There are still new 3rd party Transformers manufacturers popping up every year, and although the people behind the companies may not be new to the scene, we find new groups chancing success with new brands and philosophies in a crowded marketplace. This week we take some contributions from community members and those with 3rd party scene experience about what they feel a new company has to do in order to stay competitive with the big boys and make a success of itself. While not a comprehensive guide or article, we will look at a few different angles to gain some insight from both sides of the fence.
We’ll be looking at how a new company should communicate with its customers on various social media platforms, what kind of facilities it would need to have access to, the sort of Transformers characters they might consider going with to establish a customer base, reputation or niche – or alternatively take advantage of what’s hot.
Let’s start with a general statement from C Z Hazard who has worked with a number of 3rd party companies and is now part of the team behind Mayhem Mekanics Unrustable Bastards: “Honestly, any new 3P company needs to take a long hard look at what the existing companies have already done wrong (iGear), how the mighty can fall (FansProject), and how you can turn around a bad reputation (MMC). Sadly I think there are more cautionary tales than success stories we can look at, and despite how awesome our shelves can look through 3P purchases, it’s still hard to think of a genuine success story.
“I would like to say the future of 3P is in innovation and doing new things, perhaps in carving out niches and staking claims where you can, but I will be the first to put my hand up and say I utterly failed to launch an Animated revival 3P line with the Techno Toon Titans at Mech iDeas. It sometimes seems like there is more money to be made in piggy-backing off of other companies (as with almost every company jumping on the MP band-wagon) or with outright stealing from other people (Mech Toy Fans upscaled DX9 War in Pocket releases), but this is all short-term thinking.”
So that may well answer the question of where a new company should draw its influences from in terms of what to produce and who to aim the product at, even though there are many who would champion the innovation aspect. Once an influence or era/scale has been decided upon, what about character choice? Over to Sixo: “Character choice is an interesting part of 3rd party collecting. It used to be that unofficial outfits played it safe, choosing characters that would seemingly never be covered by TakaraTomy, or at least not until the distant future. Equally, some collectors have always been happy to entertain ‘placeholders’ – figures good enough for now until the official line swoops in with the definitive version. However, as the whole scene has become more established, various 3rd parties have started producing more ‘risky’ characters, those that are likely to see an official release, such as carbots.
“Furthermore, now that most of the ‘obvious’ characters are pretty much ticked off in one form or another, the room to manoeuvre safely is becoming much smaller. This has in turn led to bolder characters being chosen, with the ultimate examples being Skyfire and Omega Supreme. For me, a new 3P outfit could sidestep the ‘character wars’ phenomenon altogether by producing newer versions of unexplored fringe characters. Look at Fans Hobby, who’re putting out everything from MP-styled Monsterbots to G2 Laser Prime. When you consider this type of lesser-known character, you realise how much potential is still yet to be mined, all of it in that safe space TakaraTomy themselves are unlikely to touch. Wouldn’t you like to see MP not-Targetmasters, Technobots, Pretenders, Throttlebots, Clones, and so on? I know I would.”
While they are less likely to encounter competition for fringe characters and previously un-explored sub-lines of Generation 1, or even post G1 lines, it is no guarantee of success. The example of low pre-orders cited for MakeToys Galaxy Meteor’s cancellation don’t exactly inspire confidence. Going back to C Z Hazard: “I love 3P, I’m proud to say I’ve worked with some amazing companies on some fantastic products, but I honestly believe that 3P is already past its best, and mostly it’s a self-induced come down brought about by in-fighting, repetition, and flying too close to the TakaraTomy sun. I hope people like MAAS Toys and Spark Toys can continue to carve out an interesting niche (especially now Iron Factory seem to have moved away from Cybertronian modes for more traditional G1 styling), I hope that MMC continues to put out amazing Reformatted product offering us IDW style characters we might not ever get to own otherwise. I would also like to see 3P return to its roots with add-on kits for official product as I believe a symbiotic relationship between the two industries is more conducive to everyone’s well-being than a competitive one.”
So let’s assume you’ve now got your main product influence and era sorted, you’ve decided which characters you’ll be launching and persisting with and what your design philosophy will be. How about the manufacturing of the figures? Bobby Skullface had the following to say on the subject: “The last couple years have been extremely telling in regard to a company’s success or failure. Long gone are the days of waking up every morning and checking your timeline to see three brand new companies, each with four new reveals. What we seem to be left with now are companies that are rumoured to own their own factory and a very small handful of companies that do not, but have stellar reputations, built on a long resume of strong releases.
“It seems to me, based on rumour and a pinch of common sense that unfortunately the 3rd party bubble may have already burst, and what we are left with for the most part are brands that have economical advantages over others competing in the industry. I’m not totally convinced that there is much hope for a new company to start up and be successful and competitive in regard to prices without the advantage of access to a means of manufacturing. Therefore, a new company could have great sculpts, genius engineering, and all the ambition in the world, but would not be able to keep their products in a competitive price range to challenge other more established companies without the inherent resources that ownership or a manufacturing facility would allow for. In short, for a new company to start up, without a factory there is no hope, no hope, no hope, no hope at all.”
You might have picked up on the less-than-optimistic tone that most of our contributors have taken thus far. But let’s say the above minefields have been navigated and a product has made it to market, how would a new company then communicate with its prospective or current customer base most effectively? Spencer Wilson, who has also worked on behalf of 3rd party companies and is part of the team behind MAAS Toys contributed the following: “3rd Party today is not what it was 10 years ago, not even 3 years ago. There are a lot of people wanting to get into the game and there are many avenues to do so. So what avenues make a new company more successful than others? I have always felt that there is a fine line with how you are with your customer base. Part of being a success is being able to not only relate to your fanbase, but to interact as well. Today’s social media channels give you a lot of opportunity to not just provide information to your fanbase, but to be able to interact a little more intimately.
“Platforms like Facebook give access to millions of viewers and there are many advertising channels to go with that, very similar to what Google did for webpages many years ago with Google ads, but what Facebook has done is allow them to create their own ‘internet’ so to speak and keep everything on their own platform. When you use targeted marketing, you draw people to your own Facebook page and can interact with your target audience there. Being part of a fandom has always been a challenge because everyone seems to want more and more, but if you use your platforms in a constructive way, you can engage in conversation and stimulate more out of your fanbase than simple emails or basic website postings. I feel this level of engagement is needed for someone starting out in 3P because there can be a lot of negativity around what is currently happening.
“There are a lot of changes happening, the bigger 3P companies are losing ground with some of the collectors and with the big guys all trying for the same piece of pie, it opens the doors to new and more innovative projects that can be created. Problem is, if you don’t have your backers and your customer base then you will most likely be a failure. Being active on social media allows for your fanbase to feel like they are a part of the action and the more you interact, the more your fanbase will become attached to what you are doing. It is always risky because you don’t want to turn your fanbase into a ravenous overwhelming beast but with the right number of leaks, the right amount of interaction, you can use your fanbase to your advantage and create a special tight knit community and community is what we as a fandom should be trying to achieve.”
To innovate or not to innovate? To go original or go with a tried and tested successful formula for releases? Iconic characters or untouched fringe players? Manufacturing facilities and online communication are at least areas where the advice is a bit more common and something we can all appreciate that a new 3P company would have to absolutely nail in order to be successful. They are less open to interpretation in terms of whether or not there is room for manoeuvre. Of course, all of this is academical if there is no future for 3P companies and product in the future. How does C Z Hazard see the future of 3P?
“I think 3P have served their greater purpose; making Hasbro / TakaraTomy acknowledge the size of the collector industry and the potential money on the table if they ignore us. We’re no longer 10% of their market (if we ever were), we’re closer to a quarter / third, and a lot of that comes thanks to the free market research of 3P showing HasTak that yeah, there is a market for 10+ Masterpieces a year, and hot damn will we buy combiners and post-87 characters!
“My fondest hope is that 3P can at least act as a launching platform, so great designers can start to get their own designs and IPs brought to life as 1st party product. At Mayhem Mekanics we are very lucky that 3P fans are on-board with Cassy Sark’s designs and we realise we owe that to his background in the 3P industry. Without the fans buying his designs over the years we would have never considered our own toyline, and without those same fans making the leap to our new IP we would quite literally be nowhere and have nothing. Competition is healthy, I hope others follow our – and BMOG’s – lead”
Many kind thanks to Bobby Skullface, Sixo, Spencer Wilson and C Z Hazard for excellent contributions.
All the best