13 Nov 2019
More than nine lives for this brand
Toby Black, the edgy yet charismatic little black cat, is a hot-selling character created by Azona (Asia) Limited. The cartoon feline has already achieved strong momentum in Mainland China’s fashion market.
To realise the brand’s full potential, Azona established Toby World Limited at the end of 2018 to further expand the licensing branch in addition to the fashion business, developing a diverse array of products combining cute appeal and functionality. The company’s first move was to take part in the Hong Kong International Licensing Show (HKILS) in January this year where it quickly fostered partnerships with multiple quality European brands, aiming to further boost mainland sales by expanding into overseas markets.
Licensing business with fashion roots
Florence Law, General Manager of Toby World Limited, said that since its 2006 launch, Toby Black’s distinctive image had made the brand popular with high school and university students, giving it a presence in more than 300 shops in over 80 mainland cities. The cat has more than 1.2 million fans on e-commerce giant Tmall and is sold actively on all major online trading platforms and offline school campaigns, as well as at over 500 university events.
“We have an extensive online and offline sales network and experience in product development and have sold hundreds of millions of products. Licensing has taken off in the mainland market, with remarkable growth recently, and hoping to reach out to other businesses we established a subsidiary in December last year. We hope to use this to develop other products and roles through licensing.”
Ms Law said that during the HKILS, many mainland manufacturers approached them about cooperation – but Toby Black has bigger plans.
“We are very selective in match-making; we only work with premium brands and factories as partners. The first wave of a product launch has to be a hit. We certainly expected that the Asian market would welcome Toby Black, but a number of European and American brands are also interested in leveraging our network and experience in order to enter the mainland market. We have a line-up of exciting products set for launch.”
For example, in collaboration with Dutch travel-product brand Princess Traveller, Toby Black crafted a special collection which debuted in the mainland and European markets. Florentine Ouborg, Founder and Commercial Director of Princess Traveller, said: “We always seek to cooperate with like-minded companies; past collaborators include international brands like Coca-Cola, Heineken and Hello Kitty. This time we work with a black fluffy friend from Hong Kong, which is equally exciting! The final design is fun and stylish and is selling out fast in the Netherlands.”
Another exciting collaboration is with Spanish brand FOSA, using its patented vacuum storage system to launch a series of unique products highlighting Toby Black’s identity. The intelligent heating system developed by FLEXWARM in Shenzhen has won design awards and is patented in Japan and the mainland. The warmer-maker will soon enrich the Toby family with such products as a heated down blanket, heated scarf, warm waist belt and heated eye mask – all representing a perfect marriage of design and functionality.
Other products include household goods such as stationery and slippers. A portable phone charger, shaped like a cat’s paw, attracted a cult following after top mainland actress Yang Mi began using it.
“These partners all have a keen interest in the mainland market, but we try to cater to international tastes that respect the true spirit of design. Instead of simply copying the image and applying it to different products, we invest in model-making for unique products. The Princess Traveller’s suitcase is an example – highlighting the fun and edginess of the brand through our engraved cat paw imprint and scratch marks,” Ms Law said.
With the mainland as a sales base, Toby Black is proud to be a Hong Kong design brand, with an in-house design team where the dozen designers are all from Hong Kong. To empower the Toby Black project, they also recruit more designers for brand identity, graphic design and visual merchandising.
“To expand our licensing business, our team comprises licensing professionals; along with our history in marketing network and experience, these contribute to smooth launches,” Ms Law said.
“Our next step will be having a good grasp of the necessary marketing communication language, to build the right position and establish ourselves as a premium licenser, where other factories would be drawn to be our partners. To achieve this, we will have an active presence at trade shows – it’s the best channel to promote branding and communicate with the market.”
Ms Law also shows great confidence in the potential of the licensing business. “Licensing helps to extend our business blueprint; next we hope to participate in areas like franchising, wholesale, theme parks and premium gifts,” she said. Alongside the new product launches, the company has also mapped out a holistic marketing strategy where social media platforms and promotional animations are all ready to launch at the right time.
“In the mainland, the most popular licensing brands are from overseas, but we are adopting a reverse model. Toby Black first built its foundation on the mainland and now, we hope, through bringing it to the international arena, we can boost Chinese sales with its international fame, and take the brand further."