Steiff has had many milestones throughout its lengthy history. Founded in 1880, the company has been creating soft toys for adults and children for nearly 140 years. A rival of America’s Morris Michtom, both the Steiff company and Michtom’s Ideal Toy and Novelty claim to be the originators of the teddy bear, Steiff has endured where other plush firms have gone belly-up. One of the reasons for its survival in such an emotionally charged and unpredictable industry is that it is willing and able to reinvent itself. Case in point: Steiff North America, the U.S. division of the firm, is rebranding itself as a baby- and kid-friendly corporation. Not big news in Europe, where the company has always been considered synonymous with children, Steiff is now gearing up in 2018 and into 2019 to be recognized as a must-have for toddlers, tots, tweens, and every age in between! Meet Steiff’s headline-grabbing Soft Cuddly Friends.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Jim Pitocco, the president of Steiff North America. The collectibles veteran is serious about the relaunch of Steiff as a product that a family member will buy for a baby and encourage the child to interact with it. For a long time, gifting a Steiff meant introducing a child to the concept of delayed gratification. A Steiff bear or bunny, or any other of its cute critters, equaled having it perched upon a shelf, looking down on the child’s crib or twin bed. It was a toy that could be studied and handled with care. It certainly did not solicit hands-on play. In fact, it was just the opposite: a Steiff, because of its luxury status, silently cautioned, “Hands off.”
“We’re committed to bringing Steiff back to department stores, toy stores, and gift shops,” Pitocco told me. We want to restore it to what it is truly meant to be: an imaginative toy and companion for children! Over the years, we became a collectible company that also sold toys. Now we are getting back to what we truly are. That’s a classic toy company that also sells collectibles.”
This is great news for those of us in the ursine world who wonder (sometimes with anxiety and trepidation) about where the next generation of arctophiles will be coming from. If Pitocco is true to his pledge, Steiff will be one of the earliest brands that a child interacts with. Just like Coke and Pepsi—two brands that realize early allegiance often means lifetime loyalty—Steiff will be showing young children that soft toys that are powered by love and make-believe are viable play options.
These Soft Cuddly Friends—the line tells you exactly what they are—will have many of the expected Steiff hallmarks: the button in the ear, hand craftsmanship, and high-quality materials. The price point for these plush critters will be affordable and welcoming to a whole new range of shoppers. Available in three sizes in many cases, the Soft Cuddly Friends will retail from $15 to $40.
“We are seriously working to become a design leader in the toy industry. Our creative staff was cognizant of the styles, colors, and textures we chose. We worked carefully to appeal to a demographic of moms with young children. These are our target audience. We want moms who make the connection of wanting the best for their kids, and Steiff will become that in their minds. It beckons back to what our founder Margarete Steiff had as her original motto—‘For children, only the best is good enough.’”
Pitocco is a hands-on executive, and it reflects well on him that he is pushing for Steiff animals to become more hands-on as well. They are not abandoning their commitment to creating collectibles for the adult marketplace, but they are stepping up to connect with the littlest, potential consumers: “The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Parents are especially happy because the Soft Cuddly Friends can be an everyday toy for their kids. They’re durable and machine washable. Parents and kids also love the silky softness of the fabric and the way each piece is loosely stuffed. Kids can play with the Soft Cuddly Friends anytime and anywhere without worry.”
Naturally, when children love a toy, they often love it hard, and nary a childhood toy manages to escape without some kind of worn patches, missing eyes or limbs, or—God forbid—a vanished button that fell from the ear. Pitocco knows that kids will get their Steiff Soft Cuddly Friends dirty and messy, but their machine-washable status will help to alleviate worries. “Our toys are actually made to withstand rough-and-tumble play. The fabrics are durable, and they feature double stitching. Once the child outgrows the toy, you can machine-wash it and then can keep it with other mementos from your child’s life. The Soft Cuddly Friends can be a toy and a keepsake at the same time.”
Jim Pitocco’s own children have grown too old for the Soft Cuddly Friend line, but he and his wife share them with the young relatives and family friends that surround them: “These toys are perfect for a baby shower or a birthday. My wife and I often give them as gifts. They are loved for what they are—playful, fun, charming, and adorable. Also, from a public relations standpoint, it’s an ideal way to introduce children and their parents to the Steiff brand. It’s a brilliant and satisfying way to make the brand more accessible and more relatable.”