Allspark Interviews Hasbro Brand Team at Botcon 2016

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During Botcon 2016, Galen from the Allspark got to spend a few minutes talking with members of the Hasbro brand team Ben Montano, Marketing Director, and Ed Masiello, Design Manager.  We talked about the process of moving from one big concept (Combiner Wars) to another (Titans Return), about the process of market research and playtesting for collectors vs. non-collectors, and about how we can all be ambassadors of the brand no matter what parts of it we each love.  As Ben says, “I want everyone to be a Transformers fan.”  Read on for the full transcript of the interview!

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Galen
What leads you to make a drastic shift from Combiner Wars into Titan Returns; how did you come up with Earth Wars; what is the motivation behind steering a big brand like Transformers from one thing to the next.

Ed
On Generations, a 3-part trilogy called Prime Wars, we’re looking to move on from Combiner Wars which was a huge success into Titans Return which of course is a whole new system in place, a whole new aesthetic, and bringing Titan Masters to life.

Galen
So do you look at the things that could be done, the pros and cons of each, and then pick one?  What’s that process?

Ben
We want to be story-led first, so start to craft the story, what’s the journey, who are the heroes, what’s the conflict?  Where’s it going to be, what haven’t we done before? Or what have we done before that people loved?  Or what holes are there in our continuity that we think people would like to read or see play out, and I think that’s a big part of what helped define the direction for us.  So once we laid out, here are the holes in the timeline, how would we bring that to life?  Some of it was we wanted to bring it to life in a big scale.  What does that mean?  Combiners – that’s how you do it in a grand scale.  Then what’s bigger than that; what’s bigger than a combiner?  A city, a titan.  But part of that story is that I can’t sell 20 $100-150 items so the city has a whole community living within it, and going back to lore, the idea of headmasters and how would that fit it into this new continuity.  So it’s a living process, but it really was story first, and dropping cool play and cool characters into the story arc.

Ed
And one system that really works – in Combiner Wars it was all about combining robots to make one big robot – how do we top that?  Headmasters, Targetmasters, Powermasters, and why don’t we do one big message around that called Titanmasters.  Even the old Powermaster Prime basically had an engine block come to life, but let’s take that and make it a Headmaster and it’s one story that works across the line.  I think it’s pretty successful, it’s been well-received from the convention here.  Super-excited to bring back a bunch of characters that we’ve never done since the ’80s, and now they’re all Titan heads.

Galen
I’ve gotta tell you, I never was really into the Headmasters, Targetmasters stuff when I was little, growing up with all this stuff, that’s when I started getting out of it, partly age, partly it didn’t appeal to me, but looking at what you guys are doing here, you’ve really taken it to the next level.  These are really cool, so I’m – for the first time – interested in some of this.  So here I am in my 30’s, and this stuff is brand new to me because I wasn’t connected to it before and I think it’s really cool what you’re doing.

Ben
That’s awesome, I think that’s a big part of it. We’ve had a lot of conversations here over the last two days or so, of why don’t you just redo, or have an anniversary homage to this or that, I think the kind of recurring response for us is that we want to be fresh or new.  What we get back is great, I want to buy more into it.  We’ve seen a lot of people like yourself who were disengaged from the brand or had a hard time connecting with anything outside of the one thing they grew up with, and they say “I like something else about the brand now. Thank you for inviting me back in.”  That’s a big part of what our charge has been is how do we invite fans back into the brand and that’s new stories, new spins, but bringing a little bit of what we remember so we have that connection.

Galen
Another question we have is in relation to the collector market versus the non-collector market, do you guys have any product research or market research you do into that so you know sort of what your expected collector market is, how much of the Transformers brand sales is collector-oriented versus non-collectors because it all obviously still has to be saleable on the Walmart and Target shelves to the general public, so we were curious if you have any thoughts or comments on how that process goes.

Ed
When the designers on our team, when we’re working on development, we recommend a character rollout, just a character selection sheet. We look at what’s the cool alt-modes, what’s the coloring, what’s the key features, and is there enough variety to fill the line.  Whether it’s a beast, a vehicle, a truck, a plane, a jet, we want to make sure there’s enough of a mix to offer throughout each wave. And I think that’s something that we go back to our marketing counterpoints and make sure we recommend and mesh it together and make sure it works out as far as a collector’s line, Generations.

Ben
We do, there’s certain parts of our business where we expect a mix.  Fans, collectors are going to love this, but we need younger kids, older boys, whoever, to buy into it as well, and there’s certain products that we’re like “this is a collector product” like a Masterpiece, like we know.  We definitely have insights into all those.  I think one of the fun things that we do do, when we are looking out down the road if we want to reintroduce someone for the collectors, I love going on eBay, say “alright, let’s see what our fans are saying.  OH MY GOSH, TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS! That might be the right guy!”

Galen
“Let’s ruin that market!”

Ben
Yeah! But I mean, there’s indicators, right?  That’s a free indicator for me of what people are talking about.

Ed
Another indicator would be the blogs, all the sites.  We take our time to go through it, and what’s the repeated pattern here.  Even at the convention I hear multiple of the same questions.  Y’know what, let me get back to the offices and get that drawn up.

Ben
“Brainstorm, Brainstorm, Brainstorm, Brainstorm,” ok, fine!  See you at San Diego.

Galen
Tying into that, when you are thinking about it from the play perspective as toys, for that primary toy market of children, we know toy companies do product testing and focus groups and play rooms and do research on all of that, how does that work for something like Transformers where the market might be skewed a little older and might be even targeted toward adults but is still sold in the toy aisle and Toys R Us, do you still have to do play testing with kids for Masterpiece toys and things like that? How does that work for you guys?

Ed
Actually RiD does a lot of that, because it’s skewed toward a slightly younger market, I mean with the entertainment, and it’s all about ease of the conversion, and converting the robot to a vehicle. You know there’s a 3-2-1 quick-step changers that’s great basically testing like, hey, that’s a hit with the kids, they can do it, now get it to market.  How many times we’ve just changed the variety of how it converts from a vehicle to a robot.  That’s something we test with the guys, what other ways can we figure out how to transform or convert this robot again.

Galen
So is it only for the younger-targeted markets that you do that?  Or do you bring in teenagers on field trips and things like that to play with the older toys?

Ben
Yeah, we definitely do.  We have.  We’ll do testing all the way up for sure and get things in hands.  We have the benefit of, when you get older, you have the blogs, social media, other places that older consumers are talking about what they like and don’t like, so we don’t have to bring them in, put them in a room.  We can look online and say, “wow, that toy was really hard, they didn’t enjoy that, got it.”  Whereas like a 5, 6, 7, 8-year-old, they’re not online, they’re not talking, so the only way you can hear from them is to bring them in and talk face-to-face. So we definitely leverage social, online, other avenues to listen to other fans.

Galen
So it sounds like that’s mostly a post-release process as opposed to part of the design process, where it influences the next design round, as opposed to here’s what we’re thinking about bringing out in 2018, here kids play with these toys and tell us what you think and then changing it based on that. Is that less of how that happens now.

Ben
As it gets older, we’ll still do up to 10, 12, 14-year-olds. We haven’t done it with adults, really.

Ed
I would say fan-built kind of ties in with that.

Ben
Fan-built helps, yeah. For sure.

Ed
Like what just happened with Trypticon.  Take it to the fans and let them have control of it.

Galen
Yeah, we’re looking forward to that, definitely, very excited!  That’s pretty much the end of what I had for questions, but I wanted to pitch it to you; what do you guys want to let the fans know, what do you want to talk about?  You’ve answered questions from people like me all day, so what’s on your mind?  What do you WANT to talk about.

Ed
I think it’s – what the supporting licensees from outside, like Machinema, Backflip Studios, all that new stuff that comes in like, where do we take it from there. We have these great supports, answering the call from fans.  Like hey, Machinema is going to do great entertainment that answers what they have in their collection.

Ben
I think the biggest thing for us, is what I said that we have a lot of fans for this brand now, and my main goal is to…I want everybody to be a Transformers fan.  That means for some, that’s playing a videogame, for others it’s listening to music, for some it’s toys.  My challenge to all the fans that are currently out there is to be ambassadors of the brand, not just the microcosm that is whatever their fandom is. Because that’s not going to help us all celebrate this brand more. The toy collector fans can embrace the music album and share that, or embrace a show and appreciate that.  The more fans I bring into my brand, the more invest in this brand and it grows for everybody. And I know that’s hard, because people…you want to love what you love and sometimes it’s uncomfortable when a brand like us launches this new mobile game that may look and feel different than you would have wanted, or like the Devastation game or whatever, like wow that’s not what I want, that’s not like Fall of Cybertron series…but I think you see once it’s out that now you have a whole new group of fans that appreciate my brand, and only benefits all of us.  So that to me is our biggest lookout to all of our fans is be ambassadors of the brand at large.  Love what you love, but appreciate and share out everything.

Galen
For what it’s worth, I think you guys have done a really fantastic job of that over the last few years.  Thinking back to 2007 or so when the movie line came out, everything was movie.  So I think for a while people had this sense of, if it’s not my thing it’s something else, so it sort of bred this internal conflict. I think you guys have done a good job of making sure people understand the different segments.  The Rescue Bots do not infringe in any way on what’s offered for RiD, doesn’t hurt what’s out there for Generations, so that it’s not seen as a competition.  So I think you guys have done a really good job of promoting that, and giving fans a lot of confidence that what they love is going to still be there for them.

Ben
Thanks, it’s good to know!  Thank you very much.

Galen
Thank you both for your time!

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Galen

Galen

Galen has been a member of the Allspark staff since 2007, has a background in project management, and leads children's charity fundraising efforts in our fan community.
Galen

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