Reviving Toys “R” Us With A Combination Branding Strategy

Larry LightJuly 28, 202216975 min

Guess what? The iconic world of Geoffrey the Giraffe, Toys “R” Us, is back.

Toys “R” Us is a Phoenix Brand.

A Phoenix Brand is a brand that has been burned to ashes yet attains new life and rises the next day. The mythology around the Phoenix is that it is a symbol of renewal.

If any brand in the last ten years deserves the Phoenix Brand label it is Toys “R” Us. Toys “R” Us’ rising from the flames with renewed life supports the principle that brands can live forever if properly managed. And, now that Toys “R” Us is in the capable hands of a brand-focused firm, your toy shopping just became easier and more delightful.

It is an extraordinary turn-about. Five years ago, the Toys “R” Us brand was in a conflagration.

In 2017, an extraordinary debt load of $5 billion pushed the storied brand into Chapter 11. Reports are that 33,000 people lost their jobs. The 2017 bankruptcy filing set off a months-long effort to restructure the company in bankruptcy court. But sadly Toys “R” Us liquidated.

To make matters worse, creditors brought a lawsuit against Toys “R” Us executives claiming that the executives misled their suppliers about Toys “R” Us’ dire financial condition while the company tried to stay afloat in bankruptcy. Then, executives left these suppliers with more than $600 million of invoices. Furthermore, the creditors allege that millions of dollars of bonuses were dished out to 117 Toys “R” Us executives and managers just prior to the company’s 2017 bankruptcy. The suppliers allege that this was a breach of the former executives’ fiduciary duty. Former Chief Executive Officer David Brandon received the largest bonus totaling $2.8 million. The trial of the former executives is slated to begin now in 2022 after several years of legal wrangling.

The bankruptcy judge’s opinion supported Toys “R” Us creditors because sufficient questions surrounding the payment of executive retention bonuses and advisory fees to the company’s equity sponsors – including Bain Capital, KKR & Co. and Vornado Realty Trust – do appear to require the legal proceedings to continue. The bankruptcy judge said:

“The evidence submitted by the trust, if proven, is sufficient to establish a prima facie case that the defendants violated their duties of loyalty and good faith in addition to their duty of care,” Judge Phillips wrote in his opinion, referring to the retention bonuses paid to 117 Toys “R” Us executives before the bankruptcy filing.

“Payment of the advisory fees was not endorsed by court order, as the payments were made prior to the bankruptcy filings. The evidence offered by the trust supports a finding that the defendants were not constrained by their contractual obligations to the sponsors and had other options available.”

From the ashes of this ugly situation, the Toys “R” Us brand is currently in revitalization mode. And, in a very clever manner.

The brand’s owner, WHP Global, partnered with Macy’s, another iconic retail brand, allowing Toys “R” Us to place Toys “R” Us shops inside all of Macy’s stores. Press reports indicate that by mid-October 2022, Toys “R” Us will open shops in all of Macy’s stores. When Toys “R” Us closed its stores, Walmart, Target and Amazon saw and leveraged the opportunities. Now, Macy’s sees an opportunity to sell toys increasing traffic and loyalty while Toys “R” Us sees the opportunity to rebuild its brand back to enduring profitable growth.

What both Macy’s and Toys “R” Us are implementing is a Combination Branding strategy; more specifically, a component brand approach to Combination Branding. With the component approach to Combination Branding, both brands maintain their own source of their promises. Combination Branding using a component brand approach is “a brand within a brand” not a brand with a brand. The latter would be a co-brand approach where the two brands share the identification of the source of the promise.

For Macy’s, having an iconic, beloved toy shop brand inside its stores provides the ability to compete for holiday shoppers and year-round shoppers in a retail environment currently led by Amazon for online purchases and by Target and Walmart for brick-and-mortar purchases. Toys “R” Us offers Macy’s (as the host brand) and Macy’s customers an additional benefit of a glorious, enchanting world of quality toys and toy shopping.

For Toys “R’ Us, the partnership provides instant brick-and-mortar facilities, a reliable stream of shoppers and the ability to reinforce its brand with old and new customers. The benefits of Toys “R” Us do not replace Macy’s benefits; Toys “R” Us just enhances Macy’s with a new benefit. Toys “R’ Us does not delegate its brand management to Macy’s and Macy’s does not delegate its brand management to Toys “R” Us.

The chief merchandising officer of Macy’s told investors, “Macy’s cannot wait to bring the Toys “R” Us experience to life in our stores. We hope Toys “R” Us kids of all ages discover the joy of exploration and play within our shops and families create special memories together. The customer response to our partnership with Toys “R” Us has been incredible and our toy business has seen tremendous growth.”

Since Macy’s has been selling Toys “R” Us toys online and with the cascading in-store Toys “R” Us shops, Macy’s CEO, Jeff Gennette, said during its second-quarter conference call that first-quarter toy sales were 15 times higher than the comparable period prior to the Toys “R” Us partnership.

As for Toys “R” Us, the CEO and chairman of WHP Global, told CNBC, “We’re in the brand business and Toys “R” Us is the single most credible, trusted and beloved toy brand in the world. We’re coming off a year where toys are just on fire. And, for Toys “R” Us, the US is really a blank canvas.”

If all goes according to plan, this partnership should be a boon to both Macy’s and Toys “R” Us. Press reporting indicates that brands such as Hasbro are already stocking up inventory to avoid any supply chain issues this holiday season. Hasbro’s CFO confirmed that Hasbro is “well positioned” this year when it comes to inventory. Very good news for Macy’s and Toys “R” Us.

A component brand approach is gaining strength with retailers due to the pandemic. It does not always work out, however. J.C. Penney had a partnership with beauty brand Sephora. But, that relationship is ending to be replaced by J.C. Penney Beauty, an offering with more “mass” brands.

What is clear is that Toys “R” Us is alive and well and focused on rebuilding itself after years of fire and brimstone. Its partnership with Macy’s has a lot of brand potential. And, finally, the Toys “R” Us brand is being properly managed. Toys “R” Us is a story about a brand that is renewing itself. Toys “R” Us is today’s Phoenix Brand.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Larry Light, Author of The Paradox Planet: Creating Brand Experiences For The Age Of I

At The Blake Project we are helping clients from around the world, in all stages of development, redefine and articulate what makes them competitive at critical moments of change. Please email us for more.

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