Making sound waves | “Tonies has got to the heart of what a generation of parents has been looking for”

For a company with high expectations, Tonies continues to surprise itself. The German-born audio toy platform has never been quiet about its plans for the UK and international market, not since its emergence on the scene only a few years ago. But it never expected success on the scale it has seen this past year.

If the pandemic has thrust into the limelight the technology used to keep us all connected throughout this year of unrest, then Tonies is one among the antidotes. A screen-free device that uses tangible (lovingly hand-painted) characters as a means of escapism for children – and parents – overwhelmed by a dependence on screen-time these past 12 months, Tonies placing above all else, the power of story-telling.

It’s the company’s own admission that the “multifold growth it has achieved in the UK market this past year” has been far beyond its expectations, yet it is a position it has been quick to capitalise on, bolstering its ranks with a senior team comprising ex Universal and Skip Hop experts in the children’s market in a move to ready itself for further international growth this coming year.

Among them is Lucia Kreuzer, the former global commercial director of Hello Fresh who now heads up Tonies UK and IE, having been appointed by the board to accelerate the growth of Tonies and steer its business into its next phase.

This week, associate title, ToyNews caught up with Kreuzer to learn more about those plans and delve deeper into the innovation of the Tonies brand, and its secret formula that has placed it “at the heart of what a generation of parents are looking for right now.”

Hello Lucia, thanks for chatting with us. Can we kick off by talking about business at Tonies over the past year. The pandemic saw families re-establish relationships with toys and play, what role did Tonies have to play and what success did you see through this? 

The pandemic has undoubtedly had a huge impact on the family dynamic in so many households. With the huge move to home working, there has been a real challenge in keeping children happy, occupied and entertained for hours on end – and it can be so easy for children to spend entire days in front of a screen while parents are trying to get their work done.

I think parents are now much more concerned with the effects of too much screen time, and this is where Tonies comes into its own as a screen-free antidote to iPads, computer games, and TV, while sparking children’s imagination and independent play. What we really believe is key to the appeal of Tonies is its versatility – children can enjoy creative play to unwind from schoolwork, listen to the fun educational content, and stay connected to the family members they’ve sadly been separated from due to the pandemic.

Children also love the beautiful Tonies, our hand-painted figurines, as they are so unique and have that collectability element – even our  youngest customers love to play with them as they listen to their stories or songs, which is wonderful.

We had big plans for Tonies in the UK last year but the multifold growth we have seen has been far beyond our expectations. We have been so overwhelmed by the positive customer feedback, press and awards we received last year.

“We will continue to innovate every aspect of the kids’ audio experience to ensure we stay at the forefront of this category that we love.”

The team’s been bolstered with some key new hires. Can you talk us through what your roles will now be with Tonies, your areas of focus, and how this will prime the business for growth in the coming months and years? 

Just as our business is experiencing huge growth, our team at Tonies is growing rapidly too. We have been so lucky to attract very talented people to build up further areas of the team.

Liz Peters (ex Universal) has joined our Product team as Portfolio Manager, Gemma Stokes (ex Skip Hop) has joined our team as Senior Marketing Manager and comes with a wealth of experience in the baby and toy industries, and Paul Chattaway (ex Ring) will be driving our retail growth as Head of Sales. They all come with real expertise in their fields that I know will help to spark the creativity, purpose, and success of the Tonies brand going forward.

What will be the strategy for international growth? Why is now the right time for Tonies to be  planning for global expansion like this? 

Our continued growth and influence in our German home market provides the basis for our solid  international expansion. We are currently active in five countries, enabling over two million kids to let their imagination run free. Tonies launched last September to the US market, offering children there a completely new way of listening to stories and music. We will launch in France later this year.

While we are expanding internationally, there is still immense potential for us to grow in existing markets through adding to our portfolio, expanding our retail footprint, adding new product categories and functionalities and more – the possibilities are endless!

There has never been a better time for us to be thinking about growth, Tonies has got right to the heart of what a whole generation of parents has been looking for. More than ever, they are searching for alternative ways to entertain, educate and inspire their children and enable their  minds to grow. Most of all, they want what is best for their child.

You guys pioneered what has become an exciting audio-toy space. How is Tonies taking that  reputation for innovation forward for the coming year? How will you be leading the space through new developments? 

Innovation is part of our brand’s DNA. We were first to market and created a new category from scratch. We will continue to innovate every aspect of the kids’ audio experience to ensure we stay at the forefront of this category that we love.

We have an amazing line-up of strong content launches and accessories, partnerships with exciting brands and organisations, and will further broaden our retail coverage with existing and new retailers. Our aim is to be synonymous with fantastic audio storytelling for children.

“We want our little listeners to become familiar with different cultures and ways of life through our audio content. At Tonies, we’re committed to building a diverse and inclusive portfolio that reflects society.”

Key to the Tonies success is the library of children’s stories you guys have and your licensing  partnerships. What plans have you got for building out the portfolio over this year? What licensed lines can we expect from you guys?

Our product and audio system is unrivalled in the market. Last year we added further strong licenses, from much-loved classics like Toy Story and Frozen to Elmer and Spot the Dog to our ever increasing portfolio – offering a curated and appealing range of stories, music and educational content for children.

This year we have already launched our Peter Rabbit and In the Night Garden Tonies, as well as adding to our range of Disney Tonies with Aladdin. We have lots of exciting blockbusters from the page and screen coming to life as Tonies later this year, and we are so excited to expand our partnerships with Hachette Children’s Group, Viacom Consumer Products, Mattel Inc, and NBC Universal and many more wonderful partners.

What is the Tonies approach to representation and diversity within the story portfolio? How will you guys promote this message as you continue to grow internationally and tap into new  audiences?

The world of storytelling is certainly far more diverse than it used to be and we want children using their Toniebox to be able to identify with the Tonies they put on their box. Additionally, we want our little listeners to become familiar with different cultures and ways of life through our audio content. At Tonies, we’re committed to building a diverse and inclusive portfolio that reflects society.

What do you look for in the IP that you bring to the Tonies platform? 

We put a great deal of thought and work into the content that we bring to Tonies as we want to ensure that there is a huge amount of variety in our portfolio. We really foster strong bonds between children and parents through the magic of storytelling – whether parents are introducing their children to their own nostalgic stories, listening together to the latest blockbuster story that their child loves, as well as our wonderful music and educational content. And, of course, we are always looking to consumer trends and insights to predict the next bestseller.

You guys have obviously got new agencies on board for the marketing and PR strategies, how is this reflective of the wider plans for this year and beyond? 

We are incredibly excited to partner with VCCP as our new creative agency and Diffusion as our new  PR agency. Both agencies really impressed us with work that they have done in the past and their passion for Tonies. We have some exciting campaigns coming up – so watch this space!

You’ve aligned yourselves with a number of children’s causes, among them children’s mental wellness. Can we explore the Tonies relationship with this topic? Why is it important for  you, and what does storytelling and story time do to help the issue? 

Children’s mental wellness is a topic that is so close to our heart. As a brand we want to continue to build on our great work, as it is so incredibly important. We recently ran a campaign in February to support Children’s Mental Health charity, The Place2B and raised funds for them by asking our audience to share our post and we donated per share.

The pandemic has seen so many children suffer with their mental health amid so much upheaval and  increased social isolation. We have found that the Tonies audio can help children to feel like they have some company and can be a real source of solace in such a confusing time.

While so much has changed over the past year, children’s bedtime stories, for example, can act as a real anchor in their daily routine and bring some much-needed familiarity. The outside of the Toniebox itself too is so soft that children can often be seen cuddling it while they listen to stories or music – it can be incredibly soothing to them.

During the first lockdown, one mother from our community told us how her husband was on the Front Line NHS Covid ward and therefore was unable to see both his wife and young child for 19 weeks. Every night he would leave a new message for his young son on his Creative-Tonie (that you  can record yourself), who hugged it nightly whilst listening and the Toniebox became almost  synonymous with his father’s voice. A truly touching story.

What’s the next step for you guys? What can we expect to see from Tonies in the coming  weeks/months? 

We have big ideas and plans for this year – from amazing content and an accessories line-up to new  partnerships and co-operations. It will be an exciting year for Tonies and our partners.

Thank you Lucia, and just before you go, is there anything else you want to be shouting about right now?

Our wonderful founders, Patric Faßbender and Marcus Stahl, started Tonies with the belief that childhood should be a magical time, full of big adventures and loving memories. They wanted to create a way for kids to experience storytelling in a digital age, stimulating their imagination and  creativity in ways that a screen simply cannot.

Patric and Marcus originally dreamed of every child having a Toniebox in their bedroom and it’s so wonderful to see that dream is now becoming a reality: so far, we have sold over 20 million Tonies globally.

Tonies offers an immersive, wondrous experience you can feel good about, but more importantly a community you can be part of now and  for many years to come.

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of Licensing.biz and ToyNews. Hutchins has worked his way up from Staff Writer to the position of Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both ToyNews and Licensing.biz, and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@biz-media.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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