Back in 1989, there was only one “Nerf gun,” the plunger-powered Nerf “Blast-a-Ball.” Now, more than 25 years later, the name “Nerf” covers everything from foam footballs and flying discs to walkie-talkies and cameras to blasters and foam weapons. The brand once known solely for a soft, foam ball that could be thrown indoors without damaging anything is now a catch-all name for any number of brightly-colored outdoor toys.
But we’ve already talked about how the Nerf name is being thrown about with seemingly little thought or discretion, so we’d like to focus now on the blaster end of the Nerf product line. After all, Nerf blasters are one of the most successful product lines for Hasbro, and have inspired any number of competitors who seek to gain market share. The category is growing ever more competitive, so what will Hasbro do to keep Nerf blasters number one?
At the 2016 North American International Toy Fair in New York City, we were introduced to no fewer than 20 brand-new Nerf blasters. It was an astounding, impressive product debut presumably intended to assert dominance in the blaster toy category versus upstarts like Mattel’s BOOMco, Buzz Bee’s AirWarriors, Zuru’s X-Shot, and several other brands. And while Hasbro’s show of force WAS awe-inspiring (and a delight to Nerf fans worldwide), we were left with a mix of excitement and a distant hint of concern.
The models shown were intriguing and some brief, hands-on time indicated they will be fun to own and use. But we were thinking beyond the initial rush of new product excitement to what the future holds. And while we’re still seeing new Nerf products like the TerraScout RC Drone trickle out from Hasbro even after Toy Fair, it’s not a lack of products that gives us pause.
It’s just the opposite. Consider, for a moment, the various Nerf blaster product lines currently (or soon to be) for sale:
- Nerf N-Strike
- Nerf N-Strike Elite
- Nerf MEGA
- Nerf Zombie Strike
- Nerf Terra (Drones)
- Nerf Modulus
- Nerf RIVAL
- Nerf DoomLands
- Nerf DoomLands Impact Zone
- Nerf Rebelle
- Nerf Super Soaker
- Nerf Alien Menace
Assuming we didn’t miss any, the current count is no fewer than a DOZEN distinct categories of Nerf blasters, with each line carrying multiple products. Some product lines like RIVAL, Alien Menace and Terra are relatively new, and only contain a few SKUs. But assuming they have any level of success, it can be assumed their lines will grow (we’ve already been told that RIVAL has a number of new products in development beyond what we saw at Toy Fair, for example). And it should be recognized that growth is good. However, market saturation is not.
Consider, for example, the case of Nerf Vortex. This much-hyped product line is now all but discontinued, with no new models being introduced. We loved Vortex, and many Nerf fans loved Vortex, but Hasbro flooded store shelves with the models and they didn’t move fast enough. Eventually, retailers found themselves stuck with products they couldn’t sell, requiring them to liquidate Vortex SKUs and lose money or not make money back very quickly (either of which is deadly in retail).
The name Vortex became synonymous with slow-moving, high-inventory products, so Hasbro had to resort to selling the Vortex technology under their Zombie Strike line, even though it was rumored these products were originally meant as regular Vortex models (notice the lack of typical Zombie Strike detailing on the Zombie-themed Vortex models for proof). The hiding of Vortex under the Zombie Strike name was, for all intents-and-purposes, a last-minute scramble by Hasbro to salvage a fully-engineered line of products to save face with retailers and see some return on investment for what were near production-ready models.
And here we are, several years later, with no fewer than 8 MORE product lines than were even available during the time of Vortex. Certainly it could be said that Rebelle (a blaster line made for girls) is doing well since it virtually created the category.
However, even within Rebelle, both “Secrets & Spies” and “Charmed” sub-brands have already been discontinued, as product managers apparently realized the brand was becoming over-extended. And while other product lines like Zombie Strike succeeded by tapping into hot cultural trends and retailer-specific buy-in, not all of the new product lines (RIVAL, MEGA, Terra, etc.) will be retailer exclusives, and not all of them are being supported by a wave of pop-culture support. Will some of these lines go the way of Vortex and create another retailer backlash?
Rather than producing a near-endless stream of product lines, we think Hasbro would be smart to focus on creating fewer models with more of the features fans are seeking. We surveyed the members of the very active Nerf fanbase on Reddit to determine what needs and desires have yet to be met by the current crop of blasters, and the results were telling:
- A MEGA-powered “shotgun” (rumored to already be in the works)
- Air-powered blasters (competitors are already doing this, or soon will be to a greater degree)
- A pump-action shotgun with Sledgefire-compatible shells
- No more bows, no more Jolts, and fewer product lines
- A return (and/or continuation) of the Stryfe
Notice anything interesting? Fans aren’t asking for crazy new products lines (perhaps they’re just not creative enough?). Instead, they’re asking for continuation of particular model types in existing product lines, or they are specifically asking for fewer re-shells of existing models and—almost unbelievably—fewer new product lines in general! You read that correctly—when asked an open-ended question about what Nerf fans wanted, one of the top 5 answers including having fewer choices, not more. But it goes on… other popular requests included less obvious cost-cutting (design on both sides of blasters), better quality accessories (no more flimsy stocks), more accurate darts, etc. In other words, fans aren’t crying out for lots of new blasters—they are asking for fewer blasters with better quality.
We’ve shared the results of our study with Nerf executives, and we’ve been told independent of our survey that the company is considering how to handle the ever-growing number of unique product lines, including phasing-out some models. And we think that’s smart. What Hasbro needs to do with Nerf is to re-focus the brand, drop under-performing product lines, and invest in improved product quality with a renewed attention to delivering what fans desire. After all, that’s what separates Nerf from all the other blaster brands—unique designs, quality materials, and semi-premium performance. In other words, Nerf needs to take less of a “spray and pray” approach, and employ more of a sniper’s focus on the market. They have the talent, experience, and resources to deliver the kinds of products fans are requesting. We think they’ll do it, and we think they’ll be successful. They may have to retract a bit and fold-in a few of the product lines we’re seeing on store shelves, but that market adjustment and re-focusing on what fans really want is what will enable their future success.