at it for however long they need to have it inside their house. We put a lot of emphasis on home decor and making sure that our products don’t feel out of place.

SC: When did that focus on style become so important?

MZ: To me, I think ground zero was the iPod and Apple. It was really basic, simple design that was very thoughtful and elevated.

SC: How are you incorporating Bluetooth?

MZ: We’re calling it Smart Connect. It allows a smart device, whether iPad or smartphone to be able to interact with either a swing or a mobile.

So imagine your baby is fussing in the nursery but you can control the mobile and the music, the speed, the volume from your phone from outside the room so you’re not disturbing the baby.

It has to be meaningful, it can’t just be technology for technology’s sake.

SC: How has social media changed the game?

MZ: People have the ability to curate design, as with Pinterest, and share and comment. There’s a lot of information out there, like Amazon reviews. There’s more information regarding your products and they’re really great touch points.

We’re very much focused on social media and what people are saying about our products unaided.

Years ago you waited until the product shipped and you got the feedback by word of mouth.

SC: How does product design change when you’re marketing globally?

MZ: The color palette and graphic patterns are different. Europe doesn’t really like bright, bright. They like characters more than you would imagine they would.

Materials are important in terms of fabric and what it’s going to feel like when you put your baby in it. We have this soft, fleecy “Snugga” line, but in Brazil they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s too hot for my baby.’

In other markets around the world, there are space limitations we don’t necessarily have here in the United States. So we focus on portability and the ability to collapse down an item and make sure they’re not taking up too much real estate inside people’s homes. We have a baby bouncer that is like origami the way it folds up but is still safe and stable. And that helps us grow in these markets around the world.

SC: What changes do you see over the next 10 years?

MZ: We work in a business that’s 18 months out, so 10 years – I don’t think anybody really knows 100 percent what a family is going to look like 10 years from now. But we are working in that area. It really depends what’s going on in society and globally.