THE BIG INTERVIEW: Mattel UK's Wendy Hill, Director of Brand Activation, and Sara Tossell, Senior Licensing Manager

Samantha Loveday

By Samantha Loveday

February 26th 2015 at 9:53AM
UPDATED February 26th 2015 at 10:55AM
THE BIG INTERVIEW: Mattel UK's Wendy Hill, Director of Brand Activation, and Sara Tossell, Senior Licensing Manager

We talk about a milestone year for Thomas & Friends, the expansion of the brand in the last 12 months and why the toy range has been such a hit with pre-schoolers.

Firstly, can you tell me the history behind the brand? WH

Wendy Hill: The Railway Series began as a collection of stories featuring Thomas the Tank Engine, created by the Reverend W. Awdry to entertain his son Christopher when he was sick with the measles.

Stories of Thomas and his friends, first published in 1945, have continued to evolve ever since, entertaining and teaching key life lessons to children across the world on issues such as friendship, bravery, problem solving and teamwork. From the pages of a storybook to its live action UK TV debut in 1984, the content has inspired and excited generation after generation of youngsters.

Today, Thomas is entertaining a third generation of children with a new series of Thomas & Friends. With countless toys and products, hundreds of 'Day Out With Thomas' events, 'Thomas Land' in the UK and Japan with the US set to open in 2015 and a brand new website, the little wooden model made by the Rev. W. Awdry 70 years ago has come a very long way indeed.

How did the brand perform over the past 12 months?

WH: Named the Best Classic Licensed Property at the Licensing Awards last year, Thomas & Friends had a great year in 2014 and is in significant growth, up 17 per cent YTD (NPD Data January 2015) which is remarkable for a brand that is nearly 70 years young.

Now one of Mattel’s top five core brands and with such a milestone year ahead, including an action packed marketing calendar, we are confident that this will continue in 2015. 

How many licensees does it have to date (in the UK) and in which categories? ST

Sara Tossell: We currently have 46 licensees in the UK representing Thomas & Friends across numerous categories including toy, apparel, dress up, publishing, creative play, outdoor play, home furnishings and sporting goods.

What are some of the best performing products?

ST: Thomas & Friends continues to lead the way in toys as the number one licence in the pre?school toys category in the UK, US, Germany and Australia according to The NPD Group Inc. The unrivalled popularity of the global brand continues as Thomas & Friends also ranked top 10 for overall toy licence in the entire toy industry in the US and UK.

Egmont continues to be our very successful core publishing partner for Thomas & Friends across books and magazines, which includes the growing category of personalised books.  Egmont has sold over 60 million Thomas magazines (across the two titles) since 2000.

MV (our licensee of the year in 2014) has been a fantastic partner pushing boundaries of innovation in categories where others may not see the opportunity to innovate. 

Our long standing partner on nightwear Aykroyds continues to remain at the heart of our Thomas softlines business, and continues to drive the nightwear category through innovation and execution across all retail tiers.

Are you looking to expand the consumer products programme further this year – for example into new categories or territories?

ST: We have a wealth of new licensing partnerships this year as well as building on our existing ones.

We’re welcoming Blues in the summer as our new daywear partner, a strong partner already in the Mattel family and we’re very excited to be working on our hero brand Thomas. Their design capabilities are fantastic, and we look forward to seeing the innovation it will bring to the daywear category. 

We can also confirm a new partnership with KD Group on ELA’s which has historically been a really strong category for us and we’re excited about building the business back up in this area. The new KD range, offering educational and innovative toys incorporating exciting design and the latest technology, will launch with three key products in A/W – the My Push & Learn Thomas, the My First Thomas & Friends Tablet featuring an LCD screen, and the Thomas and Friends Smartphone.

In September last year we launched a high end range of Thomas & Friends children’s tableware and giftware collection with Portmeirion including mugs, three piece sets (mug, plate & bowl), trinkets, boxes and photo frames enabling us to reach new retail channels.

Carlton Books published our first Thomas augmented reality title tied in with King of the Railway two years ago and with this new technology moving forward all the time, we are now in the process of commissioning our second title which will be even more innovative and exciting and ties in with the theme of friendship and the 70th celebration.

Do you have any special marketing initiatives or promotional activity planned for 2015?

WH: 2015 will be one of the most exciting years ever for Thomas & Friends our global campaign to mark Thomas & Friends 70th Anniversary is built around a strong programme of retail, marketing and PR activity, all celebrating Thomas’ core brand value of friendship and 70 years of pre?school heritage.

What has the retail reaction been like to the brand?

WH: We have had a fantastic reaction from retailers with our action packed year and the brand’s continued growth means 2015 is shaping up well from both a toy and consumer products perspective as we build further excitement with consumers and retailers.

What would you most like to achieve with the brand in 2015?

WH: We want to build on the growth of this powerhouse pre-school brand across all categories and continue to partner with the best in class.

We want to continue to embrace new opportunities and innovations in the market as the evolution of new technologies continue to impact brand licensing.