Toys”R”Us brings imagination back to life in new brand campaign

Who: Toys”R”Us Canada, with Broken Heart Love Affair for strategy and creative, The Salmon for production (Mike Warzin directing), Saints Editorial and The Vanity for post-production, Berkeley for audio, and Prospect Media Group for media.

What: “Imagination included,” a new brand campaign with a pointed (and poignant) message about kids spending too much time on screens, and not enough time playing with toys and using their imagination.

When & Where: The campaign is live now, running through the holidays with a 60-second spot and cutdowns in online video, cinema and pre-roll, supported by social, out-of-home, catalogue advertising and in-store.

Why: This is first ever brand campaign for Toys”R”Us Canada, which emerged from the bankruptcy of its American parent company in 2018.

They hired Broken Heart Love Affair in the spring to help “reignite the brand,” said Toys”R”Us director of marketing Allyson Banks. Toys”R”Us has high awareness, particularly with adults who have fond memories of the store from their childhood, but had a couple of specific objectives for the brand campaign:

  • Remind people that—unlike in the U.S.—Toys”R”Us was not bankrupt; and
  • Reach shoppers with a brand message that went beyond price and convenience, which is common among retail giants like Amazon and Walmart.

“Buying toys is so transactional, and as a dedicated toy retailer, we have a responsibility to connect deeper with our shoppers to really make sure they understand why play is so important,” said Banks. “You can buy toys anywhere… Toys”R”Us exists because of that deeper connection with the shopper.”

It was up to BHLA to find a new way to remind shoppers of that reason.

How (the strategy): The strategic insight behind the campaign is that much of society values creative thinking and believes imagination and creativity will become more important in the years ahead. At the same time, however, there’s growing concern that kids’ ability to be creative is being stifled by excessive screen usage and the lack of unstructured, unscheduled play.

“They don’t really have any time for, I’ll call it boredom, really free play,” said Kristy Pleckaitis, senior vice-president of strategy at BHLA.  “It’s when you’re bored and you have free time to yourself that you are encouraged to use your imagination.”

BHLA found evidence of the problem in a British survey of daycare staff, in which 72% of respondents said that fewer children have imaginary friends than five years ago, and 63% thought screens are making children less imaginative.

“Boredom and creativity are actually the key ingredients for imaginary friends,” said Pleckaitis. “When we started seeing these imaginary friends dying off, that’s pretty alarming.”

How (creative): If imaginary friends were dying off, Toys “R “Us (with help from BHLA) would bring them back to life—literally. The 60-second anchor spot opens on a mother asking her young, obviously bored son, why he doesn’t play with Mr. Ferguson. “Who?” he responds, which is when the mother sees Mr. Ferguson, a large, fuzzy, bunny-esque blue creature lying on the floor, eyes closed, tongue hanging out.

A call for help brings a team of Toys”R”Us “playamedics.” As they urgently play with different toys, the boy gets interested again, and Mr. Ferguson starts to stir. He is fully revived when a giant whoopie cushion is depressed beneath his backside. The boy grabs Mr. Ferguson’s hand and they run off to play as the Toys”R”Us famous jingle starts to play in the background and the tagline “Imagination included” appears on screen.

When BHLA pitched its creative ideas, there were some safe ones, and then there was an imaginary friend literally dying on a living room floor. Banks was instantly drawn to the latter.

“We challenged ourselves as a client to forego the safety net, to do something a little bit different,” she said. The idea for Mr. Ferguson was about connecting with parents on an emotional level and reflect back to them what they are feeling and, implicitly, remind them that Toys”R”Us can help. “They know that they’re responsible for over-scheduling, that they are the reason why things are [this way], and we needed to do something different.

“And that’s where other retailers wouldn’t be able to do that. They’re so dependent on focusing on the product,” she said. “And we were very confident and comfortable to do something different this year.”

Any problem selling it to the executive team? “It gave them chills. They felt so strongly about it,” said Banks.  “They asked the questions [about] where’s the product, how is this gonna sell product? We had to reinforce that, from a business perspective, this is a brand campaign. This is not a product campaign.”

What about Christmas? Toys”R”Us will do some tactical and promotional campaigns as the holidays get closer, but this is the brand campaign for the rest of the year and into 2023. “We decided to prioritize it in the holiday season because we know that’s where there’s the most demand,” said Banks. “We intentionally didn’t do a Christmas campaign because there’s longevity to this…  This campaign is built to live for the next 18 months.”

David Brown