A small cube is innovating what it means to tell stories and how kids play.
Tonies launched in 2016 in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland after three years of design and engineering development. In 2018, the company expanded into the UK and Ireland and has now become the fastest-growing toy company in Europe. Today, it makes its way across the pond into the hands of North American consumers.
The little cube — called a Toniebox — is full of big adventures. When kids place a hand-painted Tonie character on top of it, it comes to life with hours of stories, songs, and worlds to explore. We asked the founders of tonies — Patric Faßbender and Marcus Stahl — some questions over email about how they created this new way of play.
Toy Book: Tonies were created with your kids in mind. How did they influence the product?
Patric Faßbender and Marcus Stahl: We met each other and bonded over our kids, who were enrolled at the same nursery. We got into a discussion together about our kids’ entertainment options. We thought it was strange that in 2013, the only options that we had to keep them entertained on their own — without screens — were still audiobooks and music on CDs. We were contemplating the word “audio player” and felt that what was missing for kids was the play. Patric is a graphic designer and Marcus is an engineer, so we realized that with our complementary skills, we could create the ideal audio player for our kids ourselves.
TB: What went behind the design strategy to take storytelling off-screen? What are the benefits to kids?
PF & MS: When designing Tonies characters, it was really important for us to minimize the amount of time young kids were exposed to screens. We both enjoyed storytime as a way to enrich our kids’ minds, but we also wanted an option that allowed for independent, active play that did not rely on screens for entertainment. With tonies, kids are now able to enjoy listening to and creating their own stories and songs. We like that tonies provides a screen-free alternative that inspires creativity and fosters imagination.
TB: How many countries is tonies available in?
PF & MS: Tonies is available in six countries as of Sept. 23: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the UK, Ireland, and now the U.S.
TB: What went behind the decision to expand to the U.S.? How have you been able to do it, and what were the challenges?
PF & MS: After all the success that we achieved in Europe, we felt that it was the right time to bring tonies across the Atlantic to the U.S. The American market is so diverse and so innovative that we certainly could not miss the opportunity to reach families in the U.S. and build our relationship with them.
Our introduction to the U.S. has been a pleasant process overall, thanks to the good people at organizations such as the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA) and The Toy Association that helped us navigate the market. We also have a great relationship with Disney and Penguin Random House, who were already our partners in Europe and also made our U.S. introduction seamless. We established partnerships with retailers in the U.S. like Target, Barnes & Nobles, and FAO Schwarz, and are honored by their excitement to introduce tonies to their customers.
As for challenges, we certainly did not anticipate having to launch in the U.S. during a pandemic. Had things been different, we probably would have traveled to the U.S. several times this year to help bring it all together, and our U.S. team would have also made trips to our corporate headquarters in Germany. But thanks to the power of technology and the internet, we have been able to navigate through these challenges to still push through with our launch plans.
TB: What advice would you offer to other companies that are expanding during the COVID-19 pandemic?
PF & MS: When we made the decision to expand to the U.S., we did not foresee having to do so during a pandemic. But we believed in what our product would provide to families, especially during this time. We know that parents are struggling to keep their kids entertained and educated, all while juggling work and other responsibilities. This gave us our resolve to keep going with our plans for this year. So, our advice to companies in a similar situation is to believe in your mission and the value that you are delivering to the world and push forward.
TB: What kind of stories can American consumers expect? Will there be any differences from what’s offered in Europe?
PF & MS: We will have 17 individual characters available at launch in the U.S., which will include classic fairy tales such as Pinocchio and Rapunzel; European-favorites like The Gruffalo and Stick Man; and beloved Disney stories, such as The Lion King, Cinderella, and The Little Mermaid. We also have Tonies that sing songs for different occasions, such as birthdays, playtime, and bedtime. Looking forward, we have partnerships in the works that will be specific to the U.S.
TB: Are there any more licensed stories on the way for U.S. consumers?
PF & MS: Next year, we will roll out even more stories in the U.S., which will include collaborations with Penguin Random House, Disney, Pixar, Universal, and many others.
TB: What are your plans for the future?
PF & MS: We are simply looking forward to expanding our offerings in the U.S. and are working diligently to continuously bring new stories and songs to our portfolio over the next few years. We are also planning to offer additional accessories for our Tonieboxes and Tonies that will enhance the experience for kids and parents. We look forward to sharing more details soon.
TB: Tell us about Creative-Tonies.
PF & MS: We have found that tonies also offers a creative solution for social distancing and distanced-learning through our Creative-Tonies.
Creative-Tonies have space for up to 90 minutes of personalized recordings of songs, stories, and greetings. This means that kids can enjoy recording and listening to their own original creations. Additionally, parents, grandparents, and friends can record content from anywhere in the world using tonies’ free smartphone app, then upload them onto the Creative-Tonies for easy playback. So, what we have is a unique medium for loved ones to stay connected.
Finally, during this unusual school year, we are also partnering with educators who can use Creative-Tonies to record curriculum for their students to play back while at home. We were always passionate about making tonies a platform that provided more than just passive consumption; we wanted tonies to ultimately inspire active play and imagination.
We are ecstatic to realize that we have also created a platform that allows for connectivity and learning during this challenging time.