In growth quest, German toymakers keep it ‘real’ - Taipei Times
Mon, Feb 05, 2018 - Page 14 News List

In growth quest, German toymakers keep it ‘real’

AFP, NUREMBERG, Germany

In an industry upended by the changing play habits of tech-savvy kids, German toymakers are pinning their hopes for growth on traditional, real-world toys — with a little help from the big screen.

At the world’s biggest toy fair in Nuremberg this week, it was a large panel showing a bearded Playmobil figure peeking from behind a curtain that perhaps best exemplified an industry in flux.

“We see us 2019” read the tagline, a tongue-in-cheek nod to how a German person with clumsy English might say it.

The teaser for the first-ever Playmobil movie might seem unremarkable — rival Lego has been doing movie tie-ins for years. Yet, for a company that has hardly tweaked its recipe for success since 1974, it marks a sizeable change — evidence of the upheaval sweeping the sector as toymakers compete not just with each other, but also for the attention of children glued to tablets and smartphones.

Toy companies have in part responded by joining kids in the digital world, with apps, online games and YouTube videos.

They have also chased licensing deals with Hollywood studios, hoping that links with popular movie or television characters might win fans in new markets.

However, some of Germany’s favorite toy brands are bucking these trends, keeping the focus on the physical products that they themselves created.

“Parents are getting bored of all these tablets,” said Schleich chief executive Dirk Engehausen, whose company is best known for its hand-painted, plastic animal figures.

“It’s much easier for a child to really understand the fascination of an elephant, giraffe or cheetah by having it in your hand instead of just swiping over the surface of an iPad,” he said at the fair.

Daniel Barth, CEO of Steiff, the 138-year-old company behind the iconic teddy bears with a button in their ear, agreed.

“We see ourselves as an analog brand,” he said. “You can’t cuddle an iPad.”

So far, the strategy has paid off.

In a near-stagnant toy market, Schleich’s global revenues climbed 9 percent to a record 156 million euros (US$194 million) last year, driven by robust demand for its Horse Club range.

Steiff’s revenues were up some 8 percent to about 45 million euros, as customers snapped up a new line of colorful, ultra-soft stuffed animals — a departure from the brand’s usual true-to-nature creatures and one that was originally aimed at the Asian market, but proved a hit at home too.

Looking ahead, both companies plan to join Playmobil in moving to the silver screen to reach new audiences.

Schleich is bringing its popular Bayala fantasy world populated by elves, unicorns and mermaids to life with an eponymous movie set for release next year.

Steiff was more tight-lipped about its film plans, with Barth saying only it would be a “surprise.”

However, both Engehausen and Barth said they are relying on the strength of their own brands to drive future growth.

Playmobil only entered the licensing game last year, creating Ghostbusters toys and a line based on the animated film How to Tame Your Dragon.

Playmobil sales shot up 11 percent to 679 million euros, and although the Bavarian giant did not release a breakdown of revenues, spokesman Bjoern Seeger said licensed toys brought “new momentum” to the brand.

However, licensing remains fraught with risk.

After years of growth, Lego revealed at the fair that consumer sales in Germany slumped by 2.6 percent last year — in part because of “disappointing” sales in the Star Wars range.

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