Rise of the robots

Now master of its own destiny in the UK and Europe, WowWee is looking to recreate the magic that saw it flying the flag for toy innovation. Graham Spark is the man charged with that task and as he tells Ronnie Dungan, he?s confident the category has plenty to give?
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It seemed at one point that no toy event was complete without a product from WowWee stealing the limelight.
The press seemed to love nothing more than a dancing robot. Especially if it was demonstrated by a man in an interesting hat. It was easy copy for a journo on a deadline, looking for an easy angle and, let’s face it, much more visually interesting than a board game after all.

And sales-wise, of course, Robosapien, Roboraptor and Dragonfly were no slouches either, the former doing more than any other product to help create the category and making WowWee a £120m brand at its peak.

Now, however, it is a brand in transition, and has taken over its own distribution in Europe and the UK, ending its relationship with Character Options here.

The challenge for the new WowWee Europe, headed up in the UK by sales and marketing director Graham Spark, formerly of Feva (now Spin Master), is to show people it still has products that can excite its audience and is still able to innovate.

“Character Options has supported the category well, but on the downside, there was no hit in 2008,” explains Spark.

WowWee lost its wow at a time when the video games category was enjoying a boost from sales of the similarly-priced Nintendo Wii and, of course, the economic downturn has not done any favours to high ticket leisure items.

“We all got a bit blasé about it. And with the UK retail climate the brand has been devalued. Roboraptor was in the channel at £40 and this made the new robots seem expensive.

“One thing that WowWee has got is an army of designers and developers and they plough a huge amount of investment into finding the next wow product.”

The new robotics range will be lead by Roborover and Joebot and new Flytech lines. At the higher end of the market is Rovio, a mobile Wi-Fi webcam, which can be controlled remotely by any web-enabled device and retails at £299.

But WowWee is as much about electronic plush these days as it is about robots. Its Alive range of feature plush has sold over a million worldwide, says Spark.

The range will also be a major focus for the firm this year with an expanded line-up featuring three price points – £20, £30 and £40. The feature plush sector is, of course, dominated by Hasbro’s FurReal line, but Spark believes WowWee can compete and actually has the superior product.

“It’s a very buoyant market. We feel there is room for a good strong number two,” adds Spark. “We’re probably more expensive but the quality of the plush is better and there’s the whole tactile side to it. FurReal can be like cuddling a battery box sometimes.”

The plan is to link the brand up with a conservation group to lend an endangered species theme to the range. A TV campaign will run from August through to November.

The Flytech range will also be on TV and Spark is confident that its line-up will give a fair account of itself in a competitive arena.

“Airhogs, Silverlit and WowWee are probably the three brands in flying toys and Silverlit is probably the leader there, but we can give them a good run,” says Spark.

But first, WowWee has to rebuild the confidence and interest of the trade and once again position itself at the cutting edge of toy design. Greater control over its European territories is only the start.


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