In its 70-plus-year history, Thomas & Friends has learned a thing or two about growing up—as has the property’s owner Mattel. A recent research study conducted in the US and UK by the US toymaker found that while the Thomas & Friends brand is aimed at kids ages two to three, its fans range in age from one to five years old. And it’s the one-year-olds, in particular, that have Mattel seeing multiple new opportunities when it comes to Thomas toys and content.
Beginning this month, Mattel is rolling out My First Railway Pals, a new toy line and accompanying digital series aimed at its youngest set of Thomas & Friends fans. Railway Pals items—including toys, publishing and apparel—will launch at Toys “R” Us, Amazon and Walmart in the US, while the brand’s three-minute, untitled shorts in support of the line will bow on YouTube this fall. (The CGI webisodes were created with Mattel’s longtime digital partner Tongal.)
“What we’ve really been focusing on this year as part of our strategy is how to deliver something that’s meaningful to a one-year-old child and his or her parents,” says Kate Schlomann, VP and global brand GM for Thomas & Friends.
To meet the developmental needs of this younger set of kids, Schlomann, along with senior director of brand design Andrew Woolnough, designed the look of the My First Railway Pals Thomas & Friends product line to be developmentally appropriate for one-year-olds. This means the tiny trains have big eyes that take up most of their faces, with small little button noses and an even smaller mouth—which is in contrast to traditional Thomas designs, where all facial features are more proportional. The trains are also smaller and pudgier, and are rounded to feel like kids are holding someone’s hand when the item is sitting on their palms.
“We really wanted to create a unique look for younger consumers, so we focused on a cuter aesthetic knowing that we want to eventually roll this out across the wider franchise,” says Woolnough. “The first thing everyone says is just how cute it is. Even when the toy is plastic, it looks like something you want to cuddle.”
Railway Pals playthings include a train track (US$49.99) with more than 50 sounds, songs and educational phrases, as well as a line of trains priced at US$7.99 apiece. The trains have numbers and colors associated with them—and themes of numeracy and colors are embedded in the upcoming webisodes, too.
Schlomann says the new digital shorts are all about reaching parents and toddlers in the online space. According to a 2014 Common Sense Media study, nearly 40% of under-twos use a mobile device, marking a massive jump from 10% in 2011.
“Our TV landscape has changed, going from being very linear to digital,” says Schlomann.”So we have extended become more inclusive as a brand from a content point of view. While the lessons are completely timeless, we need to be really relevant in today’s preschool environment because it has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Thomas, though, remains evergreen.”
Since Mattel has parents to thank, in part, for Thomas’ longevity, the company is adamant about listening to them. The research from Mattel’s July State of Thomas & Friends Report, which surveyed 2,486 parents across the US and UK, showed that even though Thomas & Friends was not aimed at one-year-olds, parents felt comfortable showing their children the content because of how familiar they were with it and the show’s message.
For now, the Railway Pals line and webisodes will remain separate from other facets of the Thomas & Friends, which includes new film Thomas & Friends: Journey Beyond Sodor that was released in 70 countries this summer.