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Meet Toca Boca: The Weird, Playful, Gender-Neutral Lifestyle Brand For Kids

The kids’ app maker has pivoted to physical products through a clothing line sold at Target.

Meet Toca Boca: The Weird, Playful, Gender-Neutral Lifestyle Brand For Kids
Mathilda Engman led Toca Boca’s foray from the virtual world into physical products. [Photo: Patricia Reyes]

If you haven’t heard of Toca Boca, you’re probably not hanging out much with the 6- to 9-year-old set. Since its 2010 founding, the Swedish game developer has created 39 app games for children, resulting in more than 200 million downloads and a dominating share of the paid kids’-apps market. Toca Boca’s mission, according to head of consumer products Mathilda Engman, is to facilitate and encourage open-ended play through games that don’t have to be “won.” In the colorful, quirky Toca universe, children become kitchen savants, hairstylists, and surgeons-in-training. Now Toca Boca is focusing on a new way to reach its audience: an apparel and accessories offshoot that launched at Target in July. Here’s how Engman and her team are expanding the way kids (and their parents) engage with Toca Boca products on and off the screen.

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Leverage What You Know To Figure Out What You Don’t

Toca Boca’s gray cat backpack has toy-like features, including a dangling fish that can be fed to the cat.

Though Toca Boca didn’t have direct experience with physical consumer products, the company did have a mission and methodology that could be applied to a line of backpacks, bedding, and clothing for kids. First, there’s the Toca Boca aesthetic, which combines the weird and fantastical with everyday objects and people. (The company’s logo—a grinning face with a mouth full of yellow, blue, green, and pink teeth—eventually was used on one of the line’s T-shirts.) Toca Boca also has years of consumer research to draw from. One major takeaway: When playing with apps, kids will tap on every scene, character, and prop on-screen to discover surprising features and mini-games. So Engman applied this idea to the Target line, effectively turning each product into a toy. A gray backpack with a cat face and orange ears, for example, resembles a stuffed animal, complete with a small, dangling fish that kids can feed it. “We have a vision of making playthings out of everything,” Engman says. “You can play with a backpack. You can make up stories for characters stacked on the legs of your sweatpants.”

Find Collaborators Who Share Your Values

This heather gray dress features a minimal half-moon pattern and a science beaker from the popular Toca Lab app game.

The Stockholm-based company is adamant about adhering to its four core purposes—play, innovation, quality, and inclusion—and looks for partners that share this vision. Toca Boca found a strategic playmate in Target, which eliminated gender designations in its toy section in 2015. “We believe these details are important because we want kids, regardless of gender or other type of background, to be able to play together,” Engman says. “We need [our partners] to understand our brand, and we also need to be very hands-on. We don’t want to impose any gender roles in the products we do.” When the line officially launched, Target agreed to situate the products between the girls’ and boys’ clothing sections in some stores as a nod to the Toca Boca ethos.

Know When To Rein It In

The Nimbus Cream Throw Pillow looks like a stuffed animal, and is the physical iteration of a character from the Toca Life app game.

Strengths can become liabilities when taken too far. Engman knew that children gravitated toward Toca Boca’s silly, occasionally absurd brand of humor (there’s an anthropomorphized hamburger peeking out of the pocket of one of the company’s new shirts). But the company’s research revealed that dozens of products didn’t quite hit the mark with kids (and, importantly, with the parents). One piece of clothing featured a cloud with “a very intense and detailed facial expression,” says Engman, that was being propelled through the air by its own flatulence. The design elicited giggles from older boys but alienated girls and younger kids. That item has since evolved into a pink-cheeked nimbus throw pillow that wears orange sneakers. “We found a really unique style that’s not taking itself too seriously,” she says. “[These products] are quirky and surprising without being over the top.”

Rebel Within Your Constraints

Part of Toca Boca’s gender neutral vision includes color, like on this coral T-shirt for boys that features a “fast” sloth.

Although Toca Boca wants its products to appeal to all types of kids across gender lines, the company knew that Target.com would ultimately need to categorize some of its clothing products as being for “girls” or “boys” to make online searching and shopping easier. But Engman’s team seized this as an opportunity to challenge conventional norms and perceptions about gendered clothing by balancing classic, functional styles with subtle, boundary-pushing themes and color schemes. A “boys’ ” T-shirt has a sloth with its arms crossed, but the color is coral. “Girls’ ” dresses are part of the collection, but one comes in neutral gray and features a stitched science beaker logo—an image pulled straight from the popular Toca Lab app series. “We tried to break the norms of color and print,” Engman says. “We want kids to be able to pick anything out of the collection and not even think about if it’s supposed to be for a boy or a girl.”

About the author

P. Claire Dodson is an assistant editor at Fast Company. Follow her on Twitter: @Claire_ifying.

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