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Designer Toy 101: From Kenner To KAWS, the Birth of Pre-Orders and “Limited Edition”

Did Vintage Star Wars Change The Game?

Welcome to the first entry in our Designer Toy 101 series, where we explore the history and happenings in the designer toy industry. In this entry, we talk about the developments that helped make way for the ethos of today’s designer collectibles scene.

Kenner to Kaws Collage Photos by Star Wares & raphmeister
Kenner Toy Photography by STAR WARES & KAWS Photography by raphmeister

From Kenner to KAWS, and far beyond that, the world of toy production and collecting has been growing exponentially since 1977. Star Wars, TMNT, Transformers, G.I. Joe, Pokemon, Marvel, and of course designer toys have all impacted and inspired the ever changing market, and long will they do so for generations to come.

Of the above list, it’s likely Star Wars that had the strongest groundbreaking effect. But how much did the Kenner Star Wars figures impact the toy industry of today? Undoubtedly quite a bit. And whether intentional or not, it’s quite a cool story.

Early Bird Certificates

So why are collectibles so damned collectible anyway? Well, scarcity helps.

Scarcity is often an arbitrary byproduct of natural occurrence, coincidence, or (un)anticipated hype. It can also be a deliberate marketing strategy built into manufacturing and merchandising to create demand.

George Lucas and Bernie Loomis of Kenner in 1977 cut-out
Source

That’s the bread and butter of the toy industry right now, and it all accidentally started in that fateful year of 1977, when one George Lucas released Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope. The movie was both unintentionally and unexpectedly ground breaking, and Kenner Products (a subsidiary of Hasbro) would go on to produce some of the first ever 3 3/4 inch figures just for the film.

In the meantime, however, Kenner couldn’t produce the figures in time for the Star Wars movie release. So that they could still capture sales for yet-unproduced toys, Kenner created the “Early Bird Certificate” so fans could still buy in. Sound familiar?

Vintage Star Wars kenner Early Bird certificate detail
Kenner Early Bird Certificate

Kenner’s executives seemingly accidentally pioneered this marketing system, but they could never have known just how much of an impact their accidental release strategy would have on the toy industry at large.

Priming the market

Now worth quite literally more than their weight in gold, Kenner Star Wars figures are more popular and more valuable than ever. Due to the rarity of certain products, nostalgia, and damn straight nerdiness, the hobby has expanded tenfold. The designer toy industry shares all these similarities. But why?

The current record-holder for most valuable Star Wars collectible is the rocket-firing Boba Fett J-slot variant. Originally the reward of a free mail-in rebate program, this Boba Fett could shoot a spring-loaded missile from his back. In the interest of safety, these little missile launchers were never produced, and only about 100 prototypes were ever created.

rocket firing boba fett prototype
Source

Though they are rather mundane, especially by today’s standards, rocket-firing Boba Fett is worth well over $100,000 (or even $200,000) on the open market.

Just as Kenner accidentally pre-empted the pre-order ethos so pervasive in the hobby today, their sky-high aftermarket prices and the hype for particular variants has significantly guided the world of collectibles. The absurd value of these small pieces of Kenner plastic has helped validate the lofty sale and resale prices of collectibles, and it’s this perceived monetary value that drives the industry at its core.

Strategising the hobby

Astronomic value aside, Kenner Star Wars figures also revolutionized the industry with regards to multi-design releases (aka variants) and finite supply (aka limited edition). Though certainly not intentional at the time, production variations and the necessarily capped supply of figures has paved the way for today’s marketing methods.

Release sizes, paint variations, special packaging, store exclusives, and so on, are all a natural byproducts of the Kenner Star Wars phenomenon. Toy collectors and suppliers now conform to this strategy on a day to day basis, without second thought. Coincidence? Doubt it.

But even if you aren’t convinced, it’s inarguable that these theories and practices are as common as muck in the industry today. And it’s these practices have definitely spawned a new generation of collectors and rabid fanatics willing to drop all their cash on toys.

Whether they be fully articulated action figures, statues, or art and designer toys, the more limited the run, the better. After all, what’s the point of buying something when any normie can go out and purchase one at any time?

We all buy into the limited edition “hype” culture because its exciting, and to be frank, it’s honest. Today’s toys really are “rare” and limited right from the release date, not just due to age and availability like Kenner’s Star Wars.

Smaller runs and exclusivity create hype and a sense of impatience for the product. This smart marketing is in one way or another a direct result of the Kenner Star Wars craziness. In essence, it’s now fundamental in speeding up demand.

The nostlagia engine

When it comes to designer toys, they tend to be made by an individual or a small team of people. They are usually original characters that represent an artist’s work, or exquisite sculptures that help to tell a new story. One thing is for sure though, they are always extremely limited, unique, and are made with the utmost love and attention to detail.

Unruly Industry X Marvel Figures by Tracy Tubera Product Image
Unruly Industries X Marvel X Tracy Tubera

However, this industry also weaponizes the same nostalgia that powers the Kenner craze; by producing new and original takes on well-known characters and IPs, artists and companies take licensed properties and rebirth them into the art toy realm.

Why go through the extra pain of using licensed characters? Nostalgia. What rockets the Kenner Star Wars figures into the highest tiers of the collectibles industry? Nostalgia.

Kidrobot X TMNT Vinyl Figures Promotional Image
Kidrobot X Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

A whole new world of toy opportunity and innovation is constantly inspired by a fondly remembered era of… other toys, shows, and movies. The future is getting brighter for toy collectors with every minute that passes, and the Kenner Star Wars figures look gently upon us like ancestors of yore.

To round things up

Without the release of Star Wars and those little 3 3/4 inch game changers back in ’77, it’s quite likely that the face of the collectibles industry would be extremely different today.

No matter what toy genres, styles, or niches you collect, just know that Kenner’s Star Wars figures have played a vital role from both the marketing and collectors’ point of view.

Today’s toy and collectibles industry owes quite a lot to our Jedi and bounty hunter forebears, and we can’t help but wonder where they’ll take us next. Wherever that might be, we’ll see you there.

Join the Invasion!

Web: invasiontoys.com
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TJ Collects
Hi, I'm TJ! I'm an avid collector of art toys and action figures. I'm also passionate about toy photography. A big kid, really.

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