The park is pretty empty when Barry Hughes, managing director of Golden Bear, logs on to catch up with Australian colleague at 7am. An early start to marry-up the time zones means that they have the place to themselves, before the next slew of visitors start populating their allocated slots.
With just a few clicks, Hughes can navigate the park’s greenery, cross the river, and showcase an entire portfolio of Hey Duggee toys in a room buried in a bristling bush. It all sounds a bit Mary Poppins, doesn’t it? It’s not; it’s simply what Toy Fair season looks like in the midst of the 2021 pandemic.
This is Golden Bear’s virtual toy fair platform, a digitally constructed journey through a colourful park area, populated with break-out rooms featuring the firm’s latest toy products. It’s from here the company can showcase its wares to a global network of customers, any time of the day, every day of the year. This isn’t just toy fair season, this is Golden Bear’s latest phase of international expansion.
By 8pm that same day, Hughes is guiding customers from California around the same platform. While the pandemic has wrapped its fingers around the usual annual travel to Spielwarenmesse, New York, and London’s Olympia this year, Golden Bear’s ability to network with its international customer base is by no means diminished.
But then, ask Hughes how Golden Bear has managed to find such success over the course of 2020 and he’ll tell you that this is a company that has managed to stay ahead of the curve for some time now. The team was among the first to spot the en masse shift to online retail and click and collect before the pandemic rendered it a necessity, and as such was a team well positioned to adapt to the changes that have swept the landscape in the past year.
Meanwhile, it’s not enough that Golden Bear already held the toy rights for some of the country’s best-loved pre-school IP, including Bing and Hey Duggee, but combine this with a diversification of product that has successfully taken the company into the outdoor sector, as well as the Escape Room trend of the gaming space, and the winning formula that Golden Bear possesses begins to shift into view.
“Obviously the bedrock of what we do is pre-school licenses, and our pre-school licenses on the whole did well,” Hughes tells ToyNews. “They benefited from kids being locked down at home; programmes like Hey Duggee were suddenly being watched by parents who might not have seen it otherwise, so that IP did particularly well.
“But where I like to think we have been ahead of the game compared to a lot of competitors is with regards to our online insights and supporting our retailers with their online sales assets. In the shift to online, we were ahead of the curve.”
Over the past year, Golden Bear has strengthened its team in the online operations space, built its own in-house photo studio in order to create image and video assets quickly, and has by and large, been ‘geared up for the digital switch’ long in advance, a presiding factor that has in recent years, won the company its expanding trophy cabinet of industry awards.
Not only that, but it is Golden Bear’s portfolio – a carefully curated clustering of high calibre properties and products – that has played directly into the strengths of the toy industry this past 12 months. This is a company that found its niche in both the outdoor market and gaming market right at the right time; just before the pandemic’s social restrictions thrust the sectors directly into the consumer’s consciousness.
“The Smart Ball Football and the Speed Ball Football came about through insights. Our USP is that we put a lot of stock into our insights,” says Hughes. “We are investing more into that area now, and with being a smaller company we can be more agile, which is a good combination for the toy industry.
“We had identified a gap in football gifts. My son, who was eight at the time and mad on football, got a load of football Guess Who? Games for his birthday. We quickly realised that the footballers were out of date, retired, or at the wrong clubs.
“But at the same time, we’d spotted a surge in searches for football gifts across various age profiles. We felt the need to fill the gap in the market, and now we have a host of new things coming in development for that range, too.”
Golden Bear’s new digital touring platform doesn’t just go the lengths to showcase what this product looks like this year, while doing its best to ‘put the product in the hands of customers,’ without them being in the same country, let alone room, but also to showcase who Golden Bear is; a digital home of the company’s recent re-invention.
The firm kicked off the year with the unveiling of a new logo, coupled with a new messaging that would go on to amplify Golden Bear’s image as a firm at the cutting edge of today’s trends in toys. With the launch of the company re-branding, the message was clear – this wasn’t only a company built on reliability and quality in the pre-school space, but pioneers of innovation across its key sectors – and seriously, take a look at its upcoming Hey Duggee and Bing portfolio if you want to see innovation in the pre-school sector this year – powered by its insight led business.
“The majority of our sales are in non-plush items, which tends to surprise people,” says Hughes. “We wanted to make the best of the past and combine it with the best of our future, and give it all a more modern feel.”
These even extends to the consumer message that Golden Bear promotes, and the changing sensibilities of the modern day shopper. And that includes in its approach to being a sustainably responsible toy company.
“We are a company that quietly goes about doing things and doesn’t shout about it much,” explains Hughes. “Sustainability is a good example of that. For instance, the stuffing in our plush has been made out of recycled bottles for years. We have actually now been moving our product lines to make the skins from recycled polyester, too.”
That move will be kicking off with Golden Bear’s Hey Duggee range this year. As well as that, this is a company that now confidently boasts its zero to landfill policy (one that has been in place for a number of years), as well as the installation of solar panels this year, and the switch of all company cars to hybrid and electric.
“We are liaising with licensors and retailers, and we like to think that we are right on the forefront of this movement,” continues Hughes. “We have set out our values and pillars and where we want to be as a company in three years’ time. Everything is underpinned by insights and sustainability, and we are making sure that everything we do has got sustainability and insights as its centre.”
It’s with that messaging now front and centre that Golden Bear will continue to exact its plans for global expansion. A digital platform open to customers 24 hours a day, every day of the year has helped tighten the screws on the firm’s international network, while advanced discussions are ongoing with partners in the US for some of the company’s own IP.
“It was always our plan, pre-pandemic, to grow internationally,” says Hughes. “We are just maximising that opportunity, instead of travelling to overseas fairs, to tap into our contacts via the virtual toy fair platform, and spend more quality time with people, albeit virtually.”
Via the medium, the response from global customers has been consistent; Golden Bear in on to a strong 2021. Tapping into emerging trends in the Escape Room gaming space, pushing the envelope in pre-school innovation, and making a success of the Outdoor sector in a year that will likely be recognised as the summer of the staycation once again, there’s little that Golden Bear offers that doesn’t just seem to fit.
“One of the most pleasing things that I have heard from buyers through this toy fair season is that there is a reason for every product to exist,” states Hughes. “That for me is a real testament to the team; that there has been a thought process and reason behind everything we have done.
“The end of the year was a real time to reflect for everyone. Our warehouses have remained open through the year, and the vast majority of our staff have been working from home. I am so proud of the whole team, given everything that has gone on,” he concludes.