Hasbro Inc. accomplished a rare feat last year by taking its 45-year-old Nerf brand, long a favorite of boys, and successfully drawing in girls.
Now the maker of foam footballs and spongy projectiles is targeting another new audience: high schoolers. In an attempt to keep older teens from abandoning the brand in favor of sports, Nerf will roll out a line of high-powered blasters and gear for use in competitions akin to paintball wars. Nerf Rival debuts tomorrow in New York, just ahead of the North American International Toy Fair, with $50 guns and $15 face masks that come in blue and red to make creating teams easier.
With Nerf’s recent strides in mind, Hasbro has reason to be confident in the new line’s prospects. The girl-focused, archery-themed Nerf Rebelle products that debuted in 2013 led the brand to its best sales year and made it the third-largest U.S. toy property, trailing only Walt Disney Co.’s “Frozen” and Mattel Inc.’s Barbie. Nerf shipments rose more than 30 percent, helping total sales rise 4.8 percent last year while Mattel’s revenue slid.
“The brand is working pretty well,” Sean McGowan, an analyst at Needham & Co. in New York, said of Nerf. “There’s a lot of innovation.”
Hasbro has long known that Nerf’s sweet spot was boys age 7 to 14. While the “Hunger Games” books and movies -- whose female hero sports a bow and arrow -- gave the brand a way to appeal to girls, older kids still passed over Nerf for sports and other group activities. Their increasing use of smartphones and tablets also is eating into time that might otherwise have been spent playing.
“They are looking for an experience that is targeted older,” said Michael Ritchie, Hasbro’s vice president of global brand strategy and marketing.
That left an opening for toys based on team play that would appeal to high schoolers. The idea was to make a Nerf gun that was stronger but wouldn’t scare parents and still could be sold in the toy aisle of chains like Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Hasbro’s previous attempts to get kids to use Nerf blasters in team competitions didn’t take off because the foam darts weren’t as accurate as boys wanted, especially from long distances.
“Some of the characteristics of the dart and the flight weren’t ideal,” said Ritchie, who has overseen the brand for four years.
So Hasbro assigned some of its best mechanical engineers to design new ammo and blasters. They ended up creating an inch-thick foam ball that’s dense enough to be shot in a straight line at almost 70 miles an hour (113 kilometers an hour), about a third of the speed of a paintball gun.
Keeping older kids playing with Nerf is more important than ever because they’re abandoning traditional toys sooner thanks to smartphones and tablets. Nerf has tried to tap into the selfie generation with a blaster that has a built-in camera so players can capture their games in photos or video.
The new products all show how far Nerf -- named after the foam-covered “nerf bars” on drag-racing cars -- has come in the past four decades. The brand was founded in 1969 with a four-inch foam ball for indoor play. Twenty years later it got into the water-gun business with the Super Soaker brand. Hasbro bought its parent company, Tonka Corp., in 1991.
The next year, the first dart blaster debuted, and the company has been using engineers to boost the power and speed ever since. Hasbro went all in on the strategy last year, releasing the $90 Rhino-Fire, which looks like a light machine gun, holds 50 darts and can fire them as far as 90 feet.
Nerf’s recent strength bodes particularly well for Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based Hasbro because the company owns the brand, just like My Little Pony and Transformers, and doesn’t have to pay royalties. Aside from being less profitable, licensed toys carry the additional risk that the contract can change hands. That’s what will happen to Mattel next year when Hasbro takes over the main licenses for Disney’s Princess and “Frozen” brands.
Nerf’s gains also buck the industry trend of toys relying on Hollywood franchises for success.
“It’s encouraging that it isn’t driven by TV or movies,” McGowan said. “It’s driven by brand-building and innovation.”
Meanwhile, Mattel’s in-house properties are struggling. Revenue at the world’s largest toymaker sank 7.1 percent to $6.02 billion last year, including a 16 percent drop at Barbie, its biggest brand. Shares of El Segundo, California-based Mattel slid 11 percent this year through yesterday, and the company fired its chief executive officer last month.
By contrast, Hasbro earlier this week posted fourth-quarter earnings that topped analysts’ expectations, boosting the stock the most in five years. It’s now trading near an all-time high. Hasbro rose 1.6 percent to $62.16 at the close in New York, while Mattel gained 1.9 percent to $27.44.
The fact that Hasbro was up against a tough retail environment, with the strong dollar cutting into overseas sales and a labor dispute at U.S. ports slowing shipments, “makes Mattel look weaker,” McGowan said.
Nerf’s attempts to woo new customers won’t stop with the Rival line either. This fall it will unveil Modulus, a $50 gun that will try to cater to the customization trend spreading across the toy industry. Kids can buy upgrade kits for $15 with accessories like scopes and barrels to create as many as 1,000 combinations.
“They don’t have a monopoly on great ideas,” McGowan said, “but they have this dominant brand that would make that special feature sell even better.”