With an announcement last week of new safety standards for its suppliers, Toys "R" Us has a chance to give its brand the biggest boost it has had in years, if ever.
There's lots of legislation pending to require tougher thresholds for lead paint, testing tools, and more safety checks. Toys "R" Us CEO Jerry Storch wants to get out ahead of it and "...reinforce our leadership position in this regard." So is Wal-Mart. I doubt any toy brand wants to get tagged with another discovery of child endangerment a la the crises of late last year.
Remember all of the harumph answers from the toymakers? Because manufacturing had been outsourced many times more than on-step removed (sub-suppliers supplying suppliers, etc.), the CEOs were "shocked" and blathered on regarding their "commitment to safety."
It was as if their conceptions of brand were somehow separate or above of the messy reality of making things. So the crises weren't really their fault, per se. The entire shebang came off like a the dog ate my homework moment for the toy industry. Blame the Chinese was the ugly subtext to the excuse.
Blame the brands, for what are brands if they're not at least the labels that we put on products and services? You can't subcontract out making stuff (or the people who make it) and then shrug when they do something wrong.
Now, Toys "R" Us has put itself into a very intriguing position.
The company has had its ups and downs over the past decade or so, as shopping for toys has followed shopping for lots of other products and gone online. It has also gotten significant competition from other retailers that can just as easily source and display shelves of toys as it can. Maybe even do it better, or cheaper, or faster.
It has faced, and still must ponder, an existential question: why does the business exist?
A few private equity firms took a stab at answering this question in 2005 when they took Toys "R" Us private, and you and bet there have been many attempts to wrest proof of their financial acumen from reducing employee headcount, squeezing margins, lowering the store thermostats in winter. The company is probably far more efficient than it was a few years ago.
But that's not branding. Neither is issuing a corporate statement about product safety. But the company’s CEO has, perhaps unwittingly, taken a step toward an answer that could have meaning for customers. It might also actually drive top-line sales.
Imagine if Toys "R" Us were "the safe store?"
- While its competing buyers scourged the world for the latest, cheapest toy fads, Toys "R" Us could do so with the added requirements of the most stringent safety thresholds in existence (workplace quality, worker age, and other standards, too?)
- It could provide its customers with a pervasive, no-exceptions guarantee, and back it up with some services, like repair or replacement, that no online or multi-purpose brick-and-mortar competitors could muster
- Pricing could have some meaningful link either to safety qualities, or perhaps durability
- Product displays could be organized by age, maybe even by educational or group-use applications
- It might start applying its safety standards as a Toys "R" Us certification program, allowing manufacturers to sign up and benefit from using the qualification (any manufacturer, not just its own)
In other words, Toys "R" Us could be the leader for safety, thereby giving its customers a unique and ownable brand benefit, and thus its stores a reason to exist.
It would be so cool to see such bold, visionary effort from a private-equity-owned company (that's supposed to be capable to taking such bold, visionary effort, if you believe the hype that surrounds most of these financial maneuvers).
The company's CEO has gone to the trouble of having his PR people gin up a press release; why not actually take a stand, and build a brand upon it?