These Soft, Cuddly Toys Have a Devoted Following of Millions of Gen Z & Millennials

Jul 21 2021

These cute, cuddly, and collectible stuffed toys have been around for years, but have exploded in popularity among Gen Z and Millennials during the pandemic…

 

Squishmallows have been around since 2017 but they’ve especially exploded in demand in the last year. During an anxiety-filled time, everyone has been turning to things that bring them comfort and little bits of joy—and Squishmallows popularity skyrocketed as Gen Z and Millennials alike found joy in buying and collecting (and hugging) the soft, squeezable toys made by Kellytoy. According to Jazwares, the parent company of Kellytoy, more than 73 million Smashmallow toys were sold in early March—and sales had tripled in the last six months before. Google Trends shows that search interest in the term has been climbing since last August. The “huggable, collectible plush toys,” which usually come in the sizes of 8, 12, and 16 inches as well as the occasional 20 and 24 inches, have grown from just eight unique characters to more than 800, and are sold in 40 countries. Hunting for rare ones has become a popular pastime among older kids. They’ve become the Webkinz or Beanie Babies of this generation, thanks to their collectable product line. Older Gen Z and Millennials have created a fan community around Squishmallows as well. On social platforms like TikTok, the hashtag #squishmallows has over 1.5 billion views, while #squishtok has 403.2 million views. Meanwhile, the r/Squishmallows subreddit on Reddit has more than 24.2K members, and hundreds of groups on Facebook dedicated to sharing information about the toys.

They’ve become so popular that celebrities and influencers like Lady Gaga and Charli D’Amelio have been spotted on social media with the toys. And they’re moving into content as well: It was recently announced that Jazwares was partnering with Moonbug to develop Squishville, an animated online series on YouTube based on the viral toys. Some resellers and collectors have even turned to resale sites like Mercari to buy and sell the toys, with some of the rarer ones going for over $100. Beyond the fun of collecting and the comfort they provide, fans have praised the toys for being inclusive and diverse. One fan told the NYTimes regarding a recent collection of Squishmallows were gender neutral and used “they/them” pronouns: “I feel like it’s normalizing it for children, and I love that.” Jonathan Kelly, co-president of Kellytoy, said that “it was pretty clear early on that our community was inherently diverse and inclusive, and they’ll latch on to particular characters or squads that remind them of themselves, friends, and family.”

We spoke with Kelly in-depth about why Squishmallows have become so popular with Gen Z and Millennials, their social media marketing strategy, how they tap into popular fandoms, and more:

YPulse: Who is Squishmallows core buyer?

Jonathan Kelly: Families, college students, and Gen Z as well as collectors of all ages. And boyfriends.

YPulse: Has the brand been surprised by Squishmallow’s popularity with teens and older Millennials?

JK: Our early emphasis on social media and community building allowed us to gain a good understanding of the segments in our audience. We soon saw a large contingent of fans, especially on Twitter, who would message or tweet us in a friendly or joking manner about how they are adults who like our plush animals—and that they know were originally marketed to kids and families.

YPulse: Why do you think young adults are such avid collectors of Squishmallow products? What are some of the things driving the popularity of Squishmallows across age groups?

JK: It’s a combination of the large variety of Squishmallows characters and exclusives as well as being part of the engaging online community. There is something quite appealing about Squishmallows each having a unique name and biography to which fans can relate. Thanks to social media followers and inbox messages, we have also seen how Squishmallows help people cope with stress and anxiety, by offering comfort that’s especially welcoming during a global pandemic.

YPulse: How has the pandemic impacted your brand?

JK: Overall, screen time dramatically increased during the pandemic and in turn, we saw a huge increase in our community growth, as well as organic videos featuring Squishmallows posted to TikTok in particular. We are days away from passing three billion views on TikTok videos using Squishmallows-related hashtags, like, #squishmallows. There are dozens of social accounts dedicated to showing off collections and exchanging information about the characters and where to collect them. On Facebook alone, there are over 80 fan groups dedicated to discussing and sharing information about Squishmallows. Meanwhile, the growing demand for Squishmallows has outpaced supply. The pandemic has created serious supply-chain disruptions for countless businesses around the globe. We are working to increase production to meet that growing demand.

YPulse: You mentioned #squishmallows. With a lot of fans are using social platforms like Reddit or TikTok to create groups and hashtags like #squishmallows or #squishtok dedicated to your toys, has that organic content changed the brand’s marketing strategy in any way?

JK: It really gives us an incredible opportunity to listen and monitor our fan and collector base. We still focus on reaching families, but the brand is aging up. We are in the process of producing more content geared towards our older audiences and planning more in-person activations and fan events.

YPulse: How are you marketing your products on social media? What are the ways you’re building a community on social media?

JK: We have always prioritized product photography and user-generated content in our social media. We aim to consistently identify and amplify positive stories and posts from our followers. Additionally, we orchestrate hundreds of paid social campaigns designed to reach new and existing fans while encouraging them to join the “Squad” and collect the more than 1,000 Squishmallows characters available in the marketplace.

YPulse: What kind of Squishmallows are you seeing that are selling out the most and fastest?

JK: All of them! It really depends on the individual, but the 16-inch size is very popular as are the extra large 20-inch and 24-inch sizes. Jack, the black cat, was our first Select Series release and a very limited run of 500 pieces. Jack is one of the most sought after Squishmallows for collectors. The licensed Squishmallows including Disney, Star Wars, and Hello Kitty have been a huge hit. Halloween Squishmallows are our most popular seasonal mallows.

YPulse: Is exclusivity—smaller releases of their products—an intentional tactic that Squishmallows uses to create demand?

JK: Retailers want exclusives in addition to the “everyday” squads. A major part of Squishmallows’ success comes from the exclusive assortments available at key retailers, which helps drive collectibility.

YPulse: Inclusivity is incredibly important to Gen Z—has Squishmallows been intentional about showing diversity and inclusivity in your products in any way?

JK: The unique names and bios for Squishmallows resonate with fans. It became pretty clear early on that our community was inherently diverse and inclusive, and they’ll latch on to particular characters or squads that remind them of themselves, friends, and family. It was very natural for our team to incorporate descriptions and pronouns that are meaningful to all at the Squishmallows HQ, and in our community, and we will continue this practice with future Squishmallows. We never actively promoted the pronouns for example, as ultimately, fans discovered them on the tags and word quickly spread the word within the community. While most of our Squishmallows are animals, we do have some “human” Squishmallows, like fairies or mermaids, and are aiming to expand the skin tones represented. Fans quickly discovered Bobby, a blue tie-dye bunny and our first non-binary character. The feedback was incredibly positive and they quickly became widely sought after. We have been adding and will continue to add more non-binary characters while identifying more ways to respectfully represent the LGBTQ+ community in the Squishmallows line.

YPulse: As mentioned, Squishmallows has made a special line of products that feature popular franchises like Hello Kitty, Star Wars, and popular Disney characters. How important are fandoms for Squishmallows?

JK: We get messages daily requesting Squishmallows in the form of their favorite properties. We have really enjoyed the collaborations with the likes of Disney and Sanrio, which allow us to reach new fans. We will continue to extend the brand into beloved fandoms with key licenses that focus on the collectible market.

YPulse: What’s next for Squishmallows?

JK: We expect to pass a huge milestone this month: 100 million Squishmallows sold. While I can’t share specific details right now, we have plans to celebrate the occasion. A new website is launching very soon with a more robust shop and product offering as well as an all-new collectors’ guide that will help fans and collectors identify various squads and Squishmallows in their collections. The guide will also show the rarity of each of the Squishmallows.

Jonathan Kelly has 30 years of toy manufacturing and leadership, and is responsible for bringing to life one of the world’s most popular brands: Squishmallows. He continues to run the Kellytoy division of Jazwares, bringing the most adorable, collectible plush ever created to the world.

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