Toys: 50 years of Playmobil - From children's room to collector's item

Dot, dot, curved line - the face is finished, plus zigzag hair on top.

Toys: 50 years of Playmobil - From children's room to collector's item

Dot, dot, curved line - the face is finished, plus zigzag hair on top. If you had a child design a toy figure, it would probably look similar. A simple design, but you can immediately tell: This is a Playmobil figure.

The first of these toy figures came onto the market 50 years ago and over the next few decades conquered children's rooms in many countries around the world. Those who grew up with Playmobil usually have children of their own who also play or have played with it. What is taken for granted today was, however, a small revolution back then.

A 7.5 centimeter tall knight, a construction worker and an Indian - these were the first figures that the toy producer Horst Brandstätter presented on February 2, 1974 at the toy fair in Nuremberg. That's exactly where the toy brand from Zirndorf in Central Franconia is celebrating its milestone anniversary and at the same time wants to open a new chapter in its eventful history, as Playmobil board member Bahri Kurter announced. “We are now strategically repositioning ourselves.”

Restart with new target groups

3.8 billion Playmobil figures have been manufactured in the past 50 years and are available in more than 100 countries. Nevertheless, things haven't been going so well for the traditional brand lately. The parent company, the Horst Brandstätter Group, is cutting 700 jobs worldwide after two economically difficult years with losses in sales and profits. The group generally does not provide exact business figures.

Kurter, on the other hand, speaks openly about Playmobil's problems, which in his view are partly of his own making. In recent years, the original target group of four to ten year old children has shrunk by a third because the older ones are increasingly engaging with digital media, he says. However, attempts were made to solve these new problems with old concepts. "And that didn't work out the way we wanted." A realignment that appeals to small children and the collecting passion of young people and adults is now intended to bring new buyers.

The history of Playmobil also began with a realignment: the toy producer Horst Brandstätter once manufactured hula hoops, pedal tractors and other large plastic items. Developer Hans Beck had the idea for the first Playmobil figures as early as 1971. When the price of plastics rose enormously in the wake of the oil crisis, Brandstätter saw an opportunity to produce new toys that required less plastic.

Well known today, revolutionary new back then

The first Playmobil men were soon joined by women, children and animals. Entire themed worlds such as knight's castle, farm or pirate ship were created that could be expanded and combined. “It was perfectly composed, there was something amazingly new about it,” says Karin Falkenberg from the Toy Museum in Nuremberg. This meant that children could meet up to play with their Playmobil things.

“The relevance to everyday life was also new,” says the expert. You can move the arms of the figures, put them on chairs or in vehicles, put scarves around them and put something in their hands. The proportions between figures, houses, animals and trees are also realistic, which was not the case with previous toys.

A friendly smile

Over time, the figures became more diverse with different hairstyles, skin and eye colors, and sometimes eyelashes or red cheeks were added. The range of topics has also expanded: Today, fairies, horses with combable hair, dinosaurs and ninja fighters, among others, populate the Playmobil world.

For decades, the characters' facial expressions remained the same: a friendly smile. Even nasty pirates and evil warriors looked in a good mood at Playmobil. But that is also changing now, says Kurter.

“The time in which children play uninhibitedly with toys is becoming shorter and shorter,” says Falkenberg. The credo of many manufacturers is therefore: expand the target group. They are now even taking into account young people and adults who should actually have long since passed the playing age. According to the Spielwarenmesse, products for “kidults” - a word created from kid (child) and adults (adults) - are one of the most important trends in the industry.

The Danish world market leader Lego has been doing this successfully for a long time. Sets with many thousands of stones, with which you can, for example, recreate the Titanic or the Eiffel Tower, are aimed specifically at the 18 age group. There are also successful licenses such as “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter”. 20 years ago, Lego was at a crossroads like Playmobil is now, says Kurter. Instead of looking at Lego and other competitors, he wants to work more on Playmobil's strengths.

Celebrities and footballers as collectible figures?

Toy dealer Matthias Wiedmann from Backnang in Baden-Württemberg can answer what these are from practice. "I think that the classic themes are Playmobil's strength." He also notices this in the reaction of customers in the 15 shops that the Wiedmann family runs north of Stuttgart. The pirate ship and the farm, for example, are always in demand.

However, the Playmobil record is held by a special figure: Martin Luther has been sold 1.2 million times worldwide. And Kurter wants to build on this success. In the future there will be collectible figures of various celebrities, he says. He didn't want to reveal which one yet. There will also be collaboration with the national soccer team for the European Championships in the summer.