Meccano, a brand that was built from a bright idea in the late nineteenth century, still entertains and teaches young people across the globe. How did this toy revolutionize favorite toys in Great Britain and ultimately around the world, building an enthusiastic following of young men and women? Forced to keep up with the times, Meccano is finding new followers, including British TV fans.
Just like a Meccano kit, the long and complicated history of the Meccano company has colorful components that can be put together in many different ways.
First, some background for the uninitiated. Meccano is a model construction system originally created in 1898 by Frank Hornby in Liverpool, England. The system consists of reusable metal strips, plates, angle girders, wheels, axles and gears and plastic parts that are connected together using nuts, bolts and set screws. In 1902 he started calling these toys Mechanics Made Easy and sold them in sets with parts supplied by external businesses in Liverpool.1
Hornby then changed the name in 1907 to Meccano, which he thought would be shorter and handier, and established his first factory. He formed Meccano Ltd. in 1908 to manufacture and distribute Meccano and other model toys and kits created by the company. By the 1920s and 1930s, Meccano Ltd. became the largest toy manufacturer in the U.K. and produced three of the most popular lines of toys in the twentieth century: Meccano, Hornby Trains and Dinky Toys.2 He must have been doing something right!
As L. Ron Hubbard says in his article of September 4, 1979, “MORE ON MARKETING BASICS,” “The duty of marketing is to make sure that something gets marketed in such a way that it will be wanted and delivered.”
Hornby wrote a number of pieces of literature marketing his creation and continuing to spark interest, including the Meccano Magazine and two full-length books. It rolled out like this:
The book Frank Hornby, the Boy Who Made $1,000,000 With a Toy was written and published by Hornby in 1915. Already a millionaire in dollars at the time, he tells the story as an autobiographical work under the aegis of Meccano, Inc. Frank Hornby says he was heavily inspired by the book Self-Help by Samuel Smiles, which told the success stories of great entrepreneurs.3
Hornby started the Meccano Magazine in 1916, publishing the first issue in black and white. The magazine told the story of Meccano’s beginnings, written by Frank Hornby himself. It was launched to promote the toys and grow sales. From 1920, the Meccano Magazine included many topics such as mechanics and Meccano building, but also planes, trains, navy, engineering, collection stamps and photography.4
In 1919 the Meccano Guild was founded to serve as an umbrella organization for all the local Meccano clubs, with the Meccano Magazine serving as the club magazine. Prior to the launch, the magazine had run a competition for essays on how entrants would choose to set up a Meccano club.
Meccano Magazine’s “Guild” columns then carried regular communications, advice and discussion on running clubs, and each issue also normally featured a small photograph and profile of a local club secretary.5
All these efforts helped to fortify the growing number of Meccano fans and attracted new members to join. From the first issue, Hornby said:
“. . . Meccano boys should become members, and we have pleasure in announcing that we have completed our plans for bringing this about in such a way that even the most lonely boy shall be able to take his part and share the happiness.
“The objects of the Meccano Guild are:
(a) To make every boy’s life brighter and happier.
(b) To foster clean-mindedness, truthfulness, ambition, and initiative in boys.
(c) To encourage boys in the pursuit of their studies and hobbies, and especially in the development of their knowledge of mechanical and engineering principles.”
His knowledge of marketing basics and engaging his audience didn’t stop there. There were even Meccano Guild badges that members could get. Many of the Guilds still survive today.
Hornby wasn’t only driving his company for profits, however; he wanted to make young men’s lives better, brighter and happier through his products.
In 1932, he retold the story of how he began his creation in “The Life Story of Meccano.”6
However, years after the founder’s demise in 1936, due to financial and labor problems, Meccano Ltd. was taken over in 1964 by Lines Bros. Ltd. (a major competitor).7
Skipping over a complex tapestry of 100 years, the original values and objective of Meccano still remain the same—to inspire builders around the world to bring their imaginations to life. Their website states: “From basic building to high‐tech robotics programming, Meccano offers something for everyone. At Meccano, our brand vision is to build a better tomorrow by empowering and inspiring the next generation of Makers. Meccano—Your Imagination Just Got Real!”8
A similar construction set had been introduced in the U.S. in 1913 under the brand name Erector, and in 2000 Meccano bought the Erector brand and unified its presence on all continents.9
Now in the twenty-first century, the brand was already a part of a British TV show, Toy Stories with James May, which told the stories in 2009 of six classic toys, featuring Meccano in one episode and Hornby Trains in another. And Meccano was slated to be featured in a Hollywood movie. An American film-production company, Helix, signed a licensing deal in 2010 to make an animated 3-D film, like Toy Story, with Erector in the starring role. Steven-Charles Jaffe, producer of Ghost and Star Trek VI, says he and his two partners were Meccano fanatics when they were boys.10
Meccano has been through various French, American and Japanese ownerships in the past five decades. Production is now based at a factory in Calais, France, which had been set up by the original British company in 1959.
With its steel struts and girders and pulleys, this company might seem to symbolize a lost industrial age. However, to market to kids in this era, modern kits have been updated to include radio control, robotics, sound and lights. All the same, French-made plastic Meccano kits have retained precisely the same shapes and the same hole spacing and sizes Frank Hornby created in 1901. The company still produces parts measured in inches and fractions of inches, not millimeters. It still provides fans with tiny, imperial-measured screws and bolts.
“We lost out for a while during the computer-game boom,” said factory manager Mattei Théodore. “But there seems, all over the world, to be a return to traditional values, and traditional kinds of toys—a trend which has been reinforced by the recession. At a time of uncertainty, people feel the need for something more solid, something they can touch, something more educational.”
Now owned by a Canadian company, Spin Master, who wisely bought the brand when it faltered for about the fifth time in 2013, Meccano is a toy construction brand with a long 100-plus-year history. Spin Master has continued to manufacture and operate Meccano out of its European headquarters. Sets, sold in 80 countries, range from multi-builds and architectural builds to a build-your-own car set. In 2015 the company introduced Meccanoid, a robotic building platform that allows children to build a four-foot-tall robot that can speak, move and interact using a number of technologies.11
And in 2017 the Meccano Micronoids (mini-robots) won Finalist in Toy of the Year Awards by the Toy Industry Association.12
We see another aspect of the natural laws of marketing at work here. Again from that same article, Mr. Hubbard says: “Thus, one markets WHAT IS THERE RIGHT NOW IN EXISTENCE THAT CAN BE DELIVERED. And the marketing of a NEW item must be dovetailed with the actual release and availability of the new item for delivery.
“In this way we reap a whirlwind of business, the public gets delivered to and the created demand gets fulfilled.”
If marketing is all about creating demand, it seems that the original and now the new, reinvented Meccano are applying these laws very successfully.
What is your company doing to create demand?
Are you following the natural laws of marketing?
Could you market what is in existence right now and then dovetail into it new items as they are released and available?
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