In quest for growth, German toymakers keep it real
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 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 will win fans in new markets.
But some of Germany's favourite toy brands are bucking these trends, keeping the focus on the physical products that they themselves created.
- 'Can't cuddle an iPad' -
"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 told AFP 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 nine percent 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 percent 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.
- Going to the movies -
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".
While both firms have dipped their toes into the licensing pool -- Steiff was one of the first toymakers to partner with Disney in the 1930s -- Engehausen and Barth said they were relying on the strength of their own brands to drive future growth.
"We believe that the potential in our own franchise is so big that we are focusing more on our stuff," said Engehausen.
- Licensing's risky bet -
Germany is somewhat of an exception in this area, said Joachim Stempfle of the NPD research group.
While licensed toys account for over 25 percent of global toy sales, in Germany that share is only 19-20 percent.
"In Germany, traditional toy manufacturers have a higher status than in other markets," Stempfle said.
Playmobil only entered the licensing game last year, creating "Ghostbuster" 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 does not release a breakdown of revenues, spokesman Bjoern Seeger said licensed toys brought "new momentum" to the brand.
But licensing remains fraught with risk.
After years of growth, Lego revealed at the fair that consumer sales in Germany slumped by 2.6 percent in 2017 -- in part because of "disappointing" sales in the "Star Wars" range.
Seeger said licensed toys and the upcoming Playmobil Movie allowed for "new ways of storytelling" that would bring greater attention to the brand as it seeks to expand in the United States and China.
But ultimately, there's no substitute for children "playing with Playmobil figures in their rooms and dreaming up their own adventures," he said.