When FAO Schwarz launched its premiere UK destination within London’s Selfridges to the public just last month it was a carefully curated portfolio of partners with which the US retailer decorated its expansive floor of toys. Among them, was Tonies.
A German outfit that has been performing particularly well across its motherland, and stretching out across Austria and Switzerland over the past six years, Tonies has only recently made itself known upon UK shores.
The storytelling audio toy box that interacts with a range of more than 250 character figures who recount their corresponding stories to children when placed on the speaker has made quite an impact on UK audiences in the short two years that it has been in the market.
The product has been the recipient of a Made For Mums Toy Awards accolade, and found itself within the pages of Fundamentally Children’s Good Toy Guide, while the very fact that a giant, larger-than-life Toniebox and Tonies character now stands proudly in FAO Schwarz’s flagship London store can impress upon us that Tonies has only just started its work on the UK children’s market.
Tonies’ Toniebox is somewhat of a rarity in the modern day tech toy market in that it knows what it wants to be. The Toniebox is an effortlessly simple children’s product that makes use of some of the most up to date NFC technology out there. It will never tell you this, of course, because waxing lyrical about its intuitive tech isn’t the Tonies way. Instead, the Toniebox is all about presenting the most engaging mode of play possible.
“It all started with my two daughters, six years ago,” Patric Faßbender, co-founder of Tonies, tells ToyNews. “We had a situation that my kids were listening to audio plays and audio books, that would break very quickly as they got thrown about and used. It was very frustrating, so I was looking for an alternative to this concept.
“I was surprised by the fact that CD sales and cassette sales are still very popular in the kids’ space. I’ve never been convinced about the listening devices and iPads, iPhones and Smartphones for kids in this age group. I didn’t want to give my kids a smartphone, and luckily there are a lot of parents who feel the same.”
It was from here that Faßbender, in partnership with his business associate, Marcus Stahl began to develop a product that would allow children to ‘engage with stories and audio in a classic, physical way… but through something new new and innovative’
“It had to be something that fit totally with the way children listen to audio content, that was the starting point,” said Faßbender. “The tactility and physicality of the Tonies and the Toniebox is paramount to this. Storytelling and listening to stories is so important to kids for their concentration, developing their language, so it was important for us to engage them in this activity.”
While Toniebox features the most up to date near field technology that allows its figures to tell stories when placed on the speaker port, the product is launched to be be the antithesis of today’s reliance on ‘screens.’ In fact, this screen free product channels the child’s focus on listening to the stories and using their imagination, while the physicality of the highly well-made figures, means kids can heighten their emotional connection with each character through imaginative play.
“A child can build a relationship with these characters and have the toy in their hands to play with how they wish, and take them on their own stories, before finishing the day by listening to them on the Toniebox,” says Faßbender. “The play aspect helps them emotionally bond with the stories, which is a powerful concept.”
Some of the most notable among Tonies’ current library of more than 250 Tonies characters are the likes of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child, and Stick Man, as well as Raymond Brigg’s festive phenomenon, The Snowman alongside a whole host of Disney stories such as Cars, The Little Mermaid, The Jungle Book, and the Lion King. With more in the pipeline, licensing and IP partnerships with global children’s entertainment brands is a major area of the Tonies business.
“In Germany, we are having conversations with almost every brand owner or IP owner in the kids’ space, regarding licensing partners,” says Faßbender. “And it’s really good to see because it is a great way for them to get their content into the kids’ rooms.
“Of course, we have got a product that is now a platform that gives brand owners and their characters and stories access to their target audience through audio and play, this is why they are interested in talking to us.”
Toniebox comes from a place where storytelling is celebrated. The narrative is the central component of the product, and the attention to audio detail and the depth of engagement offered through its audio content could only have been developed by a firm deeply invested in stories as a mode of entertainment. It comes as little surprise that it’s a team of booklovers behind the finish of the final product.
“It might have been different in the UK, but in Germany in the 60s and 70s, it was very popular to listen to audiobooks and audio plays. When I was five or six, I started to listen to audiobooks and I loved it,” says Faßbender. “I loved to read and listen. It is all about the stories at the end of the day. We tried to find all the stories that kids love, and that is hopefully the starting point of developing something much larger.”
From Germany in the 70s to a Europe-spanning business making in-roads in the UK and US markets, Faßbender’s journey with books and storytelling has taken him on a global adventure. Tonies now has a network of local teams such as the UK outfit based in London, where all UK business is conducted.
“We are really positioning ourselves to grow and build in markets like the UK,” he continues. “We have key accounts with people like John Lewis, FAO Schwarz and others about to come in the UK, as well as toy and book partners in other countries. Having local teams means we can react to local trends and demands quickly.
“We have started to realise that we have the potential to be a world toy, and the UK is an important part of this. From the UK, it gives you a leverag on the English speaking market, from which the next step is the US market. By October 2020, we will be in the office in Los Angeles, and there is a lot of strategic logic to it. From the US, you have the chance to develop into other countries and regions.
“We talk like we have big plans, but for the time we love being in the UK. It is really a great country and a good point from which to travel the world. Of course, we could never have imagined this success. When we started out in Germany, we invented the product for our own kids, now we’re looking at the world stage.”
The sense of what Tonies has achieved in its short time isn’t lost on either Faßbender or Stahl, who admit that the biggest issue they face now is tempering the constant flow of new ideas of directions in which to take the business next.
“We now have to make sure we don’t go chasing too many ideas,” says Faßbender. “We have to be selective and develop only the ones we think or know will land. We have to make them work for us, but, and as the success of Toniebox highlights, they have to be relevant to the audience,” he concludes.