Construction workers, cowboys and knights. When the German company Brandstätter launched its first Playmobil figures in 1974, the success was just as modest as the available range of figures and themes. About 3 billion produced toys later, the company, now owned by the geobra Brandstätter Foundation, supplies 100 million figures and their 40 theme worlds to 100 different countries every year. With ingenuity and a great deal of nostalgia, Playmobil has defied the crisis that has been rattling the traditional toy industry for years. What opportunities has the company seized? And what challenges are still to come?
It may be a cliché that necessity is the mother of invention, but it definitely applies to the famous Playmobil figures, as they owe their existence to the 1973 oil crisis. With raw material prices soaring, company founder Horst Brandstätter decided to move away from producing children’s furniture and ceiling coverings made from plastic in order to focus on the only 7.5 cm small toy figures that his employee Hans Beck had been developing since 1970.
For the market launch at the Nuremberg Toy Fair 1974, only a total of 19 products populated three Playmobil worlds, including a construction site, the Wild West and knights. Although the plastic figures only enjoyed modest success at the beginning, kids developed a true passion for them. More than 3,700 small “personalities” have been created since then, and the German toy company employs a workforce of 4,600 that has been steadily growing the turnover since the 1970s. Founder Horst Brandstätter remained active in the company until his death in 2015 and, in 2008, invested heavily once again in the production of planters as another pillar of his business. However, Playmobil also has been asserting itself in a stagnating toy industry for years. Let’s take a look at Playmobil’s strengths – and the future challenges the company is facing.
The Product: Out-of-the-box Creativity and Quality as Anchors
Uniform, male, and in one all-over colour: the first Playmobil figures were simple, almost bland. That made them the ideal canvas for children’s imagination. It was their creativity that decided how exactly the characters were equipped and what adventures they experienced. The different Playmobil themes have now multiplied and children can choose from 40 worlds and 3700 different characters of all genders, ages and ethnicities.
At the same time, Playmobil still builds on the same principles, such as the ancient human desire to tell stories and the ability to create and act out new worlds by simply fetching some figures from a box. The high quality of the figures also enables the passing on of toys – not only among siblings but also to the next generation. In addition to the kid’s imagination, it also appeals to parental nostalgia.
The Brand: Storytelling and Nostalgia vs. Digital Revolution
Playmobil was a staple toy in children’s playrooms during the 70s, 80s and 90s. Now the children of that time are parents themselves, wanting to recreate their childhood memories of exciting play afternoons for their own kids. That’s why nostalgia is one of the foundations of Playmobil’s continuing success, together with the timeless desire to invent and tell stories. Playmobil meets this with its longevity, versatility and timelessness.
While their button eyes and permanent smile always remain the same and ensure recognition, the characters are integrated into the next generation’s world, changing their hairstyles, outfits, backdrops and occasions (for example, there are new Christmas scenes every year as part of an Advent calendar). At the same time, every character fits into every setting, from realistic to historical to futuristic and fantastic.
The Marketing: Growing with Licences, Cooperation and Movies
Like LEGO, Playmobil has been opening up to licensing. Since this move, figures from Ghostbusters, Spirit and How to Train Your Dragon have been presented to the market. Also, popular sports topics such as the National Hockey League in the US and Canada are represented. In the late summer of 2019 – also inspired by the example of their Danish competitor – a feature film devoted to the world of Playmobil was released to inspire the young audience away from the screens.
It is the latest step in a series of collaborations that Playmobil began in the mid-2000s. For example, a Martin Luther figure produced in 2015 on behalf of the Protestant Church of Germany and the German Tourism Association, hit over 1 million sales, thus becoming the most successful individual figure in the company’s history. It was followed by other celebrities such as Levi Strauss, Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, some of which are exhibited and sold in museums. For Playmobil has long since become a figure of public interest itself.
The Innovations: Playmobil for “Kidults”
Their passion for collecting, their emotional attachment to childhood toys and not least their purchasing power have long made adults a relevant target group. Over the last few years, adult toys have become acceptable thanks to coloring books or remote-controlled drones. Playmobil caters to the playful behaviour in adults by releasing special editions on historical events, re-runs of historical game worlds or planned licenses for cult classics such as Back to the Future, in order to establish the brand in the adult gambling market and thereby broaden its scope. Playmobil also has an eye on the business sector. According to Frank Muller, Head of Business Development at Playmobil, the characters are often used by coaches and therapists. Playmobil is currently exploring how to seize this new business opportunity.
The Challenge: Getting the Next Generation on Board
New ideas are definitely required, as the toy industry has been in a downturn for years. While technology-savvy kids spend more and more time with their gadgets and on their mobile phones, they are also harder to reach via classic marketing channels. Playmobil meets this challenge in much the same way as LEGO, by jumping on trends in culture and the media. The new Novelmore world of knights is noticeably inspired by Game of Thrones. Like the current self-produced YouTube series Playmo High, which wants to meet the young audience in their everyday lives, there are plans for Novelmore to become a family-friendly stop-motion version of fantastic hero adventures. Their charming appearance on Instagram, which incorporates the ideas of the community, wants to inspire young and old to ditch their phones and get back to the imaginative games.
Playmobil: MARMIND® Top Tips
Stay recognizable – the basic face of Playmobil toys is still the same after 45 years.
Keep an eye on the competition – and learn from their good ideas.
Addressing the child in the adult – think of playful use of the product for adults.
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