Gruffal’au Naturel | How Wow! Stuff stripped the plastic from its hit Magic Light toy line

Gruffal’au Naturel | How Wow! Stuff stripped the plastic from its hit Magic Light toy line

As an innovator of the toy industry, Wow! Stuff is routinely celebrated for thinking outside of the box.

Its latest development with Magic Light Pictures and its master toy partnership for The Gruffalo Family brand has, however, tasked them to do quite the opposite. When it comes to sector-defining innovation in sustainability, Wow! Stuff’s attention has been trained well-and-truly on its insides. The insides of its toy packaging. Richard North, and head of technologies and sustainable development and co-founder, Dr Graeme Taylor reveal all…

Hello Richard, and hello Graeme! Wow! Stuff has built a strong reputation on innovation in the toy space. How does this fit with your approach to sustainability?

Richard North, ceo and co-founder: To be frank, we’ve been kicking ourselves for a long time on the sustainability issue. My co-founders Graeme and Kenny come from scientific backgrounds and have been shouting in my ear for ten years to get our house in order and utilise our innovation and skill to address this elephant in the room.

Dr Graeme Taylor, head of sustainability and co-founder: Yes, we’re a little unusual within the toy industry with two of us coming from that background. Both of us did our studies in life sciences and became involved in post-grad and post-doc projects in International Development (in Kenny’s case), and environmental toxicology on my part. We fell into the toy industry by accident but loved developing and innovating new products.

We were always running at full speed to grow the business and sustainability got pushed to the back of the queue – which always weighed heavily on our minds. We just didn’t feel we had the time, resources, or flexibility to address them.

More room for the broom: Wow! Stuff’s packaging overhaul helped bring characters to life inside their box.

So, what changed? How did sustainability become an important topic for you?

Richard: The wake-up and smell the coffee moment came when Magic Light Pictures, the licensor for The Gruffalo brand family, reviewed some early samples of licensed product and really challenged the packaging. That was a blow for us because we were proud to have secured the master toy licence for this well-loved and respected brand. I think it was a bit of a perfect storm in a way, with other things aligning at the same time. Graeme?

Graeme: It was, yes. The team at Magic Light quite rightly objected to how much single use plastic we were using in our packaging. We had blister trays and even double blister trays inside our boxes. We knew they were right, and we knew we had to do something about it.

We were also staring down the barrel of the new ‘plastic tax’, and similar costs for this wasteful use of plastic that were being brought in within lots of different countries, which was not just a financial burden, but a pain in the arse to administer.

The final piece of the jigsaw was the groundswell of effort and collaboration within the industry to tackle the issue of sustainability. We were in danger of being stuck in the dark ages.

The tie-up with Magic Light Pictures speaks volumes for industry innovation and collaboration. How did this all come together?

Richard: Magic Light didn’t just do the right thing by the brand they represent and point out the problems, they were understanding and willing to help us fix things. The launch of POC was good timing for us. Helena helped us enormously and worked with our team to find us connections and expertise to review our packaging and come up with better solutions.

Graeme: POC was already on our radar but became a lifeline in our time of need! We got in touch and had a very honest discussion, explaining what we do as a company, and what we needed to change. Helena suggested
we talk to the packaging expert, Mike Swain. We had a few meetings with him and agreed a plan to work together to not just deal with the immediate concern but bake-in a more sustainable approach to packaging within our business.

What was the process that made this concept deliverable?

Richard: Mike was keen for us to understand that our packaging wasn’t just sub-standard in terms of sustainability, but that we could make it ‘work harder’ to show off the product. It wasn’t going to be a quick-fix; we needed to transfer his expertise to our team. We agreed to use Mike as a consultant and create a new position of ‘packaging designer’ within the company for Mike to mentor. We used The Gruffalo brand product range as our initial packaging focus.

So, what changed in the packaging?

Graeme: Everything. We focused on removing all the single-use plastic – not as easy as it sounds. Some of the toys were play-sets with small figures included, but we wanted all our boxes to be open to show the product as much as possible and allow customers to engage with it. We also wanted to position the toys as ‘live’ within the packaging, rather than, as Mike pointed out, looking like they were in jail!

The tricky thing was figuring how to hold the products in position, pass transit and drop testing, and stop those little hands that want to touch the toys from slipping them into their pockets. We did it with a combination of paper ties, recessed inserts, and cut-outs. Oh, and we switched to using FSC materials. We also made far more use of the interior of the packaging to bring the products to life. The result was so much better than what we started with. No comparison.

A before and after success story: Wow! Stuff’s Gruffalo toy packaging before the overhaul (left) and the end result of collaboration (right).

A success then?

Graeme: We hope so. Magic Light are much happier with the packaging now. We aren’t just happy we have a more guilt-free and sustainable packaging design, we also think the look, feel, and overall presentation of product is vastly better.

Richard: It was even better than that, though! I had assumed that switching to FSC materials, and the extra labour in tying all these toys to the packaging instead of securing them with a plastic blister, would mean our costs, and therefore process, were bound to increase. But that wasn’t the case, was it Graeme?

Graeme: Ah I almost forgot to say… We also put effort into optimising the size of the boxes in terms of protecting and displaying the toys and minimising their size for efficient shipping, which has become a critical cost these days. The net effect of all our changes was at worst cost neutral, but overall cost negative, which was an amazing result, and of course ensured full ‘buy-in’ to extend this into all our products going forward, throughout the business.

What message does this share on the importance of close collaboration between licensor and licensee to drive real change in the industry?

Richard: When a licensor has a culture of collaboration and isn’t driven first and foremost by profit then great results can be achieved – because you’re both focused on doing the right things for the consumer and not short-term gains. It’s an irony that the right values, that are not prioritising profit, ultimately lead to it.

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