THE TOYMAN STORY

Mikko Meronen by Tomi Hinkkanen

STORY: MIKKO MERONEN
REPORTER: TOMI HINKKANEN – IRVINE
PHOTOS BY TOM HIKKANEN PRODUCTIONS

Mikko Meronen designs children’s toys for fast food chains. The toys advertise children’s movies and attract kids to the hamburger restaurants.

Designer Mikko Meronen sits calmly in his office filled with toys of all kinds. The Strottman company is located in a nondescript office building, one of many similar looking, that dot Orange County’s City of Irvine. The phone rings constantly and the computer keeps beeping as new emails pop on the screen. It is an unlikely place to create whimsical kids’ toys. For years Mikko worked in a similar office but for a different company, Equity Marketing, which manufactured toys for the Burger King chain. A few years ago he changed companies but the work remains pretty much the same. His current employer, Strottman, designs for Wendy’s Hamburgers and other fast food chains. Mikko is the lead designer. He is like a conductor. But instead of musicians, his orchestra consists of art directors, graphic designers, industrial designers, as well as freelance illustrators and cartoonists.
“When I first started my career, my job was probably 90% art and 10% business. Now it is vice versa. We have to make well thought out business decisions. I no longer design the toys or necessarily have to invent them. But if the group produces something that is not good, I have to get involved”, Meronen describes.

Mikko Meronen by Tomi Hinkkanen

Mikko Meronen by Tomi Hinkkanen

How does one become a hamburger toy designer? The Finnish-born Mikko’s journey into the hamburger toy world started by taking a bite of the Big Apple. He studied in the New York School of Visual Arts in 1987 – 1991.

“We studied everything: sculpture, drawing, painting and graphics. I got an A in each subject. My painting teacher said that I should be a painter, the sculpting teacher said that I am a sculptor, and so on. But an artist must have something to say. Van Gogh did not paint for money, but because he had a burning desire to do so. I told the teachers that I had nothing to say. It is mental masturbation to paint a picture, put it up, if it does not interest me. That doesn’t appeal to me at all. I realized that I am an entertainer of the masses. I am interested in pleasing the widest possible group of people as possible.”

After graduation, Mikko got a job as a studio assistant at Equity Marketing where he remained for 15 years,gradually ascending in ranks to finally become the head designer.

Sometimes a film is successful, but the toys are not.
“Shrek is a good example. Both Shrek movies made 300-400 million dollars at the box office, but the toys they did not sell at all. Why not? You have a donkey, a princess, the green man and a cat. There was no motif to tie them together and make children want the toys.”

Mikko Meronen by Tomi Hinkkanen

Mikko Meronen by Tomi Hinkkanen

Over the years Mikko has designed thousands of toys. One of his favorite campaigns was for the Dreamworks animated feature ‘Stallion – Spirit of the Cimarron’.

“It was a movie about horses. They don’t normally interest boys. The team worked for a couple of weeks, but the end result was a fiasco. I found an old book of radio toys. There was a picture of a view master and a horse. At that moment the skies opened up and an angel choir sang. I knew immediately what the campaign would be. We made a horse whose legs moved. The horse was on a stand that had a landscape background. The background could be inserted into the base, from which images could be seen in 3D. The movie took place in the 1890’s, when that kind of a toy already existed. I got a creative orgasm of that.”

For years Burger King took bids from two toy designers from which only one was selected for each campaign.

“There were two dogs and one bone every time. And since every deal is worth millions, you can only imagine what pressure that created every single month”, Meronen sighs. After a while Burger King gave up on the monthly competitions and learned to rely solely on Mikko. Still twice the number of toys were designed for each campaign. The customer selected the ones to be used and the rest would go to the trash.
At Strottman, Mikko’s task is to keep the calendar full of toy campaigns year round. Each campaign takes a year to realize, so Mikko must be constantly one step ahead of the times and competitors. His job is to identify suitable films that are in production and negotiate tie-in deals with film studios. Then the designers hit the drawing boards. They create the toys from scratch and send them to be manufactured. A team of 10 people produce 20 campaigns a year. In other words, a toy per day.
Each campaign begins a week before the movie opens and lasts for a month. Toys sold in toy stores are carefully targeted to a specific gender and age groups, but hamburger toys have to please all children.
“For the longest time the aim was to find a popular children’s film that would sell as many kids meals as possible. Today, we listen to the mothers, fathers and children. The majority of parents want to spend more time together with their children. Today, every toy is designed so that the kid is able to play with it alone and together with a parent.”

Mikko Meronen by Tomi Hinkkanen

The toys must also meet stringent safety regulations. Under no condition should the child be able to swallow the toy, or stick it in his or her eye, ear or nose. An accident usually means a costly lawsuit.

“One other company made diving sticks. When they were thrown to the bottom of the pool, they stood there upright. When kids jumped in cannonball, you can only imagine where those sticks ended up”, Mikko laughs. In addition to safety concerns, there are also monetary ones. Each promotion usually consists of eight million toys. The production cost of each toy must be kept under 50 cents. The rise of oil price directly affects the production costs of oil-based plastic toys. The toys are manufactured in China. Now the country has begun to flex its financial muscles. “The pay for many years remained almost constant. Now the Chinese want more money. China has raised their minimum wages and continues to do so. Thus, the work becomes more challenging.”

Mikko Meronen by Tomi Hinkkanen

In recent years additional pressure has come from within the United States, a country that battles childhood obesity. A number of local laws now prohibit offering toys with kids meals, if they do not meet certain nutritional requirements. A couple of years ago a Finnish nature magazine named hamburger toys as the most unnecessary product of the year. The toyman is not swayed by the insult. “Families that eat fast food are generally not well-off. Take for example a family in LA with seven children where the father is a mechanic and the mother works as a dishwasher. That family does not have much money. My mission throughout the years has been, that even though these toys are free giveaways, they do not have to be crap. With the money that I am allocated, I do my utmost to create as cool toys as possible. These toys go into the hands of children who do not have a lot of toys.”

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