The next in a series of articles exploring and celebrating the homegrown British toy design and production scene across all stages of its development, this week, ToyNews catches up with the toy inventor, Peter Rope to learn about the international expansion of his flagship JUNKO brand – a popular attraction at the annual Spielwarenmesse toy fair.
On any other given year – the kind of years we had without global pandemics hanging over us like dark clouds of thunder – you’d usually find JUNKO, the eco-focused line of construction-crafting hybrid toys, turning all kinds of heads at the annual Spielwarenmesse.
A fan-favourite toy line that aims to encourage children to re-use their household waste by turning it into toys using the components supplied in each kit, JUNKO has risen in popularity in just a few short years.
Once tucked away in the wings of the London Toy Fair, JUNKO has been thrust into the spotlight over the last few months, whether that is through its starring role in ITV’s How to Spend it Well at Christmas with Philip Schofield, or being hailed ‘the best discovery of Nuremberg’s Toy Fair’ by the prestigious US retailer, Uncommongoods, to embark on a journey from its humble beginnings as a one-time school project, and find itself on the path towards international popularity.
It’s no big surprise; JUNKO is, after all, a highly marketable construction toy that not only appeals to the growing demand for sustainability-focused toys among modern day consumers, but has over the course of the past 12 months, found itself swept up among the growth of the STEM toy and arts & crafts sectors, driven by families and children left house-bound and out of school thanks to the fight against the coronavirus. If things were looking good for JUNKO before the Christmas season, you should see how it stands now.
“The Christmas period was really good for us – over double last year,” Peter Rope, founder of Laser Beam Eyes and creator of JUNKO, tells ToyNews. “We know STEM and eco-friendly products are growing in importance as parents and grandparents show concern about excess screentime and its effect on kids.
“It now looks like we have another six months of the dreaded Covid-19 ahead and a lockdown that has proven already to fuel the STEM toy trend as parents look to keep their kids engaged and occupied.”
With strong trends and plenty of those boxes ticked off, JUNKO is heading into the new year with the confidence of a company that pulled it off in 2020 – despite all that the year had to throw us. From its grass roots as a junk modelling project pioneered by Rope’s own sons, JUNKO is on the path towards breaking the international toy scene.
In fact, it was at Spielwarenmesse last year (anyone remember those heady days of trade shows?) that JUNKO first caught the attention of the international space and made the connection that would go on to take the product range State side.
“It’s hard to develop awareness in one market with a relatively small marketing budget, let alone multiple markets, so we are reliant upon meeting visionary retailers,” says Rope. “Spielwarenmesse is the key to that.
“Our stand is chock-a-block full of creations with a big, colourful backdrop full of images and creations. It’s how we met the US retailer Uncommongoods who specialises in introducing independent brands like us to their discerning and large customer base.
“They just came up to us at the show and said that we were the best thing they had seen and wanted to help launch us in the USA.”
It’s not bad for a company that started “from zilch” and taken on a passion project by Rope to address his own concerns around the “lack of environmental consideration in the toy market.” Three years of product development at home undertaken by Rope and his desire to “do something better with my life” and JUNKO has now seen out its second Christmas. It couldn’t have been further from his mind that Rope would be entertaining ideas of US expansion so early on.
“It’s hard to develop awareness in one market with a relatively small marketing budget, let alone multiple markets, so we are reliant upon meeting visionary retailers.”
“It’s a definite seal of approval to have been chosen by a prestigious US retailer, and it certainly doesn’t hurt our reputation,” he explains. “It’s a good door opener for us.
“Marketing to the whole of the US is obviously very expensive, so to be part of a curated collection with a large customer base is a really cost effective way for us to establish a foothold for the brand and get publicity.
“Other US companies look to Uncommongoods to spot new products, too. Our focus is on steadily building our awareness and reputation. We know it won’t happen overnight.”
So the plan is to take it slowly. JUNKO will primarily focus its efforts on just three markets: the UK, the US, and Germany.
“There are a couple of reasons for this,” says Rope. “The first is budget – we don’t want to spread ourselves too thinly. The second is that the trends we are tapping into – STEM and eco-awareness – are relatively high in those markets.”
There’s an entrepreneurship that runs through everything that JUNKO does, however, and while it is talking about taking on the international markets – with smaller retail partnerships dotted throughout Europe, too – it’s a grassroots approach to marketing that JUNKO believes is key to building awareness among consumers.
“We primarily focus on Facebook and Instagram as they are highly targeted and cost effective,” says Rope. “JUNKO also has to be seen in action for people to really ‘get’ the potential. Next year, we will be implementing different strategies for both. Facebook will be more general communication, toys ideas, and so on, while Instagram will follow a different path to combine our key values of creativity and sustainability in a more editorial or artistic way.”
As for what will be the focus of this year from a product perspective, Rope isn’t one to miss out on spotting a trend, and with lockdown set to take up us all up to March this year, it is the educational market that JUNKO spies the next stage of development.
“The educational market is a big focus for the first party of the year,” he explains. “We are developing and testing lesson plans for the Zoomer Kit which ties it into the National Currculum.
“Our kits are genuinely educational tools and they’re a load of fun, too – so perfect for schools.
“Just before Christmas, we launched our Epic Cereal Box Creations book which included 30 of our Magic Corners – priced at £14.99 it’s a great entry to the range. This makes us more of an impulse purchase and opens up the gift market and book retailer, so there’s a big push on that too,” he concludes.