Diversification is the key to survival for small and medium-sized toy companies. Families continue to tighten their belts and the toy business has become 'competitive and challenging'. These days, toy buyers are spending every dollar wisely, says Lenny Patsiner, consulting director of Good Link International. '[This has resulted in] a number of toy factories closing down.' Good Link International is a local original equipment manufacturer toy company that exports its products. After observing the trend of declining sales and reduction of shelf space for small and medium toy companies in stores all over Europe and the United States, the company decided to diversify into cartoon production. 'By producing cartoons, we will own the rights to those cartoons', and when other companies want to use any particulars of the show, they have to buy a licence and pay the copyright owners, Patsiner says. Collaborating with Thomas Beckett, a Hong Kong-based school teacher from Australia, the company is producing a cartoon based on Beckett's Ming the Minibus. Ming the Minibus is a character in storybooks, written by Beckett, to help schoolchildren learn English more effectively than from school textbooks, which he says are too complicated. The underlying message is to inform children that the world doesn't only revolve around the things they see daily and they should go out of their way to learn more about the rest of the world and to make more friends. Each story book is based on different places or things in Hong Kong and around the world. Patsiner says the author chose the minibus as the main character because it is something that children in Hong Kong 'are familiar with and can relate to'. In each episode, Ming the Minibus and his two student passengers will travel to different cities and countries and will use songs and simple computer graphics to deliver the facts to children. 'Using music and songs to sugar-coat the message will allow the children to accept and remember facts much more easily,' Patsiner says. The cartoon will be aired on ATV Network in Hong Kong, Southern China and Macau, and will have 52 different episodes in the first year. Although this is Good Link International's first attempt at producing a cartoon, the company believes that it will be a 'success'. From far-flung overseas markets to the Asian region, the company regards its change of target market as common in the industry due to the latest trends for toy companies to try and break into the latter. 'The economy in Asia hasn't been as badly [affected by the economic meltdown] compared to overseas countries,' Patsiner says. He adds there are no obvious changes in trends in the toy industry despite market diversification. 'The toy business is still like the fashion business; there are always new fashionable toys every season, but they usually only last one season.' As the popularity of the trendy toys die, big toy companies don't have to worry as they are bound to have some evergreen toys in stock like Barbie, Monopoly and the Mickey Mouse doll. Nonetheless, 'an evergreen toy line is extremely rare in this industry as children get bored quickly with many toys and it's also rare for a toy to last for generations', Patsiner says. However difficult business may be for small and medium toy companies at the moment, Patsiner believes that the emphasis on the product safety levels remains the same. 'The mainland factories [where most toy factories are located] have to follow the strict standards set by Europe and the United States,' he says. 'In addition, we also send out our own inspectors to supervise the factory supervisors' The strict standards include checking the quality of the paint, for lead and other toxic substances. This is done when the paint arrives at the factory and again after it is applied to the toy. The company will also be featuring their quality tested toy line at the Hong Kong Toy and Licensing Fair this month.