YuMe Toys’ Felipe Noriega and Gurdeep Bains on Encapsulating 100 years of Disney Magic in Collectibles
From MojoNation, April 25, 2023, by Billy Langsworthy
Guys, it’s great to catch up. Before we look at your Disney 100 Surprise capsules, can you talk me through how you came to work in toys?
Felipe Noriega, Vice President & Regional Director, EMEA, Maxx Marketing & Licensing Matters: I landed in the industry somewhat unexpectedly. I joined Maxx when we were a promotional marketing agency. Six years ago, we had the foresight to predict that, as consumers, retailers and our own clients – companies such as Kellogg’s, Danone and others – became more environmentally aware, demand for non-essential, plastic-made promotional gifts would diminish due to their increasingly negative perception.
We had to look at how to leverage our 20 years of skills, capabilities and commercial network and spin our business successfully… That’s when we set up our standalone toy business, YuMe Toys, and our standalone licensing agency, Licensing Matters. So I came into the toy industry as the company pivoted into this area.
And Gurdeep, as Global Creative Director, what set you on the path to design?
Gurdeep Bains, Global Creative Director, Maxx Group & YuMe Toys: I’ve always been creative. From an early age I loved sketching and drawing my favourite cartoon and comic characters. When I was younger, I used to create cardboard models of vehicles and spaceships that I used to watch on TV, like the Star Trek Enterprise and Batman’s Batmobile. I knew then I wanted some sort of career in design.
I enjoyed studying Art and Design at school and when I went to Brunel University, I studied Industrial design and technology. I liked playing with toys when I was a kid and always used to think how I could improve them. However, I never thought I’d go into a career where I would be designing them.
Oh really? What did you have your eye on?
GB: I thought I was going to be a product designer at Dyson or Apple! As an industrial product designer, you always look at those companies. I actually ended up in a manufacturing company before starting at Maxx. It’s at Maxx where I started out as a designer working on promotions for global brands and collaborating with many entertainment licensors. This was my first step in designing products for a younger audience, and I’ve continued on that path as we’ve set up the YuMe Toys division.
Let’s discuss the recent launch of your Disney 100 capsules. What led the launch of this range?
FN: At the heart of the range is our eagerness to join Disney in celebrating some of the most famous characters within their portfolio – and the item is both collectable and playable. Everyone from kids to adults will be excited about celebrating 100 years of Disney through this range.
Gurdeep, on the design side of things, what were you looking to achieve?
GB: Many collectibles on the market are very straightforward. You open up a bag, get a product and that’s it. We wanted to offer something different and really get under the skin of the IP.
We take consumers on a journey through an opening experience and the product itself is great quality and highly sophisticated in terms of poses. On the journey, consumers get clue cards that tease who the character hidden inside is. These include magical effects like water reveals and heat reveals. It’s a fun, engaging experience.
The lid and the bottom come off the capsule and can be constructed to form a really nice display. Then you get your character, side character and accessories.
FN: From research on how the human brain works in infants aged three to four, we know it’s at that age that we start to experience anticipation. That’s when the brain starts producing dopamine when anticipation and uncertainty are satisfied by a resolution. So, part of the reason kids really enjoy this type of product is that their young brains get the satisfaction of dopamine hits through the resolution of the mystery and suspense the capsules create.
You’ve launched collectibles for brands like Stranger Things, Harry Potter and now Disney. Each time, the toys have been very stylised. They aren’t just a straightforward translation. What guides how you put your own spin on iconic characters?
FN: It’s fundamentally a commercial decision. Stranger Things aside, most of these IPs have been done to death in toys and collectibles, so we have to stand out while also still appealing to our target demographic. If we go too far in one direction, we could lose the collectors. If we go too far the other way, we may lose the kids. It’s a fine line we have to walk until we find a style that meets the commercial necessity of mass appeal, while remaining faithful to the IP and the licensor.
GB: With character illustrations, you could keep tweaking and tweaking. We come up with loads of iterations before settling on a style that works best for a mass audience. As Felipe says, it has to be unique to YuMe while also maintaining the integrity of these characters. And it’s worth remembering that it’s not just kids buying our product. We have lots of adult fans. When we launched our Harry Potter range, we saw adults coming into stores to buy whole CDUs!
With your Disney range, you’ve got 100 years of characters to choose from. You’ve got Woody, Mickey, Moana, Simba… What dictated who you went with in the end?
GB: We worked closely with Disney and they have a lot of data around the popularity of different characters. We also have our own personal preferences, but we tried to choose the ones that our audience would recognise and want – ones that are most appealing to most people.
We’ve also included some side characters, because sometimes they are just as appealing as the main characters. For example, Alice comes with the Cheshire Cat and Pinocchio comes with Jiminy Cricket.
Smart move. I’m a big Emperor’s New Groove fan and I see that missed out – were there any characters that you found particularly painful not to include?
FN: Ha! I’d say Steamboat Willie. Some of our creatives were adamant that we should include him because of his place in Disney’s history. I wanted to include him too, but we had to take a commercial decision not to. Rightly or wrongly, not enough consumers, especially kids, would know who the character is. Some people might have assumed we’d got Mickey wrong as the stylisation is different from the modern Mickey we know today!
This range centres around the anniversary, but do you see more collaborations with Disney down the road?
FN: We see this as a foundational collaboration with Disney. We’re already working on the next few projects with them.
So there’s still hope for an Emperor’s New Groove collection…
FN: Ha! Well, you know I’m from Peru so I should be rooting for it… Consider it a done deal!
GB: Felipe might have an internal battle there as his commercial instincts kick in!
FN: I’m ready to throw away my commercial convictions for this one. Billy, did you know in this office, we only drink Peruvian coffee? It’s non-negotiable.
Ha! Rightly so! Now, looking ahead, what else should we be keeping an eye out for from YuMe?
GB: The second series of both our Disney 100 Surprise Capsules and our Stranger Things Upside Down Capsules are hitting shelves on the second half of this year. And we’re expanding our capsules range even further with great new IPs such as Marvel.
We’re also working on comprehensive collectible ranges featuring some of the hottest anime properties out there, including Jujutsu Kaisen, which is shipping imminently and, if I may say so myself, is looking amazing.
FN: During the second semester of this year YuMe will be penetrating the stationery category for the first time, featuring super popular video game and anime properties. We are tremendously excited about the take our creative team has come up with for these products.
GB: Away from capsules and stationery, one of our new categories is our collectible, premium DZNR – pronounced “Deeziner” – plush. We’ve looked at printing techniques and with some characters, we’ve introduced a 50/50 split… One side of the plush is very recognisable and the other side is a very stylised interpretation of the character. Sometimes that highlights alter egos or one side is ‘battle damaged’. They look great and we’re expanding that range with new IPs.
They do look great. Looping back to Stranger Things, you got in on that brand very early on. Is that part of the plan moving forward? To try and get on board with IP before they take off?
FN: Yes. It’s a risk, but when it pays off, it’s fantastic. With Stranger Things, we’ve sold way more than any of us predicted. In the early days, many of our distribution partners were somewhat shy in terms of their order quantities. That said, we ended up having to air-ship product all over the world because demand was higher than what anybody foresaw.
What gave you the confidence to bet on Stranger Things?
FN: There was really no solid stats to go off; it was largely intuition. We spoke to people, read Reddit and other online forums, and we really wanted to bet on our then nascent partnership with Netflix Consumer Products.
GB: Our creative team have their finger on the pulse of trends, and everyone loved that show from the get-go, so there was a hook internally. And when you look at the series, there are so many cool things you could do with it so we had to go for it.
Before I let you go, one last question – what fuels your creativity? Aside from Peruvian coffee!
GB: You have to be a sponge. Ideas can come from anywhere, so hobbies and passion projects are really important. Going to trade shows that have nothing to do with toys… Look around at things on your way to work. Look at product design and graphic design in the broader sense. Look at examples you like and understand what works and what doesn’t and, most importantly, how it can be applied. Anything could potentially help a product or packaging, so be a sponge; it’s vital!
FN: We make a point of involving the commercial team in the creative decision-making process. Brainstorms include the commercial team. I’m not as creative as Gurdeep and his team, but my role is to always question the commercial feasibility of ideas. That balance helps us to land products that are very commercially viable.
Guys, this has been great. A huge thanks again.