Erma Gerd contributed to this report.
Dave Brandon left the University of Michigan in 2014 after a successful, revenue-generating tenure as athletic director, and was tapped by Bain Capital to become the CEO of Toys R Us, a position he later rebranded as the J.T. Abernathy & Family Head Executive. Two years later, the toy retailer is set to declare for bankruptcy, but the company’s straits aren’t merely financial. Interviews and leaked emails reveal deep cultural and philosophical rifts between Brandon and the store’s biggest fans.
Katie Hodges is the head of Toys R R Life, an online Toys R Us fan club with thousands of members. She said there’s widespread discontent with Brandon, and argues that the now-likely possibility of bankruptcy and restructuring is the culmination of the CEO’s myopic vision for the company.
“Toys R Us is the great American toy store,” said Hodges, “but we were coming off a few down years, so Dave came in with the attitude that things were broken and needed to be fixed. Another turnaround story, like Domino’s. But of course he didn’t try to fix Toys R Us by re-establishing the values and timeless appeal that made it so great in the first place. He’s done the opposite: eschewed our beloved traditions for a parade of marketing gimmicks and cynical cash grabs.”
Brandon got off on the wrong foot with longtime fans in 2015 when new Toys R Us logo designs were leaked online. Some of the new logos featured an ‘R’ that faced the right direction, while others spelled out “Are.”
“People freaked out,” said Hodges.
Brandon denied that Toys R Us was ever considering new logos, saying the marketing department was “just having some fun.” He would have a more difficult time downplaying the outrage that followed his surprise unveiling of new Toys R Us mascots in December of 2015.
Hermione Hippo, Raul Rhino, and Zayn Zebra were designed to “expand the brand” and appeal to 21st century children who weren’t engaged with the original Toys R Us spokesanimal, Geoffrey the Giraffe. But they provoked a swift backlash among older fans.
“Geoffrey the Giraffe is iconic,” said Hodges. “Introducing those cheesy mascots made it clear to the fanbase that Dave Brandon has no idea why people love this store. We all know it’s a business, but it’s more than that to us. We grew up playing in Toys R Us, begged our parents to take us, and now we love taking our kids. We love waking up on a fall Saturday and heading to the store. It’s an experience that can’t be measured in dollars.”
The new mascots were quietly discontinued, but not before fans emailed Brandon directly to share their displeasure. The Fake Punt has obtained and verified a host of these and other emails where Brandon replied directly to customers, often in mere minutes, and frequently in the middle of the night.
In January 2016, in response to a fan who expressed concern about the new mascots, Brandon replied:
“If you don’t like them I suggest you find a new toy store to shop at. The Us in Toys R Us doesn’t need to include you. We’ll be fine without you. Have a great life!!!!!!”
Days later, he engaged in this tense exchange with customer Ronald Porter at 2 in the morning:
From: Ronald Porter
January 8, 2016
“Dave, You throwing Geoffrey the Giraffe under the bus like you have this week was an embarrassment to the company. Further, your conduct over this past week puts a black eye on this holiday season and has no place at Toys R Us. Toys R Us is just another store now and we have you (not Geoffrey the Giraffe) to thank for that.”
Brandon replied in seconds, saying: “Quit drinking and go to Bed Bath & Beyond if you want a non-dynamic brand experience.”
In April 2016, Brandon announced plans to “rejuvenate and innovate the in-store experience” by piping music into Toys R Us locations, including a proprietary ditty Brandon commissioned called “In The Doll House.” In response to one 10 year old Toys R Us fanatic who emailed to complain about the excessive noise, Brandon wrote. “I don’t blame you for thinking like a child……you are one! However, I am thinking like an adult who spearheaded IPOs at Valassis AND Domino’s….I GET IT!!!!!”
When emailed by our own Erma Gerd for comment about Toys R Us’ pending bankruptcy and the criticism he’s received from fans, Brandon responded in less than a minute, at 3:27 a.m., saying: “Everything is fine here!! We’re going to keep giving customers a whoa experience but thanks for your “insight” ….looking at your front page now, I suggest you find another publication to write for!”
In related news, Dave Brandon announced last week that Toys R Us will be sponsoring the new Toys R Us Bowl, to be played in Mumbai in December 2020 between teams from the Big Ten and SEC. The game was originally slated for the Meadowlands in New Jersey (where Toys R Us is headquartered), but Brandon expressed misgivings about making SEC teams play in the north in the winter and ultimately moved the bowl to India, along with many jobs.