Case Study: Promo Distributor Finds Unique Niche in Handmade Toys

Promo pro Ro Kohli followed his passion, and it led to a new channel of business for his distributorship.

As the owner of Santa Monica, CA-based War Machine Marketing (asi/355261), Kohli is a crackerjack businessman who has provided promotional products for big-name entertainment brands that include Disney, Universal Musical Group, Guitar Center and Reed Expo, producers of New York Comic Con. But Kohli is also a fun-loving pop culture aficionado who’s an avid collector of toy figures. Keen for something creative and different for his collection, he found a sculptor, Kevin Ferrier, that he commissioned to make a handmade, Star Wars-inspired figure of himself. “It blew me away,” said Kohli. “I knew instantly that we needed to work together because having something like this is a dream come true for so many people.” And so a novel partnership was born.

Ro Kohli, owner of War Machine Marketing, as a Star Wars-inspired figure. “I thought, ‘What if I was a general in Boba Fett’s Mandalorian Army and my nickname was WAR MACHINE. What would I look like to my enemies and my army?’ This was the end result.”

These days, Kohli and Ferrier work together to produce handmade action figures for clients. Kohli markets the service and makes the sales. Ferrier does the painstaking hands-on sculpting and painting. They work in small batches. Orders range from one-offs to a handful or less, as the process is time-consuming. “There’s no 3D printing, molds or casting, so each figure is hand-done, hand-painted, with customized accessories, color schemes, and more,” said Kohli. “Each one is as unique as the people who hire us to make them.”

Figures run the gamut. Sometimes, clients want their figures to depict them as a character – a Stormtrooper or Freddy Krueger from the popular horror movies, for example. Other times, clients desire a totally unique figure with sentimental value – like the time a retiring Los Angeles Police Department officer commissioned the creation of figures of him and his partner. In other instances, clients are after unique representations of a much-loved popular movie, comic or cartoon character. “We can also make action figures of characters that were never made,” said Kohli. “So if there’s a character in the background of a Star Wars movie who never had an action figure made of them, we can make them. We’re a big hit with collectors and completionists.”

Certainly, Kohli is excited to produce singular creations. In addition to the Aquarius and cosplay characters shown above, War Machine is the “very first company to make a Dark Helmet – from the Spaceballs movie – fully articulated 3.75-inch action figure,” said Kohli. Other figures close to Kohli’s heart include fully-articulated action figures of the adult cartoon characters Rick and Morty, mash-up designs that combine characters like Han Solo and Dr. Who, and Eddie – the mascot from heavy metal band Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper” song.

A Han Solo/Dr. Who “mash-up.”

“My favorite figure we did was a ‘Battle Tauntaun,’ which is an armored version of the animal from The Empire Strikes Back,” said Kohli. “We made it for a huge Tauntaun fan with her action figure riding it. It’s incredibly detailed and one of the most beautiful figures I’ve ever seen.”

Battle Tauntaun figure set.

Of course, the question of licensing comes up when dealing with well-known characters. Still, Kohli said it’s not an issue. “We don’t do mass production – it’s usually just one at a time – so we stay out of licensing trouble,” he said. “Basically what we do is commissioned art. It’s like if you went to Comic Con or a similar event and paid an artist there to do a drawing of you as Han Solo. No one is going to go after the artist for that.”

Admittedly, Kohli’s handmade action figures aren’t raking in huge sums. He said the niche business channel generates upwards of $5,000 a year. Still, the action figures have led directly to lucrative swag sales. For example, a podcaster who interviewed him about the unique figurines ended up ordering branded Swiss Army knives. Similarly, executives at a pop culture apparel business started buying branded merchandise from Kohli after they loved the action figures War Machine created for them. The figures are also a talking point he uses to gain common ground with like-minded prospects and clients. “It’s helped drive business,” said Kohli. “Even more than that, it’s something I enjoy. It hits every little quirky thing I like.”

Dark Helmet of “Spaceballs”

Iron Maiden’s The Trooper

Rick and Morty.