Playtime figured out
Over almost 40 years Playmobil has developed a huge following, but few of its fans know their favourite toy comes from Germany, writes DEREK SCALLY
A small, vocal minority in Ireland believe the Germans are toying with us in the euro crisis. Wrong: they’ve been toying with us for years.
It’s almost four decades since the first Playmobil figures were sent out into the world. Since then the plastic army has ballooned to 2.5 billion smiling figures, called Klickys, from pirates to princesses, engineers to Egyptologists. But few of its millions of fans know that their favourite toy comes from Germany.
Before I go on, full disclosure: I come from a Lego household. The coloured blocks were my childhood toy of choice, the daily squabbles with siblings over how best to build the yellow Lego house a cherished memory.
But, as with Liverpool and Manchester United, or Windows and Mac, every Lego lover knows there are those who will always prefer Playmobil. Lego says its blocks encourage spatial thinking; Playmobil says its themed plastic toys are an oasis of imaginative play in a distracting electronic world. But while Lego wears its Danish design badge with pride, few know that Playmobil is as German as the Audi.
Its hometown is Zirndorf in the Franconia region of northern Bavaria, not far from Nuremberg. For almost 40 years Playmobil has been designed and marketed from here by the Brandstätter group, a family-owned company dating back to 1876.
The company has manufactured toys since the 1920s: children’s play shops complete with miniature accessories made from tin were an early hit. Soon after he joined the company in 1954, Horst Brandstätter, now 79, began exploring the post-war possibilities offered by plastics for the toy industry. He was one of the first to bring the hula hoop craze to Europe; children’s sit-on tractors made from hollow moulded plastic soon followed.
When the 1973 oil crisis caused the price of plastic to rocket, the company’s chief designer, Hans Beck, presented an idea for small, high-value plastic toys: moveable figures that fit into a child’s hand and come equipped with accessories. Brandstätter embraced the idea of a toy range offering maximum play possibilities – and revenue – for minimum plastic use. Playmobil premiered in 1974.
Within a year, the company had a hit on its hands and it has kept growing since, pumping out a seemingly inexhaustible range of figures and scenarios. The plastic farmyards and houses now contribute the lion’s share of the Brandstätter group’s annual turnover of €564 million.
As the company grew it opened facilities in Malta, Spain and the Czech Republic, but the main manufacturing base remains in Franconia. “Mr Brandstätter is very loyal to his home,” says spokeswoman Lisa Stadi of the company’s billionaire owner.
“And being based in Europe rather than outsourcing production to Asia means we have control over quality and can react quickly to sales trends.”