Board games have been a part of the family fun cache for decades—and especially in the last year. For Goliath Games, marketing a game—whether it’s a classic or an unproven newcomer—comes down to proven gameplay experiences no matter what the package looks like.
“Whether you’re showing to a consumer or a buyer, you have to show some proof of concept, some proof of success. So if you have gameplay that’s worked in the past that you can kind of spin off of. For example, our preschool game Jumping Jack… We kind of repurposed that gameplay for Banana Blast, which was hugely successful at its launch in 2019 because, typically, with preschool games, what kids are looking for doesn’t change much regarding play. It looks at the characters and the elements of the game. But if something’s going to jump out at you, and you have to catch it in the air, that’s something that kids are always going to love. So what we look at when it comes to elements of a marketing campaign: We look at who’s already playing the game.”Mary Higbe, Director of Marketing, Goliath Games
Traditional board game marketing tactics were thrown out the window last year due to the pandemic, but sales skyrocketed as families were—and still are—homebound. In fact, the typical seasonal sales dip during the spring and summer never came in 2020. Mary doesn’t see things changing this year because board games offer a way for families to connect in a unique way.
“Board games have never really gone away. And what we’ve seen during the pandemic is that people have gravitated to board games. Our sales have been up significantly since March. And typically in our market, you see kind of a dip from, let’s say, April until about August, because we do new products that come out late July, early August. But with people staying home, they’ve been looking for ways to connect with those that they actually live with. And small ways to bring joy into their lives, whether it’s a new game or a puzzle or they finished Netflix and they need to play Rummikub.”Mary Higbe, Director of Marketing, Goliath Games
Mary Higbe is the Director of Marketing at Goliath Games.
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Note: This transcript may contain some minor wording and formatting errors. Apologies in advance!
Todd: Welcome to The Future of Content. I’m your host, Todd Nienkerk. On this podcast, we explore content—its creation, its management, and distribution—by talking with the people who make content possible. Our goal is to learn from diverse perspectives and industries to become better creators. The future of content is brought to you by Four Kitchens. We design to develop digital content solutions that get results. Today, I’m joined by Mary Higbe, Director of Marketing at Goliath, and we’re going to be talking about board games. Welcome to The Future of Content, Mary.
Mary: Thank you so much for having me, Todd. I appreciate it.
Todd: Thank you for being here. So what is Goliath?
Mary: So Goliath is one of the few remaining family-owned game companies in the world, and we are the third-largest game company in North America. If you have children, if you play games, you may recognize Pop the Pig, Doggie Doo, Greedy Granny, Mastermind, Sequence. But our origin story is actually centered around Rummikub, which, whenever I mention Rummikub, everybody says, “Oh my gosh, I played that with my grandparents.” And yes, that’s great. We want you to play it with your friends now, too. But Rummikub was discovered in Israel by our founder, Adi Golad in 1977 when he was in Israel and he was like, “Oh, my gosh, this game, it’s so great, it’s fantastic, why has no one outside of Israel ever heard of it?” So he did what every parent wants their child to never do, which is to quit their job, sell their car, cash their life savings, and buy every copy of Rummikub possible. He took it back to his native Holland, and for three years tried to get meetings with buyers to get Rummikub into stores because he fully believed in this game. And he couldn’t get a meeting. And he couldn’t get a meeting. And finally one day, he called a buyer and he said, “Hey, I want to come show you Rummikub.” And the buyer was like, “Oh, my gosh, yeah, I’ve been hoping you would call. Come on in.” Adi’s like, “What? Okay, let’s do this.” So he goes in to pitch Rummikub and the buyer was interested—looked a little bit confused—but interested and wrote an order for it. And he’s like, “Oh my gosh, it’s finally happening.” The buyer said, “Yeah, so about that. I thought you were coming in to pitch me a Rubik’s Cube, and that’s why I took the meeting.” So, happy accident. Goliath was founded, and 40 years later, we have a catalog of over 300 products ranging from our preschool skill and action, to family games, to our line of games adults play, to sports and outdoor, and many more.
Todd: Got it. So you actually started to touch on one of the things that I wanted to dig into, which are the audiences that you’re serving. So: buyers, people who buy these games, I guess, at wholesale, right?
Todd: And then retail. So these would be like retailers, big box, stuff like that, right? So that’s one of your audiences, and then you also deal direct with consumer, because I believe the way that this works—please correct me if I’m wrong—is you set up meetings with retailers and buyers, they put in a whole order for a lot of different copies of a lot of different games. But then it’s also up to you to market that directly to the consumers so they go to the stores and buy that.
Mary: Correct. So my philosophy is that all of marketing is storytelling. So we are constantly telling stories to different audiences. If it’s a buyer for a big box store, they want to know why they should carry this game. And then when we’re talking to a consumer, they want to know why they should go to said big box, or local store, or book store, or what have you, to buy this game. So we have to approach it from a couple different angles.
Todd: Do you ever run into a situation where obviously, you sell to lots of different big box stores, so I imagine—I’m using this just as a for-instance—let’s say Target and Walmart, right? Do you ever run into a situation where you’re finding yourselves maybe trying to organize a campaign to go buy this thing at Target and you get in trouble with Walmart? Does that ever happen?
Mary: Not usually. Say we’re promoting a game from Goliath’s social channels. Say we’re promoting the new Sequence packaging, which is a great example, and not just because I’m on the box, [laughter] but it’s a selling point. So typically, if we have, say, four posts scheduled in a month with the new Sequence, we’ll kind of spread that love out amongst our retailers. And it also depends on retailers who have strong e-comms [e-commerce] set up on their end as well. A small shop in a downtown area that has a ton of walk-in traffic may not be able to support the same level of e-comm. If that small shop were to reach out to us and say, “Hey, could you tell people that it’s available at Bob’s Books in Portland, Maine?” Yeah, we probably would, just because that’s another cool story. But where e-comm is accessible is where we find that we have greater success.
Todd: What do you mean by accessible in that context?
Mary: Bob’s Books may not have a website where customers can purchase.
Todd: Got it. Okay. Got it. So what makes a board game marketing campaign effective, in your opinion?
Mary: So let’s talk about direct-to-consumer for this instance. Whether you’re showing to a consumer or a buyer, you have to show some proof of concept, some proof of success. So if you have gameplay that’s worked in the past that you can kind of spin off of. For example, our preschool game Jumping Jack—which is a rabbit—we kind of repurposed that gameplay for Banana Blast, which was hugely successful at its launch in 2019 because, typically, with preschool games, what kids are looking for doesn’t change much regarding play. It looks at the characters and the elements of the game. But if something’s going to jump out at you, and you have to catch it in the air, that’s something that kids are always going to love. So what we look at when it comes to elements of a marketing campaign: We look at who’s already playing the game. We actively work with influencers and with the media to get advance copies into people’s hands because if you can see somebody who’s got— or I guess if your child can see someone who’s got 10 million followers on YouTube and they are an avid follower of that channel and they see that person playing with this game, then we’ve already got some more credibility. We’ve got noted toy publications talking about, “Hey, Banana Blast won Top Rated by Kids at Walmart in 2019, and it’s already got 1,500 five-star reviews on Amazon. It’s been on the market for a week.” That’s what really helps lend us credibility.
Todd: Right. And then you can say, “And here’s Jumping Jack, brought to you by the makers of— “
Mary: Right. But I think one of the really important things, especially in games, for the most part, is to not take yourselves too seriously. [laughter] My team and I—
Todd: Seems obvious now that you say it.
Mary: Yeah, I mean, we were about having fun. Goliath at this point doesn’t have the super high-level strategy games, which are tons of fun. But obviously, you can have a bit of a different conversation if you’re marketing Doggie Doo or Burping Bobby, the hippo that burps. I guess to that point, my team and I spent all day Thursday in our studio in various character costumes creating dance break videos for preschoolers. So I was dressed as a hippo.
Todd: Were you the burping hippo or just a hippo?
Mary: I was a hippo. I had a tutu. I was a little bit more refined. But we had our Shark Bite. We had the shark dancing around. We had Greedy Granny stealing treats. And it’s fun. That’s what it’s supposed to be, is it’s just fun. And sometimes you just come up with a wacky idea and you do it and it goes great. Or you come with a wacky idea and people are messaging you on Facebook like, “Hey, is everything okay?”
Todd: What went wrong? How did you wind up in that hippo costume?
Mary: Right. Did life take a turn?
Todd: So you started to touch on the next thing that I wanted to cover, which are the different channels that you look to and then the collateral and the content, the assets that you create for those channels. You mentioned influencers already.
Todd: And this is one of those things that I feel very curmudgeonly about every time the notion of influencers comes up because I can barely contain the groan. But this is a real thing. And what this means in your instance is there are just people who have a lot of followers on various social media and related accounts that specifically are known for talking about games or unboxing games, things like that. Right? So I imagine that your social channels are largely based on influencers unboxing and watch-me-play-style content, is that correct?
Mary: We do have a fair amount of that. The way that I think about influencers, I think about my friend, Erin. And Erin is just— She’s extraordinarily knowledgeable about any home repair that you need. She is able to recommend that right person. She’s a trusted source. And that’s what we look at when we are looking at various influencers to partner with, is: Who is a trusted source? Because obviously, things can get muddy. You want somebody who is authentic, who really enjoys doing what they do. And unboxing videos are huge. And like you and I have spoken about, I don’t personally understand why watching somebody open their mail works—
Todd: That’s a good way to put it.
Mary: —But it does.
Todd: It’s true.
Mary: It does. People like the delight and surprise element of, “What’s in here? What am I going to get? How is this person who I respect and listen to, how are they going to interact with this? What’s their reaction? If they’re happy with it, I would probably be happy with it, too. How do I go about getting this?”
Todd: Right. Now, these are a relatively small handful of people, right, and their reach is pretty enormous, right? Do you ever do anything special for them in order to get on their radar or try to get special content? You mentioned that part of what makes an influencer really good and really powerful is their credibility. So obviously, they need to constantly maintain that. If they get corrupted by some Hasbro deal or some of that Milton Bradley money or whatever, right? That— Maybe people will take them as seriously. But what do you do to try to get your stuff in front of these influencers and then have them make content about it?
Mary: So that’s a great question. [W]e started about a year ago doing specific influencer boxes where we could always put a bunch of our products in a cardboard box and have our shipping team send them out. And they open it up, and they’re like, “Oh, there’s Gator Golf and there is Banana Blast and there is Burping Bobby. Great. Cool.” But how do we make it special? So we started looking at, almost, accessories. What could we doll up that’s really an exclusive for the people who are receiving this package? One example that I have is with our SuperThings line. And SuperThings are a series of action figures and SuperThings are ordinary, everyday objects that have superpowers. So it can be a spatula. It can be a garden hose. But they are superheroes and they can do extraordinary things. And so we built out an influencer box. One of the elements in SuperThings are that they have hideouts where they can hide from their enemies.
Todd: Of course.
Mary: Because even in—
Todd: Even in Super Utensil Land, you still need a place to go recharge.
Mary: —To recharge, to hide from your nemesis. All of that.
Todd: That’s right.
Mary: So we constructed the shipping box to look like one of the hideouts. And we filled it not only with SuperThings characters, and comic guides, but we developed eye masks, because if you’re a superhero, you have to disguise your identity a little bit.
Todd: That’s right.
Mary: And a cape, because you can’t be a superhero without a cape. We even included SuperThings socks, along with all the SuperThings merchandise. We also did it for our Games Adults Play line with a shipping box that looks like a pizza box. And included popcorn containers, popcorn, straws, a disposable camera, and several of our games, so that somebody had a really honest-to-goodness out-of-the-box experience to have a game night.
Todd: Oh, I get it. Okay. Oh, that’s clever. I mentioned watch-me-play videos as a potential channel. What is the market like for board games and watch-me-play? Because for video games, it’s just insane. It’s huge. Is there an equivalent market for board games?
Mary: I think there is. I think you have to have the right people on camera who can keep a game going. And one of the things that I’ve had to learn in my time at Goliath: I am very much a rule follower. If there is an instruction manual, I am following that to the letter because I don’t want to get in trouble. And I realized, who is anybody going to get in trouble with? We don’t have the board game police, they’re not going to come to your house.
Mary: So from a marketing perspective, seeing what people’s imagination can do with playing a game. And the watch-me-play videos work really well when somebody does go outside of the instruction video or off-script, they use their imagination. Honestly, one of the one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen was— Our game Banana Blast, it’s targeted ages 4 and up. And it’s not one that you think a bunch of adults would be interested in. However, I was at an event for Walmart last year and we had several adults sitting around a table with Banana Blast, and it got downright competitive, where we finally had to say, “You have to sit on one of your hands! [laughter] You can’t hit!” But it was just fantastic content that was completely organic. And we didn’t tell any of the buyers, “Hey. Sit down, play this, and hit each other.” It just happened.
Todd: Well, so speaking of trade shows, this, I suppose up until very recently with the pandemic, was a major opportunity for you and other toy manufacturers to get in front of buyers, retailers, wholesalers— To get them to place orders for your product, right?
Todd: I’m curious to know what made a good trade show leading up to the pandemic, and what does that world look like now?
Mary: The world looks real, real different, as I’m sure you know. So when we talk about shows, we do trade shows and we do consumer-facing. So I’ll focus on trade shows. And the biggest one that we do here in North America is Toy Fair New York, which happens in February every year. And what we want to do there is get our buyers to come in and have a really easy experience seeing what our products are like. And at that point in the year, we’re pretty close to having prototypes that consistently work and not having to shuttle them off to the storage room for surgery, which, yes, it does happen because you’ve got buyers coming in for four days. And if you have two prototypes and one of them gets knocked onto the floor, you put the other one out, and then you somehow miraculously make the other one work.
Todd: And we’re talking about super glue and tape— That kind of “make it work.” Okay.
Mary: And sometimes even, “Okay, there are two wires in here. I’m going to try to put them back together.”
Todd: Okay. Wow. [laughter]
Mary: You just go into a different mind at trade shows, where you get back to mid-March, and you’re like, “I have no idea how I did that. [laughter] I don’t know how to put a magnet on the fridge.” So you want to give them that experience of being able to be hands-on—touch your product, work with your product, see what a consumer would see, and also give them that opportunity to offer feedback. If you have a snake who’s wearing a sombrero and a buyer says, “I think this might be better with a cowboy hat,” and then you hear that from a few more buyers, you’re like, “Okay, maybe we should look at cowboy hat.”
Todd: It’s a form of playtesting, in other words.
Mary: Exactly, exactly. And to really get that honest feedback, because a buyer is not going to sugarcoat it with you. They’re going to say, “No,” or they’re going to say, “Make this modification,” or they’re going to say, “You’re all absolute geniuses and I will only carry your product in my store from now on.” That one hasn’t happened yet [laughter], but hope springs eternal. Another thing that we love to do at trade shows is I like to give gifts, and it just happened to work out really well for Toy Fair in New York in late February 2020, when this whole pandemic thing wasn’t quite— It’s not where it was two weeks later. But people were still being very cautious. And we had just had the foresight a couple of months before to order individual Goliath hand sanitizer to give out.
Mary: And our booth was so popular for that.
Todd: Oh, I believe it. Yeah, that’s good foresight.
Mary: People also just really like gifts. And if it’s something that you can put your name on and keep your name front of mind especially when it’s, “Oh, my gosh, Goliath had hand sanitizer at the outset of the pandemic, they must be super smart and they follow trends.”
Todd: Oh, that’s good. That’s a good way to play that. [laughter]
Mary: Yeah. And we were just like, “No, it’s cold and flu season. Let’s do hand sanitizer.” And then once we got it out on the floor, we’re like, “Oh, this is good.”
Todd: Good. And it was completely intentional. And yes, we did see it.
Mary: Yes, yes, we—
Todd: Absolutely worked. We see those trends.
Mary: We knew the pandemic was coming. No further questions on that.
Todd: That’s right [laughter]. Well, we’re going to take a quick break.
Todd: Hey, everyone, it’s Todd. We’ll get back to the episode in just a moment, but I wanted to quickly tell you about Four Kitchens. You probably know that Four Kitchens creates websites, but we do way more than websites. Our team of Web Chefs can help you make better use of your content, create a world-class digital experience, or scale your web team. And most importantly, we get results. To find out more about how Four Kitchens can help you, please visit us at fourkitchens.com. Now back to the episode.
[Todd] Welcome back to The Future of Content. Our guest today is Mary Higbe, Director of Marketing at Goliath. I am curious to know: How has, over the last couple of decades, digital gaming impacted board games, especially during your time at Goliath?
Mary: So it’s interesting. Obviously, digital gaming is here, and it’s constantly evolving and getting more complex. And I’m willing to say it’s getting better and better. I started with Tetris on a Gameboy. And to me, that was just the height of cool, and probably the height of addiction as well, if I’m being honest, where you— [laughter]
Todd: It’s very satisfying.
Mary: Yeah. You were replacing the batteries like every 10 hours and your seventh-grade allowance was completely spent on just batteries. And now you’ve got all of these amazing digital games that are interactive, not only with you and the game, but with you and your friends and the game. And you’re having conversations and doing all of that, which has been— It’s great, and it’s been great during the pandemic, because it’s a way to connect to other people and a way to escape reality, which… “Hi! It’s 2020. We’d all like to do that for a bit.” But board games have never really gone away. And what we’ve seen during the pandemic is that people have gravitated to board games. Our sales have been up significantly since March. And typically in our market, you see kind of a dip from, let’s say, April until about August, because we do new products that come out late July, early August. But with people staying home, they’ve been looking for ways to connect with those that they actually live with. And small ways to bring joy into their lives, whether it’s a new game or a puzzle or they finished Netflix and they need to play Rummikub. Whatever the circumstances may be. And it’s just very comforting to settle in with a board game, whether it’s a classic like Sequence, or if it’s something that’s brand new to you and the people in your house.
Todd: When you and I were talking earlier, you mentioned that there’s a line of games that adults play. And I’m now noticing how careful you have to word that: “Games that adults play.” There’s one that you did that Goliath publishes. That’s like solving a cold case files. Is that what it’s called?
Mary: It’s called Unsolved Case Files.
Todd: Unsolved Case Files. And you mentioned that this is sometimes— That this is an example of a game that can actually be played alone.
Mary: Exactly. So Unsolved Case Files, you get an actual case file. Okay, no. Let me rephrase. It’s not an actual case file because—
Todd: Police departments nationwide are not unloading their work onto the citizenry.
Mary: That’s right. I mean, you know what… It’s an idea if this goes into 2021.
Todd: There’s an idea. [laughter] You can have it.
Mary: Yeah, we all get bored. Let’s just solve real cases. But you get a cold case with all the evidence that you need to exonerate the person wrongfully imprisoned for a murder, find who the true killer was, and discover the motive behind their killing. It comes with witness statements, with photographs, with newspaper articles—honestly, everything that you would need to solve this case. And the thing that I love the most about it is, yeah, you can play it with a group of people. When we were pre-testing it in the office, it was a group of several of us having a great time. But Unsolved Case Files is one that you can also do on your own. And I think during the pandemic, with so many people who do live by themselves, who are being careful about going out, practicing the social distancing, and tending to just stay at home, having something that you can buy on your own and do on your own is fantastic.
Todd: Is there anything that you’d like to add related to the role of game marketing, particularly trade shows or any of the more physical playtesting or demonstration kinds of challenges that you now face?
Mary: So historically, Toy Fair Dallas has been a big show for us. It’s where we first connect with buyers on what’s coming out in our next year’s line, where we can get their feedback and show them what we’re thinking of and have time to incorporate that feedback. Toy Fair Dallas is in October, and it did not happen this year. So when we learned that the show had been canceled, the team and I got together and developed a virtual event called Game Changers hosted by Goliath. And we reached out to our buyers, inventors, influencers, media. Reached out to them via email, gave them a call, sent them actual mail invites, and sent them gifts because I’m not above bribery. It’s totally fine. And we allowed them to set up appointments with our teams so that they could come in, see what we’ve got going on. We developed, I want to say, 29 videos over the course of six weeks.
Mary: Yeah. It was intense.
Todd: By the way, the name “Game Changers”: excellent.
Mary: Thank you.
Todd: That’s an excellent name. So in other words, what you had to do was shift the in-person, you have a booth, come on in, play with stuff. We’ll show you our inventory. Here’s what’s new. Here’s what’s coming up. You had to shift that to a virtual environment where it became a bit more one-on-one, where people might have— They might view a library of videos that you created about different products or aspects of what you’re doing, but also to set up appointments to have a one-on-one demo session. And how much of that— You mentioned that you were mailing some things like gifts and all of that in advance. Were you able to send advanced copies of games to people and then have them play along or anything like that?
Mary: At this point in the season, we aren’t able to because we were in the very early prototype stage where it’s not uncommon for us, at this point, to have two different prototypes. A “works like” and a “looks like.”
Todd: Oh. Oh, that’s cool.
Mary: And you kind of have to think, “Okay. If you marry these two, then it’s going to have this happening, but it’s going to actually look like this.”
Todd: Yeah, Okay. No, that makes sense.
Mary: So, no, we just did fun gifts. One of the things is a product called a BrüMate. I have no stake in the company. But it’s a stainless steel, heavy-duty koozie that acts as a tumbler, as a koozie for a tall can. And if you drop an iced-in insert into it, drop your can on top of it, it acts for your 12-ounce cans as well. And it’s etched with Game Changers. And after we’re done, if you’ll shoot me your mailing address, I will send you one.
Todd: Oh, thank you.
Mary: So swag!
Todd: That’ll be the first gift that I’ve received on this podcast. I love it.
Mary: So honored.
Todd: I know. Thank you. Like you said, you’re not above bribery.
Mary: I’m not at all.
Todd: Well, thank you so much for joining us. I learned a lot about how board games are marketed and the fact that marketing is involved in the process of creating a game. [music] I mean, it’s obvious once you say it. But thank you so much for joining me today. It was truly a pleasure.
Mary: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun.
Todd: Thank you. And to everybody listening, I can’t wait to see the content that you create next. Feel free to send it my way via email at email@example.com. You can also reach out to me at @FoCpodcast on Twitter. To find out more about Four Kitchens and how we solve complex content problems, visit fourkitchens.com. Finally, make sure to search for The Future of Content in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts—wherever you find your podcast. And please click subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. Until next time, keep creating content.