BeatBo is a star.
Born and bred in East Aurora, the Fisher-Price toy is one of the holiday season’s fastest and best sellers. It has been named to every hot holiday toy list that matters, outsold all other toys during the first week of October, and has been running out of stock around the world since before Black Friday.
The colorful, interactive toy has helped chart a turnaround for Fisher-Price’s parent company, Mattel, which has struggled with soft sales, and is part of an overall rebirth of the East Aurora toy brand.
Standing just over a foot tall, Bright Beats Dance & Move BeatBo is equal parts sweet and sleek. His tummy is something out of a disco dancefloor – all flashing, multi-colored lights – and he plays music you’d more likely hear at a late-night dance party than a nursery school.
It’s not clear whether he’s a robot or an alien, but something about the short, bulbous character has babies and parents alike going gaga.
Even though most people don’t know her name, 38-year-old Beth Hageman is a rock star among families with small children. Many projects she has worked on during her 14 years at Fisher-Price have become household staples. Remember the Laugh & Learn Smart Stages Home? The Laugh & Learn Puppy? How about the Crawl Around Car? Yeah, those were hers.
Last year, Fisher-Price tasked Hageman’s team with looking for a new toy for the holiday season. It wanted something unisex for children 9 months and older, something that involved music, encouraged learning and movement, and could be sold for about $39.99.
Hageman grabbed a pencil and started sketching. What she came up with would have fit safely alongside cutesy Fisher-Price toys of years past – scrappy puppies and colorful teddy bears.
But there has been a shift toward more elevated, contemporary design at Fisher-Price for both toys and baby gear. So bosses pushed Hageman to really let go.
“We’ve been given a lot more freedom to go for it, to be more edgy and fresh,” she said.
So she started sketching again, this time coming up with a futuristic-looking but irresistibly cute little guy with a wide smile, big, open eyes and colorful antennae.
Poring over some of her trend research, she kept noticing multicolored LED lights, often in retro grid patterns.
“They were everywhere – at concerts, projected on buildings, on clothing,” she said. “You’re always thinking, ‘What’s the major feature?’ and with BeatBo it’s his belly.”
So that’s where the lights ended up. But BeatBo needed some hip music to go along with the light show. That’s where Chris Grabar comes in.
Grabar, the project audio engineer, is 28. He wears a giant white Diesel watch and a haircut that is part Mohawk, part mullet. His office is dark and encased in sound-controlling foam egg crate. There’s a sticker on the door that says, “Rock hard.”
“Normally you’re sort of assigned a project, but I saw this and I said, ‘I want to work on that,’ ” Grabar said.
In the past, a toy like BeatBo’s repertoire might have been limited to sing-song nursery rhymes. But Grabar dreamed up a soundtrack patterned after DJ dance music, featuring the interactive “BeatBo Boogie” and a hip reboot of the alphabet song. Kids can also record words that BeatBo will remix into new songs. Lyrics reference shapes, colors and numbers, and call out dance moves for toddlers to try.
The full playlist is available on Spotify.
“When you’re in a band, you hear the applause and the cheers from the audience,” Grabar said. “My reward is when parents say they can hear this toy all day and not get sick of it.”
BeatBo’s popularity has been a boon to struggling parent company Mattel. Mattel has been struggling with poor performance, especially slumping Barbie sales, which fell another 14 percent in the third quarter. Mattel will lose its rights to manufacture the Disney Princess brands in 2016, just as Disney’s “Frozen” hits a boiling point. Barron’s estimates Disney contributes $500 million in revenue to the company, about half of it from “Frozen.”
But it’s not that BeatBo alone is coming to Mattel’s rescue. Fisher-Price as a whole has been a bright spot. The brand was up 1 percent this quarter, even as Mattel’s overall sales dropped 11 percent.
BeatBo is a shining example of Fisher-Price’s renewed focus on design and rich play experience, according to Chris Byrne, executive vice president and content director for TTPM, a consumer toy review firm. Design is a critical factor for infant and pre-school products, and BeatBo’s is “contemporary and sleek while being friendly and approachable,” he said.
“Fisher-Price had an iconic look that was as much a part of its brand identity as the products,” Byrne said.
But in the age of Apple, that look started to feel dated. The sleeker lines and the addition of lots of white and contemporary colors have prompted customers to take a new look at the brand, he said.
“It was time for them to throw it all up in the air and look at it in a new way,” Byrne said. “And they’ve done a great job with that, in my opinion, without walking away from the classic, engaged play that’s a big part of the Fisher-Price identity.”
The toy made a slew of hot holiday toy lists, including Parents Best Toys and the Toys “R” Us Hot List. It’s also a finalist for the Toy Industry Association’s Infant/Toddler Toy of the Year. Its success prompted Fisher-Price to fast-track more from BeatBo, which will be unveiled in New York City at Toy Fair in February.