The Marketing Profile: Matt Webb of Hamleys

Matt Webb, Hamleys
Matt Webb, Hamleys

LONDON - Matt Webb's enthusiasm for Hamleys could rival that of any child. Sat around a long table of teddy bears, the 42-year-old struggles to find words to describe his first experience of the toy store in 1971.

'It was like walking into a dream, except I couldn't imagine anything like it, even in my dreams', he says. 'We were greeted by giant, automated teddy bears, I was totally overwhelmed.' He pauses for effect and adds with a laugh: 'Actually, I was quite disturbed, too. I almost cried.'

Webb has been Hamleys' head of marketing for three months and describes it as 'possibly the best job in the world'. His ongoing enthusiasm for the store is clearly central to his approach to marketing it.

He was brought in by Hamleys' new chief executive, Gudjon Reynisson, who joined the company this summer. Webb says they share a similar vision for its future.

Vision was certainly required - in the months preceding his arrival the company was in flux; despite rapid overseas expan-sion, with the opening of stores in Dublin, Jordan and Dubai this year, Hamleys made several redundancies over the summer. Its marketing team was reduced by half, a cut that included the departure of its marketing director, Stella Hartley.

Webb claims the store's image has been affected by 'a bit of staticness' over the past 10 years. 'It was seen as very ABC1. People felt they couldn't come in unless they read The Times or made a certain amount of money,' he says. He claims that in reality this was never the case, but a perception created by the fact Hamleys doesn't try to compete on price with other toy retailers.

That said, Webb is unapologetic that Hamleys is not comparable to stores such as Toys 'R' Us or Woolworths. 'Hamleys is completely unique in providing the theatrical "wow factor" that traditional toy shops used to do,' he says. '[The film] Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium shows what they were like, children used to spend all day playing and being wowed in toy stores.'

It is this experiential element, the aspect that Webb found so overwhelming when he first visited, that he and Reynisson see as being the key to Hamleys' revival.

Hamleys currently has about five costumed entertainers in store, but Webb intends to raise the bar with its theatrical offerings. He is introducing a 'Hamleys family' of characters, including its iconic teddy bear and the toy soldier that features on its carrier bags. From January, they will be involved in a daily parade, for which a Hamleys theme tune is being composed. Webb hopes this will become a major draw for tourists and UK shoppers alike.

'In the past we've had the occasional puppet show, but this will be on a totally different scale and it will allow us to interact with other brands. If the Telly-tubbies are launching a new product, then they can join in too,' he says.

It's a sensible strategy. A growing number of children's toys are inspired by TV and film characters, and Webb recognises the need to align Hamleys with these brands. He has already spoken to the Cartoon Network about its characters participating, and also plans to approach Nickelodeon, Energetics, the BBC and CITV about a similar involvement. This activity will culminate at Easter with Cartoon Time, which Webb says will be a six- to eight-week celebration of 'all things animated' with about 50 of these characters in store at once.

Webb also recognises the importance of digital media for communicating with youngsters and plans to post videos of these in-store events onto the company website and social networking sites so children can get a feel for Hamleys. Certainly the store's website is not as strong as it could be; currently aimed at adults, Webb believes it also needs to target children and reflect the fun that can be experienced inside the store.

'Without flogging the brand or creating Hamleys biker jackets, there are a lot of commercial opportunities for other brands to promote themselves and work with us,' he says. 'By piggy-backing with synergetic brands, you can create win-win situations. When you don't have millions of pounds, every pound has to become 10.' Hamleys' marketing budget next year will be about £1.2m, but Webb claims its perceived value will be closer to £2.5m.

Historically, Hamleys has not focused on above-the-line advertising, which Webb estimates accounted for half its 2008 marketing budget. Its Christmas campaign, which launches this weekend, comprises print and outdoor activity and sponsorship of the Magic FM breakfast show. Hamleys will have a traditional Christmas celebration with Santa and his elves in residence replete with 'snow' outside, in stark contrast to the distinctly non-festive pre-dicted toy bestsellers across the Doctor Who, High School Musical and Star Wars brands.

Webb is also running ad campaigns in new territories into which Hamleys has expanded, with the simple brand message that the store has arrived. The campaigns are based on demographic information about foreign shoppers at its Regent Street branch. Because of the geographic spread of the store's international branches, Webb is aware that is it essential to be sensitive to different consumer cultures when marketing abroad. 'People shop in a very different way in Dubai,' he says. 'They have these vast shopping malls with 450 shops, ice rinks and ski slopes. It is commonplace for the whole family to go and spend the day there. This means that you can spend less getting people to the malls and more on the experience inside it.'

Hamleys' plans for further international expansion show no signs of abating, despite the global economy. The schedule is to open six stores a year for the next three years, with future markets including India, Russia, Turkey, China and Singapore. However, for Webb, the most exciting element of Hamleys' plans is its 250th anniversary celebration, which launches next autumn and runs for 18 months, encompassing two Christmas selling periods. He refuses to reveal the central event yet, but says it will be the pinnacle of his vision for the store. 'I've always felt, after getting to the age of 42, I've got one massive performance left in me,' says Webb. 'This will be it, in 2010.'

As well as this performance, there is a planned increase in above-the-line activity to promote the celebrations, including Hamleys' first TV campaign. Webb is also looking for sponsors to be involved in every aspect of the celebration.

One thing is sure: the anniversary event will be far more overwhelming than the automated teddy bears of 1971 - and, it is hoped, won't make Webb want to cry.

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