It’s been 40 years since Hasbro launched G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, a revamped approach to its famous military brand. At the time, it was revolutionary in that the 12-inch line of action figures had entered the 3.75-inch scale that was all the rage due to the launch of the Kenner Star Wars collection just a few years prior. The new scale and multipronged approach to storytelling included an animated series, comic books, and one of the most expansive collections of action figures, vehicles, and playsets ever released.
In 2020, on the cusp of a global pandemic, Hasbro entered Toy Fair New York with a plan to reinvent the brand again, this time as the G.I. Joe Classified Series — a slightly larger, 6-inch scale, once again reflecting the changing tastes of the times that had been fueled by the company’s recent success with Marvel Legends and Star Wars The Black Series.
Following a host of new product reveals (and the return of Sgt. Slaughter!) at this month’s Hasbro Pulse live stream event, the Pop Insider caught up with G.I. Joe Product Design Director Lenny Panzica and Associate Brand Manager Emily Bader during a roundtable discussion to learn more about the current status and future plans for the brand as it hits the midway mark of year three for the Classified Series and plots a course for the future.
The Challenges and Rewards of Relaunching an Iconic Brand in the ’20s
Emily Bader joined the G.I. Joe team from Power Rangers last June and points to the brand being considered a “baby brand” again — specifically, “a pandemic baby.” Officially, in the kind of corporate sense that casual fans and collectors may not be privy to, Hasbro considers G.I. Joe to fit its portfolio of “Emerging Brands” alongside Peppa Pig and PJ Masks. It has nearly 60 years of legacy behind it, but it’s regaining its footing in the trenches of retail. And, as with any battle, there have been setbacks.
“We underestimated the success of the line and didn’t make enough,” Bader says, noting that Hasbro became quickly aware of bots scooping up retailer exclusives online and consumer frustration across the board. Alongside creating a host of new products to launch within an environment bogged down with supply chain issues that had never been seen before, the G.I. Joe team had a new mission: “How do we make people happy again?”
Lenny Panzica is a 15-year toy industry veteran who joined the ‘Joe team from the Transformers crew and played with G.I Joes as a kid. When he first got interested in toy design, it was suggested that he attend the Fashion Institute of Technology’s toy program, and that’s what he did. In the months ahead of the G.I. Joe relaunch, Panzica found himself meeting with fans at conventions and looking inward with a daunting question: “Am I gonna be the guy that kills G.I. Joe?”
“Even before we had the [Classified Series] figure line, I would be asked to go ideate what G.I. Joe could be,” Panzica says. “I’d do 2D drawings, kit bash drawings. … 12-15 years into a career, you get to go the thing you wanted to do as a kid. I’ve been blessed to have that opportunity.”
Together with their colleagues, both Bader and Panzica have been focused on building the brand to be the best it can be, and they’ve been fueled by the fans that they’ve met along the way. Panzica calls it “fan acceptance” and Bader says that the entire team was “incentivized” to do even better following the enthusiastic response to its efforts at last year’s Hasbro PulseCon.
“We’re passionate. Skunkworks. Small. We have to build the brand back up. And there’s more competition,” Panzica says.
At this point, it should be no surprise to anyone that doing business isn’t what it used to be. But, as I often note in my coverage of the inner workings of the toy industry at our sister publication, the Toy Book, this business is filled with creative people that have a knack for figuring out ways to work around new challenges — including having enough product to go around.
“We’re manufacturing five times the amount of figures that we went to market with and it’s still not meeting retailers’ demands,” Bader says. In normal circumstances, major retailers should be holding back product until they have enough to set their shelves and pegs across the country instead of breaking street date. The idea is that everyone should be getting new toys at around the same time, and this includes consumers that preorder online and those who prefer the brick-and-mortar experience. Unfortunately, there are instances where a random Walmart puts a case of figures out on the salesfloor early and the photos end up splashed across Instagram.
“The bigger stores should be waiting for product to arrive, but the larger the quantity, the longer it takes,” Bader says. “We’re trying to create the best possible consumer experience, but we’re learning while balancing making more, managing preorders, mitigating supply chain issues, and factoring in transportation time. We’re trying to learn how to level-set the expectations of our fans with how transparent we can be without giving away trade secrets. The most rewarding part of the job is working with this team. We’re small and scrappy and we spend so much time together.”
A Plastic-Free Future
While G.I. Joe team has been battling Cobra, Hasbro’s been fighting a battle for a sustainable future. To the dismay of some collectors, this means a future free of plastic packaging, and that’s, at times, created an adversarial relationship between the toy company and consumers, particularly to those who view packing as part of the product.
As a whole, the toy industry is moving toward a sustainable future, period. Hasbro is no exception, but what will it look like? An early taste of plastic-free packaging emerged in February with a look at the Cobra Viper box set and most recently hit hard amid a wave of Marvel Legends reveals.
“[Plastic-free packaging] is rolling out across all action brands and 6-inch packaging at Hasbro,” Bader says. “We had intentions of G.I. Joe being plastic-free by this fall, and the upcoming wave with Zarana and the Crimson Guard will be the last wave of the Classified Series with plastic.”
Additionally, the Walmart-exclusive line of Classified Series figures on giant, oversized retro cardbacks will be retired this year after a total of eight characters have been released. As for 3.75-inch scale Retro Collection and O-ring figures, the team is planning “something exciting and different” in what Bader calls “a soft reboot for modern G.I. Joe fans.”
Looking at the benefits of going plastic-free, the design team views it as an opportunity to use each package as a canvas to display full artwork along with renderings of the included action figures and accessories. Classified Series figures will include a usable, cardboard footlocker that Panzica says looks great set up and stacked like a loading dock or battle area. The accessories come packed inside wrapped in paper emblazoned with G.I. Joe or Cobra logos, and PVC pieces are wrapped in cardboard to avoid warping.
In an effort to squash potential thievery at retail, including “head-poppers” that plagued Moose Toys’ Space Jam line last summer (headless Lebron figures everywhere) — the boxes will be entirely closed with no openings of any kind.
“The worst thing is headless figures, ” Panzica says, pointing out that all of Hasbro’s 6-inch figures [G.I. Joe, Star Wars, Marvel, Fortnite, Power Rangers] will be closed box one with one notable exception. “Some Transformers have an opening because you can’t pop their heads off,” he says.
G.I. Joe: The Next Generation
Just a few years ago, toy brands of the past that were considered “retro” didn’t necessarily have a long future planned beyond striking on the occasional comeback trend to cash in. Hasbro’s G.I. Joe team is well into working on new toys for 2023 and into 2024. In less than three full years, around 50 characters have already become a part of the Classified Series, and many, many more are on the way, including such oft-requested fan favorites. This year’s Yo Joe! June celebration is fast-approaching, and there is also the looming possibility of a Classified Series HasLab project, which is essentially going through the layers of in-house corporate approval at Hasbro.
But, before anyone gets the idea that the frequently rumbled USS FLAGG be given the Classified treatment, Bader notes that it would have to be about 20 feet long to get it in scale, and even a Killer WHALE (Warrior: Hovering Assault Launching Envoy) would be BIG. Could something more manageable be on the table? Maybe, as Bader says a Dreadnok Thunder Machine could probably be done in the 16-inch range and Panzica mentioned a Rolling Thunder as being a cool idea.
While any of those would certainly scratch a collector itch, a truly new generation of fans will be required to carry G.I. Joe into the next 20, 30, 40 years, and those fans are kids right now. Last year’s kid-focused Snake Eyes line was a solid entry point, but the movie didn’t connect with audiences the way that many had hoped, so what does the real future look like?
“We know we need to figure it out for the brand,” Bader says. “What will be the nostalgia 20 years from now? How do we reach kids? Is it a new animated show? TikTok Clips? A Metaverse? G.I. Joe reinvents itself every 20 years or so.”
Still, one very important piece of the puzzle is already here right now, and it’s in most toy departments with “For ages 4+” right on the box. It’s Classified.
“As a designer, we believe in other play patterns,” Panzica says “How do we get kids to go, ‘I want to buy Roadblock!’? The Classified Series is not just for us older collectors. Hopefully, we’ll do a good enough job that kids want to pick it up now. At the end of the day, action figures are action figures. Hopefully, we’re continuing that legacy. And hopefully, it continues.”
Bonus Intel from ‘Joe Command:
The info-packed discussion with Lenny and Emily contained additional details that G.I. Joe fans will be interested in. Here are some bonus intel drops.
- Hasbro Pulse could become a destination for “army builders” — an evergreen assortment of soldiers, officers, and other troops that fans may want to buy multiples of. The team is also working on an expanded presence for the G.I. Joe brand at Hasbro Pulse.
- The return of Sgt. Slaughter to the G.I. Joe line could signal the potential return of other “real-life” ‘Joes in the future.
- Preorders will be offered for all Classified Series action figures going forward.
- Sub “stories” such as Tiger Force will continue to roll out with specific retail partners, but there is a possibility that additional characters that fit those stories may emerge in the mainline in the years ahead.
- On the manufacturing side, shared tooling is a big consideration when bringing new figures to market. Certain figures share tooling — boots, for example — and if one figure is in production using that tooling, another that uses it cannot run at the same time. Comparing this to other lines in the Hasbro portfolio, Marvel Legends has more than a decade of tooling spanning hundreds of characters to share parts while the G.I. Joe Classified Series only has around 50 right now. The plan is to slowly and steadily grow the Classified line and build an arsenal of tools over the years.
- Shared tooling also lends itself to repaints, something that goes back to the original A Real American Hero line of the 1980s. Certain characters may get a “new uniform” to fit a new story theme.
- The brand is spacing out the release of big fan favorites to spark longevity and to avoid dropping everything all at once.
- Availability at retail is expected to improve greatly by the end of the year and into 2023. Multiple delayed shipments that have been stalled due to the global shipping crisis are expected to arrive close together, which should mean fuller shelves and pegs as retailers balance their stock.