When my video conferencing screen finally flickers into life, a long board room stretches out before me, each seat at the table boxed off by perspex Covid-protection units, each unit occupied by one of Takara TOMY’s C-level executives.
Those that aren’t wearing facemasks smile back at me. It’s 8am my time and as my POV begins to scan the room, introducing me via video link to a table-load of quite possibly the most powerful people in the Japanese toy industry, I begin to wish I’d done something better with my lockdown hair.
Although I can audibly hear every pixel on my screen straining at the distance between the Takara TOMY boardroom and my two-bed in Sidcup, the image is framed perfectly. I’m at eye level with each board director, senior general manager, and section manager that I meet, and the swivelling transition between each is smooth, seamless.
I’m suddenly aware that I am now a computer screen in the middle of Japan, being cradled gently by someone likely employed to liaise with journalists on behalf of a boardroom notoriously media shy. That, or I’m the interactive screen head on the rotating neck and shoulders of a robot. I’m happy with either.
Off-screen the voice of the translator tells me that Mr Akio Tomiyama – or ‘the man on the black shirt,’ as he refers to him in the moment – is ready to answer my questions, and it looks like we’re about to begin.
I’m here – simultaneously in my back bedroom and the TOMY boardroom – to talk about the 50-year success of the TakaraTOMY die-cast vehicles range, Tomica and the enduring appeal of what has become a brand almost ingrained into modern day Japanese culture. The foundation of the interview is that the Tomica brand has spotted an opportunity to re-introduce itself to the American market, and fully intends to do so by tapping into an audience of adult fans of toys that grows steadily on the other side of the world, year on year.
However, the interview takes place only a matter of days following the US division TOMY International’s acquisition of the much-loved American toy company, Fat Brain Toys, and what I want to know is why – in 2020, in the throes of a global pandemic – has the US become the focus of such aggressive international growth plans?
It was the Pokémon craze of the ‘90s that really changed much of the course for TOMY, who, while its long-time rivals Bandai (a slick, licensed toy processing machine) and Takara were grappling with Tamagotchi and Beyblade crazes respectively, rode a tidal wave of demand for Pikachu and the cast of characters to become the second largest company in the toy industry at the turn of the century.
After a few years’ tussle between Takara and TOMY that periodically saw the two trade positions over the years, it was on March 1st, 2006, that the contract was finally drawn up and TakaraTOMY was formed.
All of this is predated, of course, by the creation and the subsequent half a century of success of the TOMY toy vehicle brand, Tomica – the most popular brand of miniature die-cast vehicles in Japan, and one that has sold 670 million units in the Japanese market since its launch in 1970.
That, I am told by Mr Shunsuke Takeuchi – the man responsible for Tomica brand – can be translated to a sale of one unit every two seconds. It’s therefore quite safe to say that Tomica is a brand of some cultural significance for the Japanese market.
“If we lined up all the units of Tomica sold in a single row, they would circle the globe 1.7 times,” smiles Mr Takeuchi, pausing to allow the depth of the statistic to really sink in.
“We have launched 1,050 SKUs and the Tomica product line consists of 12 different sub-brands such as the basic line as well as those based on licensed character properties. In the last fiscal year, the Tomica brand recorded its highest sales in Japan in its entire history.”
Of course, the pandemic – as it has done across so many areas of the international toy industry – hit sales figures for this year somewhat. But then, this is a year to be viewed as an anomaly. It’s quite clear that outside of Covid-19, Tomica is not a brand to suffer diluted consumer interest.
“The Tomica brand continues to grow, even after 50 years,” beams Mr Tomiyama.
Such is its popularity that Tomica boasts its own retail outlets across Tokyo, Yokohama, and Osaka, and is the focus of an annual exhibition that sees visitor numbers upwards of 600,000. It’s the only toy brand in Japan to both sponsor and exhibit at the country’s biggest car shows such as the Tokyo Motor Show and Tokyo Auto Salon, while, thanks to a very successful licensing programme, commands a 92.6 per cent recognition among Japanese boys aged two to seven, and among their parents, one that is even higher.
These are all figures that would encourage even the least ambitious of toy companies to ponder the international potential of a brand.
Given the current levels of Japanophilia surging across the Western world through the appreciation of art and media forms such as manga, anime, and the kawaii characters that are translating onto consumer products across markets, it should have come as little surprise that TakaraTOMY had a latent global audience for its Tomica brand, too.
“But we were surprised,” says Mr Tomiyama. “We were surprised to learn that in the US, Tomica’s brand recognition is quite high. Having looked at the searches and posts across Amazon and eBay, we now realise that there are many Tomica fans in the US.
“We also realise that adults also buy toy products in the US market. Hot Wheels, for instance, is a very strong brand for children in the US, but we believe that our Tomica brand is suitable for the adult collector’s market across the region, as this is a growing sector of business.”
It takes only a cursory glance at the growth of the pop culture market to gain an understanding of the size of the adult market for toys. Referred to as the ‘kidult’ market, it’s a sector that now gets its own NPD recognition and one that has helped fuel the UK’s construction toy market to a 25 per cent growth in the last month alone.
And the plan devised by the heads of the international toy maker is to tap into that audience where they are spending the majority of their time: social media. TakaraTOMY is in the process of building up its Tomica brand Instagram following, a steady build in numbers to which it will “distribute the brand-related information” making use of the platform’s “substantial reach.”
“To the extent possible,” says Mr Tomiyama, “we will then continue to provide Japanese vehicles and those with unique features in order to keep entertaining our valued Tomica fans in the US.”
But could there, moreover, be an element of foundation laying at play? It was towards the end of October this year that TOMY International completed its acquisition the popular American toy maker Fat Brain Toys, growing the firm’s portfolio across key market categories and age groups.
“As TOMY moves forward to transform itself into a truly global company, we believe it is important to expand TOMY’s presence in North America, which has the largest toy market in the world,” says Mr Tomiyama. “This acquisition will contribute to such expansion.”
But perhaps the most appealing part of the Fat Brain Toys package of all is the strength of its direct-to-consumer operations and the platform it allows TOMY to tap into the new standard of shopping in the West. Online purchasing has been on the increase, yet expedited by the pandemic’s ‘stay home’ response, and it is expected that a majority of consumers now shopping online simply won’t return to in-store of high street shopping.
“We believe that the application of Fat Brain’s direct-to-consumer platform will contribute to further growth of the TOMY International Group and is a speedy response to the current and future changes in consumers’ purchasing behaviours, something spurred on by the spread of the covid-19 pandemic,” says Mr Tomiyama.
“We have been experiencing a big change in consumer behaviours, now they purchase product more online. There is surely a difference in each market on the globe, but in the US and Europe, we believe that our direct-to-consumer business and business through online channels will further grow.”
It underscores the importance of bringing the Tomica brand to the online space, while simultaneously suggesting that, while 2020 is the year of the blip, its lasting effects have much larger implications for the evolution of toy selling and marketing. Companies are already adjusting themselves for a future more reliant on fan engagement and retailing in the digital space;and TOMY won’t be one to be left behind.
For the Japanese market, however, the trending curve appears not to be quite so definitive, says Mr Tomiyama. It’s his belief that consumers will come back to brick and mortar stores. Whatever form in-store retail will take when it does return to ‘normal’, rest-assured that TOMY’s Tomica will be there.