Interview with Michihiro Maeda, the man behind Sylvanian Families

Alys Key
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Michihiro Maeda is chief executive of the company behind the Sylvanian Families brand (Source: Epoch)

Some people never lose their love of toys.

For Michihiro Maeda, playtime has always been a part of his life. As a child, he was chief toy-tester for Epoch, the company his father established. He began working for the company around the same time it launched the range that was to change its fortunes forever: Sylvanian Families.

Now chief executive of Epoch, Maeda is in his element discussing the popularity of these anthropomorphic animal figures.

“All our products have to be beautiful,” explains Maeda. Children might be the main market, but the intricate detail of the products means they attract adult customers too.

In fact, Epoch has seen a jump in sales since it celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2010, as the first generation of children who played with Sylvanian Families began buying them for their own children.

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“They became two generation products; it’s growing, growing, growing,” says Maeda. “The mums who had the experience of playing with Sylvanian Families have become mums and they want to play with their own daughters.”

It is not hard to see that this is true in the UK, the company’s third largest market after the US and Japan. Immaculate Sylvanian Families displays have once again become a mainstay of any good toy shop’s window, while an active social media presence encourages grown-up millennials to indulge in nostalgia for the toys.

Like many companies, Epoch has increased the prices of its products in the UK since the value of the pound dropped last year. But UK managing director Neil Bandtock insists this is “old news” and that the company is in fact relatively resilient to the effects of Brexit.

“At the moment we pay import duty on everything that comes into the EU,” Bandtock explains. “All our products come from the Far East so we’re kind of immune to [Brexit]. If anything, it could be a bonus.”

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Maeda is also optimistic; given Theresa May’s recent trip to Japan and her commitment to a trade deal with the country, Brexit could significantly reduce Epoch’s costs in this important market. This, explains Maeda, would coincide with the company’s global strategy of making the Sylvanian Families accessible for a wider range of shoppers.

(Source: Sylvanian Families)

“In the short term, because of Brexit, your currency is becoming weaker,” he says. “But in the longer term because we are increasing productivity we are reducing our retail price and introducing more affordable products.

“In the longer term, we are trying to reduce the price so more people can buy, and more children can play with the toys.”

It is an ambitious goal, but can it really be possible in a toy industry which is struggling with the shift to online shopping and competition from smartphone games?

Maeda certainly thinks so. “I ask the children and they say both analogue and digital are new for them. As long as we make an effort to keep innovating with new products, investing in it, we are new to them.”

Nevertheless he admits there are storm clouds gathering in the industry, with Lego to cutting 1,400 jobs this year and Toys R Us filing for bankruptcy of its North America in September. Though he insists that the Toys R Us Chapter 11 protection doesn’t mean it is “game over” for the retailer, Maeda knows that the collapse of a bricks-and-mortar retailer in Epoch’s biggest market could affect sales, especially given the vital role shops play in showcasing the toys.

(Source: Sylvanian Families)

“We like consumers to touch toys,” says Maeda. “Then they buy our products. So those kind of the actual touchpoint [stores] are so important for us. They can feel the essence of the toys there.”

Whether it's giving more children the chance to play or enticing adults back to the Sylvanian world, much of Epoch's strategy, says Maeda, comes down to a simple thought: “We want to keep the magic.”

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