“Every character we design, we design with purpose”: Gerhard Runken – SVP of Brand at Jazwares – talks Squishmallows

Gerhard Runken, Jazwares

Gerhard, it’s great to tie-in. 2023 saw Squishmallows win Toy of the Year for the third year in a row. When did it first become clear the brand was resonating?
Well, people don’t realise Squishmallows is going into its seventh year! I joined Jazwares as part of the Wicked Cool acquisition in 2019 and then Jazwares acquired Kelly Toys in 2020… That brought Squishmallows into the business – and turned Jazwares into the biggest plush manufacturer on the planet.

It was always on an upward trajectory, but when we acquired Squishmallows, it didn’t have the biggest global footprint and the strategy was different. They were creating a lot of characters, but they weren’t diving into any one particular character.

We saw that certain characters, squads and archetypes were really resonating with fans – and we wanted to give the fans more of what they wanted. That’s when we realised that Squishmallows wasn’t just a plush… People really love Cam the Cat and Benny the Bigfoot – they love these characters bios. And they were collecting in different ways: by squad, by scale, by type.

So there were lot of insights to be taken and used to fuel where to take the brand next?
We collected a lot of data because we wanted to understand this multi-generational fanbase. The brand attracts everyone from a four-year old to a 50-year old. We saw Squishmallows as more than just a plush and the industry had evolved in a way that meant they were ready for that.

Gerhard Runken, Jazwares

In what sense?
Well, the plush category is now like the action-figure space. People used to look at plush as a commodity, but now there’re collectors for plush, there’re stories and characters driving plush, there’re rarities in plush… There’s a huge following for plush and Squishmallows is the trend leader and the trend setter. We were at the heart of this evolution for the plush category, and we did that by putting fans first. It was key to us growing this not only as a plush brand, but as a global lifestyle brand.

Design-wise, why has Squishmallows clicked with people?
The tactile feel of a Squishmallows is like nothing else. You want to touch it, hold it and carry it with you. There’s also a unique look to a Squishmallows. So when you touch it, you know it’s a Squishmallows. When you see it, you know it’s a Squishmallows.

And every character we design, we design with purpose. We don’t just look at what the most popular characters are and keep doing those; that’s how you burn a brand out. We always want to evolve the Squishmallows world with things we haven’t done before. What would work for fans around the globe? We also don’t want to do ‘one-hit wonders’ – we want characters that we can extend and expand upon. We also create backgrounds and relatable aspects for people to really get invested in the Squishmallows characters.

Everything – from the bios and the colours to the materials – we put a higher level of focus on than any of our competitors. A lot of people are trying to copy what we do, but they’re not doing that with a fan-focus; it’s just an attempt at driving revenue. We look at Squishmallows as a 20-year, evergreen property that services fans with the greatest products.

On that, what’s key in ensuring a successful brand lives for a long time?
The number-one thing is knowing where you came from and who your fanbase is. You have to stay authentic to them. The second thing is about production… A lot of companies don’t put production caps on products. We always look at how much we’re producing because we don’t sell to what’s being asked. We always try and limit the market. We want to bring newness to the market, and we don’t want to oversell at any retailer, in any country.

Gerhard Runken, Jazwares

The other place where a lot of people go wrong when they have a hot product is to charge more money for the brand. We’ve stayed true to our core pricing from when the brand started.

The last thing is fan services. Whenever we talk about marketing, or product development, or an event, the key things that come up are: How will a fan react to this? And does it feel authentic? That’s not a lens that a lot of other companies put on their brands because people know that brands don’t last that long. But we put that lens on every aspect of the Squishmallows brand. If we don’t do that, we won’t be talking about Squishmallows in 10 or 15 years.

Gerhard, this has been great. To wrap up, what does this year have in store for Squishmallows?
Lots of exciting partnerships, including recently launched Squishmallows x H&M, PUMA this spring, and a collaboration with East Side Games that gets us into mobile gaming. We also have Squishmallows Day on March 7th. That’s where we’ll give the fans 24 hours of announcements. There will be a lot of exciting new drops and details then. We’ll also expand our fan engagement on a global scale. It’s an exciting time for the brand.

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