No Assembly Required
I’ve been fascinated with toys since I first fell in love with Legos as a kid. There was something exciting about seeing my work result in a finished project. Today I’m a Bearbrick collector, and I still feel that excitement in the hunt for the next collectible in the Bearbrick set. The fascination and amazement that arises every time something new is announced connects me to the excitement of my childhood.
I’m not alone: millions of collectors are apparently as obsessed with Bearbricks as I am. But what is it about these simple figures that catch people’s imagination? And how have their creators kept the toy fresh, relevant, and selling for two decades? With my curiosity as an investor and my attraction as a collector, I decided to dig into the company’s success.
What are Bearbricks?
Bearbricks are bear-shaped plastic figurines that are designed and produced by Japan’s MediCom Toy. Founded in 1999, MediCom has a long tradition of producing collectible figures and licensed products. One of their first product lines was a Lego man-like figure called the Kubrick, named after the legendary director of A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick also derives its name from the combination of the Japanese words for nine - “ku”- and “brick”: the number nine refers to the number of parts of the figure that can move - a head, torso, hips, two arms, two hands, and two legs.
At that time MediCom CEO Tatsuhiko Akashi started working with characters and franchises from pop culture and releasing Kubricks of varying colors, styles, and collaborations. Some of the first Kubrick sets included icons from American comics Marvel and DC, video games like Grand Theft Auto, and cereal brands like Kellogg.
The Kubricks became so popular that in 2001, organizers from the World’s Character Convention in Tokyo asked if Akashi could give out these toys for free to all the attendees, ordering an estimated 10,000 toys within just a few months. Realizing that he was unable to produce custom designs for each, Akashi conceived a standardized figurine that combined a bear head with a Kubrick torso with the modernized “@” logo. The bear was chosen because the teddy bear was celebrating its 100th anniversary at the time.
Twenty years later, Bearbricks have become one of the world’s most recognizable and collectible characters. Bearbricks have evolved from simply being a toy to standing at the forefront of art, fashion, and culture, where these collectibles are so coveted that everyone from art dealers to toy enthusiasts vie to collect them, with some Bearbricks fetching prices anywhere between $5,000 and $50,000 on the resale market.
What has made Bearbricks successful, and what’s behind the fascination with toys amongst a broad audience of adults? Let’s take a look.
Introduction of blind boxes
There are two types of Bearbricks product releases: “SERIES” and “TYPES.” Bearbrick “SERIES” are consecutively numbered and are released twice a year (summer and winter). Within each SERIES, there are four different TYPES and within the “Standard” SERIES specifically, there are different “THEMES.”
Even with all the variations of Bearbricks that can be purchased, Bearbricks still manages to create hype through their packaging and release strategy. The figurines are released in so-called blind boxes, whereby the contents of each box are unknown with a varying degree of rarity. The only thing known is that each box contains one figurine. As a result, unless you buy the style you want from another collector, it is extremely difficult to collect an entire set, whether that be the entire SERIES or an entire TYPE within a SERIES.
The introduction of blind boxes is a fascinating marketing phenomenon: it not only creates a form of entertainment, adding to the appeal of collecting the toy itself, but it also incentivizes collecting and contributes to a secondary market and collector’s community. For example, if a purchaser ends up with a duplicate, they may buy, sell, or trade with others in order to complete their collection. Not knowing what you’re buying also incentivizes repeat purchase behavior, where you’re hoping to obtain a limited edition product. We’ve seen this same behavior across industries, for example in gaming, where people pay to open virtual “loot boxes” for randomized in-game items, and—more analogous to collectibles—in trading cards, where people buy packs of cards in the hope of landing something one-of-a-kind.
Bearbricks are already difficult to collect because of their limited quantity and the fact that they don’t ship overseas—they can only be purchased in Japan. Adding to the fact that the rarer, more limited editions are often resold for multiples of the original price, the blind box strategy furthers the hype and collectability of each of their releases. The chance of getting a limited edition product or one-of-a-kind model only adds to consumers’ sense of anticipation and satisfaction about their purchase.
Bearbrick as a platform for creative collaborations
What’s unique about Bearbrick and distinguishes the product from other collectibles is its standardization of size and shape. This approach has created a platform from which Bearbrick can collaborate with cultural and iconic brands so that Bearbrick as a brand never falls out of fashion and can offer something for everyone.
Bearbricks figurines come in six different sizes, ranging from 50% to 1000% (35mm to 700mm, respectively) with 100% being the basic style, 50% being in the form of a keychain, and the 1000% being the largest commercially available. Each design is available in all the various sizes and consequently at different price points, enabling Bearbrick to introduce purchasing and collecting to customers across a wide range of demographics, starting them with small figurines and graduating from one size to the next.
Similar to size, the Bearbrick bear-shaped figure remains consistent from style to style, making it cost-effective to produce and easy for collaborators to work with. In addition to its original designs, Bearbrick offers designs made by everyone from contemporary artists to fashion designers as well as figures based on film characters and cartoons, enabling Bearbrick to introduce their fans to cultural innovators and vice versa. Sarah Andelman of Colette describes this blank canvas best: “I loved how each Bearbrick can be a free platform, a white canvas for creativity: same shape, but always different depending on the art on it.”
By providing a platform for collaborators to express their creativity, Bearbricks no longer has to dictate or predict what’s trending, but rather can adapt to any new brand or trend. While a single brand might fall out of fashion, Bearbrick as a platform, as a franchise, as a brand, continues to stay culturally relevant.
In fact, Bearbrick as a brand has become so ingrained in the culture that collaborating brands use Bearbricks as commemorative objects. After the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Bearbricks released a set of collectibles featuring Kylo Ren, C-3PO, and Stormtrooper. Bearbrick has also launched themed toys for special occasions, such as the 10th anniversary of Colette and Faze Clan. Being associated with the big moments in these brands’ history continues to elevate the Bearbrick brand, conferring a sense of specialness and rarity to the Bearbrick franchise. More specifically, for consumers and collectors alike, these special moments contribute to the fandom culture whereby owning a commemorative Bearbrick equates to that inexplicable you-had-to-have-been-there experiences.
Toys for adults
Bearbrick’s collaborations with designers, artists, and companies have reinvented the idea that toys are just for children but rather, that these figures can be just as much of a creative and entertaining outlet for grownups as well. On the designer end, Bearbricks serve as an entry point to luxury brands and gallery artists, where consumers can own a product without paying high-end prices.
The intersection of “adult-level interests” with seemingly “child-like toys” presents artists and brands an opportunity to create something hip that resonates with their clients and younger generations. Both Bearbrick and the collaborating brand can then offer their respective audiences something to collect, irrespective of interests and demographics. With each new collaboration, a new generation of toy collectors is thus created.
While many of these collaborations foster interest in the toys among an older generation, others have spurred a high degree of overlap across the sneaker and Bearbrick collecting community. The blind box mechanism of delivery, where you buy a box and have a chance of getting a really valuable figurine, is similar to the drop culture in sneakers, where on a certain day at a certain time, people line up for a chance to get limited edition “drops” (i.e., product releases). Similarly, just as Instagram makes it easy for collectors to share their sneaker collection to the world, the colorful and cute design of Bearbricks lends itself to social media. Because of this similarity, I would argue that COVID has greatly accelerated interest in Bearbricks: consumers are not buying as many sneakers since they’re not making in-store purchases and not showing them off outside the home. In contrast, according to luxury consignment The Real Real, Bearbrick saw an insane +488% bump in demand over the past year.
In general this year, patterns in consumer spending have shifted dramatically, especially given the money saved on traveling, eating out, and other in-person entertainment. It’s my opinion that we’ll see the allocation for outside street items like high-end sneakers shifted toward in-home purchases, including collectibles like Bearbricks. The 2019 sneaker flex to people seeing you on the street has gone indoors to a 2020 equivalent flex over Zoom. In the case of Bearbrick, just as people upgraded their camera equipment to accommodate long workdays on Zoom, Zoom backgrounds are going to be an area where customers will invest money and time, setting up their bookshelves to feature their Bearbricks and other collectibles. A physical flex in a digital world.
No longer just a method of storing books, bookshelves are becoming a form of self-expression. Just look at the evolved bookshelves of YouTuber Leonhart and his Pokemon obsession, Eminem and his massive cassettes collection, and Ben Baller and his Bearbricks wall. In a world of Zoom fatigue, showcasing one’s passion can be an intriguing ice-breaking conversation starter or a way to enrich personal connections across cyberspace.
Since the launch of Bearbricks, we’ve seen greater interest in adult toys among companies and collectors alike. Companies are looking to reach existing communities, to establish new collectors amongst passionate fanbases with collectibles like Bearbricks. While Bearbricks are focused on contemporary fashion and design, Funko Pop! has an emphasis on movies and TV shows, and Youtooz promotes internet personalities.
What makes the proliferation of these toy companies interesting is that they enable the consumer to curate their own universe of toys from within the same company or across different companies, characters that would never have otherwise coexisted. This amalgamation of toys, brands, and passions becomes a physical expression of digital fandom.
Especially in today’s climate of uncertainty and stress, adult toys provide a safe space where you can disconnect from the real world while connecting with the different fandoms you love, bringing you back to a child-like state of joy and having fun at play, and leaving you with a sense of physical connection to your favorite collaborating artist, designer, or content creator.
In an often-referenced post by a16z partner Chris Dixon, Chris remarks that the next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a “toy.” In this case, the next big thing literally is a toy. And a key premise of the Bearbrick story is that toys are no longer relegated solely to children: there is a broad market of collectors who are interested and delighted by both the simplicity and sophistication of these figures. Bearbrick’s 20-year reign has proven that generational brands still want to collaborate and consumers of all ages still want to collect. COVID has accelerated consumer interest in collectibles and, with families spending more time at home together, these toys are being introduced across generational lines.
Back when I was imagining myself in the worlds I was building with Legos, I never envisioned a future adult world where I would continue to be entertained by collectible toys like Bearbricks. Fortunately, Tatsuhiko Akashi had the vision for marketing and innovation to build that world for me and millions of other Bearbrick fans alike.