The Evolution of Fast Food Toy Premiums: From Physical to Digital, Exploring Niche Brands, And Making Mom Happy

Reprint of article from Youth Markets Alert (April 1, 2010).  Reprinted with permission of EPM Communications, Inc. 

ImageA decade ago, fast food toy premiums primarily served as a promotional platform for an upcoming movie or popular mainstream kids brand. Fast food/quick service restaurants (QSR) launched four-week promotions touting the latest animation sensations. Now, kid’s meal premiums are increasingly utilized as but one tool in broader outreach efforts. “Toy premiums reinforce your brand,” says Subway’s Tony Pace.

With QSR chains spending a collective $360 million on toys annually, according to the FTC, this evolution from a simple plastic toy to a more nuanced branding effort includes:

  • ­Deals involving niche or lesser-known properties.
  • Using the premium to convey a brand message.
  • Digital or more high-tech toy products. 
  • Promotions addressing parents’ desires as much as the child’s.

Digital Natives
At a time when it seems two-year-olds are increasingly preferring to play with an iPhone app than a regular toy, it’s certainly understandable that fast food chains are likewise shifting away from the traditional plastic toy to offer more tech-friendly premiums. Wendy’s, for instance, regularly offers audio books and interactive games based on Scholastic properties. McDonald’s is also pushing online efforts as part of its Happy Meals promotions.

However, offering a digital code on the kid’s meal box is not enough. “You really have to have something tangible,” says Pace. “We look for a balance between a download and a toy.”

One industry consultant echoes the sentiment of most QSR executives when she says that the code receipt will never completely overtake the premium, while acknowledging digital premiums as a necessary addition. “This extends the licensor message if they engage a family with a code for a sweepstakes entry,” says another QSR industry analyst.

In short, digital or plastic isn’t one option over another. Both are now vital to effectively connect with today’s children. However, this online or digital connection does not have to mean a fully functional online world. An online contest or game is sufficient.

Moms’ Meals
While children may desire a trip through the drive-thru, they aren’t the ones buying the meals. QSR chains are increasingly considering the parent when creating and offering promotions. In fact, one executive tells Youth Markets Alert (YMA) that the only time they consider a child’s viewpoint is when deciding the initial partnership, whether it’s a movie, TV program, or music promotion. The actual toy promotion itself is constructed to maximize its parent appeal. “Today’s mom is more engaged with her child’s likes and dislikes, so if the premium resonates with her, you’re golden,” says one industry consultant.

Though very few parents would refuse to take their child to a chain solely because they dislike a specific premium, they do have preferences. For a tangible product, they don’t want anything loud, obnoxious or disruptive.

Parents also prefer something substantial. Chick-Fil-A, for example, has provided educational CDs that include Russian, Italian, Chinese, and Spanish lessons. “Although these are not purchase drivers through advertising, they are creating a bond and affinity with parents,” says a QSR consultant.

QSR magazine’s Blair Chancey says Hispanic moms, in particular, seek toy premiums that allow them to interact with the child, most preferably with an educational angle.

If mom likes a premium, chains are likely to know about it. One chain has received numerous non-solicited blog messages from moms about premiums that provide educational benefits for their children.

Books, Videogames, Music, And More
A key shift in toy premiums has been towards more niche properties. “Companies have a million brands to choose to partner with and it’s more competitive than ever. Most go with the big movies or they want that hot brand. Or they want to see it’s well-supported with ratings or books sales,” says Scholastic’s Leslye Schaefer.

Although the blockbuster movie and TV series remain the most popular tie-in, QSR chains are also exploring deals that involve other categories, such as videogames and publishing, and lesser known properties, such as Bellhedz. Subway, for instance, has offered deals tied to the Smithsonian Institution and provided adventure-type tools, such as a compass and step tracker, for a National Geographic Kids promotion.

Burger King recently offered a promotion based on the popular children’s book character Pinkalicious. During a 2009 promotion, McDonald’s provided free downloads of Razor & Tie’s Kidz Bop tunes with each kid’s meal purchase. It also has run several promotions featuring dolls from Madame Alexander, a brand with a far lower profile than Barbie.

More available properties means more chains can get in on the action. Taco Bueno, for instance, with some 188 locations primarily in the South, has offered toys based on Sony Pictures films. Similarly, Southern-based Church’s Chicken has offered videogame promotions, including one supporting the Afro Samurai videogame by Namco Bandai games.

What the Toy Says about the Chain
A growing number of QSR chains view toy premiums as a way to reflect their brand values and overall message. Subway positions itself as a place to eat healthier so the vast majority of its kid premiums align with that message, says Pace. The chain has offered Kid’s Meal products such as water bottles and the device that tracks footsteps.

The faith-based VeggieTales series from Big Idea regularly offers promotions with the similarly faith-based Chick-Fil-A chain. Taco Bell conveys that it’s hip by running kid’s meal promotions featuring cutting edge toys such as Bellhedz vinyl figurines.

While no QSR currently positions itself as the crafty chain, one industry consultant predicts the next big trend for premiums is likely to involve arts and crafts.

Although most QSRs continue to target their promotions to the young end of the 4-12 demographic, with a sweet spot of age seven, there has been a shift towards more adult or teen-targeted efforts — notably, Burger King’s on-going promotion with Summit Entertainment for the Twilight Saga.