After 70 years in business, Toys “R” Us stores across the U.S. shut down in June. It was an oddly heartbreaking moment for many people–and while you can blame Amazon Prime and Walmart prices for the takedown, truth be told, there’s another guilty party: All of us who had fallen out of love with the brand over the years, for whatever reason.
In the six months between filing for bankruptcy and announcing its liquidation, Toys “R” Us CMO Carla Hassan and Creative Director Lee Walker enlisted the branding and design firm Lippincott to address the problem with a new identity for the store. Lippincott, whose work you’re familiar with through brands like Starbucks, Carnival, and Samsung, created a great refresh for a company that is now defunct. The work, which never saw the light of day, is a peek into an alternate future that could have been.
“When Toys ‘R’ Us filed for bankruptcy, there was a small window of opportunity for them to reimagine their brand and experience and recapture their position in the market,” Brendán Murphy, Senior Partner in Design at Lippincott, tells Co.Design. “Unfortunately, it became clear that the business outlook wasn’t going to give them the time they needed and the project had to come to an end. What you see here is the result of that preliminary exploration and vision for the expression and experience of the brand.”
To create the new brand, Lippincott looked into the store’s current market. What it found were “parennials,” a group of millennials who are becoming parents at a rate of about one million people every year–and who are the perfect age to be nostalgic for the toy brand of their youth.
“For our Toys ‘R’ Us reinvention to be successful, it would have to break through and connect with these new parents in a way no others had,” the company explains in its white paper. “That would mean competing against both ends of the market: with massive online retailers like Target and Amazon who compete on price and convenience, through to local boutiques that offer the personalized experience and trustworthiness many new parents seek.”
The firm honed in on the backwards “R” as the piece of the brand with the most nostalgic affinity. (Meanwhile, the store’s mascot, Geoffrey the Giraffe, seems to have been sold away for toy glue.) The “R” became something like Hillary Clinton’s brilliantly doomed “H.” It was a changeable logo for any context. One second, the “R” is a fluffy plush animal. The next, it’s a pinewood block. It was also imagined as an animated object that acts like a cuckoo clock or antique nickel bank. The “R” became a CGI toy with a hypnotic appeal–and the DIY, crafty vibe that could appeal to a younger generation of parents.
Visually, the brand finds the sweet spot between the glossy corporate finish of Target and the hemmed boutique vibe of Hannah Anderson. If nothing else, it feels exciting again.
Meanwhile, the firm also planned what it could do with Babies “R” Us–again, designing to appeal to the “adulting” millennial. Toys “R” Us came up with the term “Prepared-ish” for this group, and it became the tagline. “We modernized the brand with a bold new color palette that broke down the stereotypes of blue and pink,” writes Lippincott. “Together, the new Babies ‘R’ Us visual language embodies the joy, imagination, and humanness of parenthood.”
Of course, a great rebranding alone couldn’t have saved Toys “R” Us. The company needed to make an entire series of different business decisions for the past decade, as it gave up its early, e-commerce toy monopoly to the ruthlessly expansive Amazon.
Still, as a parennial myself, I can’t help but take a look at this brand and wish my kids could have walked the aisles, breathing in that weird rubbery air, before dropping six months of savings on a water gun that was way cooler on the TV commercial only and realizing that branding, ultimately, is a lie.