Everyone is familiar with the smiling engines of Thomas & Friends, chuffing along the island of Sodor and learning valuable life lessons that the characters share with rapt toddler audiences. Iconic Wooden Railway toys can be found in playrooms, preschools, libraries and children’s museums across the world—anywhere young children usually gather.
Previous Thomas & Friends toy lines focused on boys ages two through four, and Mattel has filled that market with Wooden Railway, Adventures, MINIS and TrackMaster brand extensions. The toy giant purchased Thomas’ parent company HIT Entertainment in 2011 for $680M, when Thomas toys sold $150M worldwide.
But those efforts haven’t been enough to stave off a decline in Thomas sales. Although the brand equity for Thomas & Friends is powerful, Mattel attributes Q2 declines in Fisher-Price sales to both its baby business and Thomas. From Mattel’s Q3 summary:
“Year-to-date consumer takeaway for Barbie was up double digits; Hot Wheels and Fisher-Price were up mid-single digits; and Thomas & Friends was down high-single digits. For the quarter, Barbie was up double digits; Hot Wheels and Fisher-Price were up low-single digits; and Thomas & Friends was down double digits.”
For the past two years, Mattel has applied considerable research towards re-energizing Thomas & Friends, and started introducing the product strategy to consumers in August 2017.
The company designates Thomas as one of its Power Brands, with plans to incorporate Physical Play Systems, Connected Play Systems and Live Experiences.
To reenergize Thomas, Mattel is also phasing in expansions to new customer segments: young toddlers, and elementary-school age kids and girls, in order to grow Thomas’ appeal to more children.
Cuter, Sturdier and More Educational for One Year-Olds
My First Thomas & Friends Railway Pals is the first set intended for toddlers as young as one year old. This gives parents who are interested in Thomas an option to buy into the brand for their babies, and introduces the Thomas & Friends universe to children at a younger age.
These new playsets are more obviously educational than existing Thomas toys. Through songs and activities, the toys help young toddlers learn colors, numbers, letters and directions. The brightly colored engines have smoother edges and cuter “baby” faces. And the interlocking track is designed to prevent toddler frustration and facilitate play.
Released August 2017, Destination Discovery, the flagship Railway Pals playset has 18 Amazon reviews with an average rating of 4.1 stars. Walmart’s customers have written 37 reviews, averaging 4.7 stars. Here’s what parents are saying:
“This is an adorable, interactive, and educational play set that my Thomas-loving toddler (aged 2.5) adores! The large pieces are perfect for tiny hands, and the fun songs and sayings are even more incentive for my little guy to keep playing. This has provided hours of entertainment for my children, as even my older son (age 4) likes helping his brother rearrange the track and pieces.”
“I love that the pieces are big and clunky, just the perfect size for their little hands to carry around. It is easy to put together and the pieces are easy for my toddlers to grab and play with. When the train goes over certain areas on the tracks, songs and phrases will play, so this toy does have an educational aspect to it. There are several different areas of the track that will activate a song or phrase. It is a great toy to accompany a fan of the Thomas the Train TV show.”
“My 18 month old son loved trains before he got this train set and he definitely loves this one. The instructions make it really easy to put together different orientations of the track, making use of the hills and turns and attaching the various arches and whatnot in different places. The bright colors and big bulky plastic make it a good choice for a toddler.”
Extending the Brand’s Appeal to Older Kids
Mattel also expanded the brand to elementary-school-aged kids in late October 2017 with a new Thomas & Friends Super Station, reminiscent of Hot Wheels tracks. It features more intricate play and works with any size engine, allowing kids to play with their entire assorted collection of characters. There’s also storage for over 100 engines. In this way, older kids can play with and manage their large collections, and parents will appreciate the compactness of merging various train sets together.
Giving Girls More to Buy
Hoping to attract more sales from girls, Mattel is adding new female main characters to the “Thomas & Friends” TV series, starting with release of the movie Big World Big Adventures: The Movie in summer 2018. There, Thomas will meet two new engines: Nia from Kenya and Rebecca from Sodor. Along with existing character Emily, the show will get closer to gender parity among the main characters. Producer Micaela Winter adds:
“Gender equality is something that’s really important to us in this new series and going forward.”
Mattel notes that viewership of the current series is split evenly between boys and girls, with girls actually more likely to watch week-to-week. Nia and Rebecca toys and merchandising will start to hit shelves in fall 2018.
Will Mattel be able to revitalize the Thomas & Friends brand and get sales on the right track? The toy market is challenging, as shown with the notable recent Chapter 11 filing of Toys R Us in September. Time will tell, but these carefully-considered changes show considerable understanding of important new customer segments for the brand. They also show a good understanding of the role parents (and grandparents) play in purchasing products for young children, along with kids’ own pester power. Nostalgia for the brand may be activated among parents and grandparents. In other brands I’ve worked with, up aging (moving to an older age group), has been difficult, but the down-aging toddler moves and increased attempts to include girls seem helpful. It will be interesting to look back on this in late 2018 when the products are more fully in market.