Schoolchildren stand on the platform next to a life-sized Thomas the Tank Engine at Shinkanaya station in Shimada in Shizuoka prefecture, west of Tokyo. (Photo provided to China Daily)
Giant toy firm sets out ambitious plans for China growth
Global leading toy producer Mattel Inc, owner of renowned brands including Barbie and Fisher-Price, is enhancing its brand awareness in China with plans to build more Thomas & Friends Towns in major cities and by introducing the first Chinese character to its 70-years-old train story.
Hailey Wu Sullivan, senior director and head of Marketing for Mattel Asia-Pacific, said the company will open its first Thomas & Friends Town in Chongqing in western China in October.
Covering an area of 1,200 square meters, the amusement park will have a host of features, such as theme restaurants, multifunction classrooms and an adventure castle.
"It is an immersive experience for kids to walk into the town and bring Thomas to life," she said.
Themed parks and play zones have been established by toy makers to better connect with young consumers, such as LEGO's exploring centers.
"Such themed facility increase their sales efficiency," said Du Jiaqi, research manager of Euromonitor International.
Sullivan discussed the amusement park at a ceremony to introduce a new member of the Thomas & Friends' family, Yongbao－its first Chinese character.
"The new member Yongbao and his story will further promote the Thomas & Friends brand from a more Chinese angle and helps the world to learn about China," said Sullivan.
In addition to actual toys, Yongbao will also be featured in short animated features and the upcoming motion picture of the Thomas series early next year, which will be screened worldwide, she said.
In addition to innovating content, the toy maker has also diversified its distribution by collaboration further with JD.com since 2013.
By the end of 2015, its five major brands－Barbie, Fisher-Price, Thomas & Friends, Hot Wheels and Mega－have launched official stores on JD.com, and have seen a combined growth in sales of more than 150 percent.
Mattel said that the Thomas series is the No 1 preschool toy brand for consumers aged two to four.
Du of Euromonitor International said Thomas & Friends brand has grown rapidly in China as parents have grown increasingly aware of branded products due to their safety.
The train brand also has visible displays at bricks and mortar toy retailers and its diversified product design from one train to packaged trains has encouraged consumers to extend their purchases, said Du.
But Mattel's other brands, such as Barbie, have under performed in China due to wide range of choice in the market, with Japanese dolls proving more popular among Chinese children.
Mattel's market share accounts for 2 percent of toy sales in China, according to statistics from Euromonitor International. Chinese traditional toys and games had a market scale of 64.26 billion yuan ($973 million) in 2015.