German toymakers keep it real in quest for growth

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 may seem unremarkable — rival Lego has been doing movie tie-ins for years.
But for a company that has hardly tweaked its recipe for success since 1974, it marks a sea-change — evidence of the upheaval sweeping the sector.
Toy companies have in part responded by joining kids in the digital world, with apps, online games and YouTube videos.
But some of Germany’s toy brands are bucking these trends, keeping the focus on the physical products 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.
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 nine per cent in 2017 to a record 156 million euros ($194 million), driven by robust demand for its Horse Club range.
Steiff’s revenues were up some eight per cent to around 45 million euros, as customers snapped up a new line of colourful, 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. — AFP

Michelle Fitzpatrick