Ahead in the poles

After taking apart its magnetic construction offering, Mega Brands returns next month with a completely redesigned building system, Magnext, which promises to re-ignite a category plagued by safety concerns. Ronnie Dungan visited the firm?s Oxfordshire HQ, to find out how it?s all clicking into place?.
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What a different story you could have been reading here had your correspondent not managed to avoid ploughing into what seemed to be a wedding party posing for a picture on the road ahead of him when he arrived at Mega Brands.

Turns out it was the firm’s corporate group shot being hastily arranged for ToyNews. You’ll detect genuine fear in some of those faces if you look closely at the pic. Thank goodness for ABS braking or we would have been talking about a…er…major restructuring of the firm’s UK office instead.

At least we would have had some recruitment ads out of it.

But the good news is there were no injuries or fatalities. Which is good for all the obvious reasons but also because the firm is just about to embark upon the launch of probably its most important product line to date - Magnext. It needs all its staff in one piece.

Now led by former Mattel sales manager David Martin in the UK, Mega Brands launches the magnetic construction range in August. It is a revamped, redesigned and re-thought successor to the successful Magnetix range which became plagued by bad luck and recalls in the US.

With some other magnetic ranges suffering similar problems the magnetic construction sector has been sailing in rough waters. But qualitative and quantitative research by Mega Brands convinced it that if it could make the product safe, the category was by no means finished.

“This is the biggest launch the company has ever done,” explains general manager David Martin.”

“As the market leaders it is beholden on us to do a good job,” he says.

He admits there has been some initial trepidation from the trade but says this dissipated once the product had been presented.

“We were a little nervous about it at Toy Fair but we’ve probably got 90 per cent of the retailers on board now. Once they had seen it and recalled the numbers Magnetix did and were convinced the category was not finished, we got fantastic support.”

Mega has worked closely with safety specialist Intertek to ensure that the new range covers all the safety angles. And for the first time, Intertek’s logo will be appearing on a manufacturer’s packaging.

As well as convincing the trade that it had got it right with Magnext, a similar job had to be done on the consumers who had began to associate the magnetic construction market with toddlers swallowing ball-bearings.

Mega’s own research told them that mums and kids were aware of the issues but again, after seeing the new range, their fears were allayed.

“Crucially, the new system is so much better than the old one,” says marketing director Grant Timms.

“The play experience is exponentially better than the old one. It’s a more robust, fixed system that doesn’t collapse in your hand so easily. Some of the pieces are already assembled so it has a quicker build time too. Whichever way you look at it, it delivers.”

But the trick of course is getting that message out there without over-egging the safety aspect. We don’t want parents getting spooked by continual reassurances that the product is absolutely safe.

“Our PR message is to talk about the fun element of the new system, with the safety element as the back message,” adds Timms.

The firm promises in excess of 1,000 TVRs to back the launch in August and hopes to build a solid platform for Christmas when it launches the hero i-Coaster product, which has already done well in the US and makes for great in-store theatre combining magnetics and physics to create an eye-catching rollercoaster.

But amid the excitement of the Magnext launch the firm is also launching Struxx - a futuristic construction toy which builds super-sized models from a T-Rex to a Robot. Again it will be supported by season-long TV campaign.

For pre-schoolers, Smart Builders Piano is another key product launch this year. Toddlers can remove building blocks to change instruments beats or add silly sounds. It’s the central product for the firm’s core Maxi Block brick system and will be on TV. The first time the pre-school range has featured in such a way.

“The core brands and the blocks are vital to us,” says David Martin.

“Mega Brands has spontaneous awareness with mums and they immediately think of the big bag of bricks when we’re mentioned. It dominates the pre-school area and retailers are very supportive of that.”

“You can’t forget what is your heartland,” adds Timms. “And we probably learned a bit of a lesson with that. We took our eye off the ball.”

Going forward the firm is looking for continuity in its brands and hopes to add to the Magnext range next year with added features incorporating more technology.

“All our investment dollars now go behind concepts with sustainability and development and with that kind of vision we’ll try to embrace more long-term planning for the brands,” says Timms. “That’s a change in our thinking for this year.”

Corporately, there may be still be changes ahead for the firm which is likely to be selling its RoseArt division back to its original owners soon. One gets the sense that this will not be too much of a disappointment as it enables the firm to focus more on its core products and recoup some essential revenue.

Indeed, it has been said that the firm’s recall troubles only started with the RoseArt acquisition.

“The sale of RoseArt makes sense,” says Martin. “Although it’s only a small percentage of the UK business it has taken up a lot of time. My belief is the sale will allow us to get back to what we’re great at doing.”

Arguably, the firm has had a tougher time even than Mattel, with its recall history of late. But it has certainly put right what needed to be put right and whilst it went through a lot of pain to get there, it has certainly ended with a better product with Magnext.

It's easy to see it completely re-igniting the magnetic construction sector and having overcome its own challenge, Mega Brands has just presented its competitors with one of their own.

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