When I worked at Worlds of Wonder, the startup that brought the hit plush talking bear Teddy Ruxpin to market in the 1980s, I didn't fully feel the impact he had on kids because I didn't have any. Today, I can clearly see that experience for what it was: Like lightning striking. It was that unusual. Within eighteen months, our company of 20 grew to nearly 1,000. We had a smash hit on our hands thanks to inventor Ken Forsse, a former Disney imagineer, and his creative team at Alchemy II, from whom WOW licensed Teddy. WOW sold a staggering $93 million dollars worth of Teddy Ruxpins that first year. A 65-episode television cartoon show ensued. Manager of design at WOW was my first real job and it changed my life forever.
All hit toys have a wow factor. But for a toy to keep on selling, it must connect emotionally. The storytelling is what truly made Teddy special. So, I was genuinely thrilled when I heard that the five year-old company Wicked Cool Toys had decided to bring him back this year.
Founder Michael Rinzler told me that in his experience, people try to put their own spin on something when doing so really isn't necessary all too often. When it came to Teddy, one of the first decisions he and co-president Jeremy Padawer made was to preserve the original content. Rinzler and Padawer are veterans of the toy industry who held leadership positions at JAKKS Pacific.
"A lot was put into bringing Teddy to life -- the music and voices were so good. Because the stories were moral, caring, engaging, and exciting, we felt like, this is not a scenario where we need to recreate content," Padawer explained.
So far, that's proven to be a great decision. The executives told me there is "no way" they are going to able to keep up with demand for the new $99 Teddy, which sold out on QVC in July. He became available online and at retailers including Walmart and Target in mid-August. (This is not the first time Teddy has been brought back.)
So, what's new about Wicked Cool's Teddy? I immediately appreciated how much lighter and cuddlier he is now. His voice is also much clearer and thus easier to listen to, which is fantastic. (The original masters were used.) Holding him brought me right back! But I was struck the most by his bright LCD eyes, which are markedly different from the original. In this version, Teddy is capable of making no less than 40 animated expressions synced to Forsse's adventurous stories. They also turn into snowflakes, hearts, and flowers. They bring the bear to life in a new, novel, and gripping way. Not all reviewers agree.
"First and foremost, Teddy is a storyteller and your best friend. The eyes are the windows to the soul, right? We wanted to utilize new technology to express as much emotion as we could," Rinzler said. "It's a little more challenging to get kids truly excited about a toy innovation today -- there's simply more out there."
This new Teddy is equipped with Bluetooth technology and of course, there's an app you can download with additional stories. He also has touch sensors in his hands and vest so children can start, pause, and fast-forward through stories and songs. For Wicked Cool, the timing is key. Children who adored Teddy Ruxpin are now parents themselves. The parents of those children are grandparents. And, of course, there's an entirely new generation to inspire. To that end Wicked Cool is advertising to parents on Facebook and connecting with YouTube influencers as well as utilizing traditional marketing strategies, like running a commercial on television.
"As a newer company, we're always looking to be scrappy, to take a step ahead and find great opportunities. This was a brand Jeremy and I always thought about bringing back," Rinzler told me. When they connected with Forsse's widow Jan, president of Alchemy II, and vice-president Mary Becker about two years ago, there was "a kinship right from the get go."
"When you are one of the owners of a precious piece of childhood memories like Teddy Ruxpin, you get very few chances to do it right. To their credit, they wanted to make sure that we had the right vision," Padawer said.
Moving forward, Wicked Cool is considering introducing a less expensive version of Teddy priced between $20-$30, additional exclusives to different retailers, and other beloved characters like Teddy's best friend Grubby.
The company is making a habit of bringing back beloved brands. In 2016, it introduced a modern version of Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, one of its many licenses. Earlier this year, it signed a master licensing agreement with Pokémon and will produce a range of toys based on the enormously popular series.
When Padawer was 12, he remembers his mom -- a teddy bear collector -- bringing Teddy home.
"I was so fascinated with electronics at the time, my mind was blown," he said, sounding genuinely awed. "I still loved Chuck E Cheese. To have something like that in our house, even though I was little bit older than the intended recipients, was so cool to engage with."
Clearly, I'm biased, but the truth is I'm very happy to see Teddy back. At the time, I did not realize just how magical the world Forsse had created was. Most of my colleagues at WOW did not have prior experience in the toy industry, which probably helped us, actually. We didn't know what we could not do. It was a true startup in the sense that we worked around the clock; I slept in my office many a night and traveled overseas to Hong Kong and Bangkok. (Specifically, my job was to make sure our production models looked as good as the approved prototypes.) We felt like we could do the impossible... maybe that had something to do with being in Silicon Valley.
I feel very lucky. The people I got to work with during that time, including my wife Janice, are some of the most talented people I've ever worked with. It was a wild ride. Forsse could keep doing what he did best -- being creative -- by licensing his ideas. That was a profound realization for me and the reason why I write this column about licensing today.