ONE of the oldest preschool entertainment and toy franchises, Thomas the Tank Engine, is about to get a new marketing push. Will parents get on board?
Mattel agreed last year to pay a hefty $US680 million for HIT Entertainment, the British owner of Thomas, a cheery blue locomotive that was introduced in a 1946 book.
Starting this month, the toy manufacturer hopes to turn the talking train and his friends - Butch the tow truck, engine Emily - into a property on par with Barbie.
"It's been a brand that has been pretty bereft of investment," said David Allmark, executive vice-president of Mattel's Fisher-Price brands. "We really believe that we can grow this on a worldwide basis, particularly in Latin America and Asia."
Thomas is hugely popular and global retail sales are about $US1 billion a year, according to analysts. Barbie has annual worldwide retail sales of $US2 billion.
"An established brand like Thomas helps Mattel, which has historically been stronger with girls than boys, in the extraordinarily competitive preschool market," said Marty Brochstein, senior vice-president for industry relations and information at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers Association. "It is much more expensive and tenuous to try and create a franchise from scratch."
But expansion of the Thomas franchise in Europe and North America is difficult because of gender and age constraints.
Analysts say the character appeals to boys and girls aged one to three but then girls tend to split off into dolls and dress-up. Boys stick around until five, then lean towards more complicated toys.
The effort to reposition Thomas includes an expanded and enhanced line of wooden trains and a new one-hour animated movie called King of the Railway, which will be released on DVD.
Mattel will also produce at least three more seasons of the Thomas & Friends television series.
Mr Allmark said Thomas - created by British clergyman Wilbert Awdry - would continue to espouse "innocent, sweet life lessons".
But Mr Allmark said Mattel thinks a few minor changes - faster storytelling, for instance - can make the train more relevant to modern children.
"Some of it needs livening up a little bit," he said.
Devotees who like Thomas for his simplicity may find those to be fighting words, but Mattel and its Hit unit plan to back up efforts with a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign called "Anytime Is Thomas Time".