How Mattel is getting back to its creation brand roots

The giant toy company shares how it is transforming its business fundamentals and embracing democratised innovation as a way to become relevant again to kids and their parents

Richard Dixon, Mattel
Richard Dixon, Mattel

It’s a story all too many established brands face: How to retain relevancy and purpose when the competitive landscape, digital disruption and customer expectations move well beyond anything they’ve seen before. And it’s this challenge toy giant, Mattel, has been working to overcome through a brand and corporate transformation.

At the Adobe Digital Marketing Summit, Mattel president and COO, Richard Dixon, shared how the 70-year old company, which maintains a portfolio of iconic toy brands including Barbie, Fisher-Price, Hot Wheels and American Girl, has overhauled the fundamentals of its business in order to become relevant to a new generation of children and their parents.

“In any brand’s history, in order to find a way forward, you have to understand what made you special in the first place,” Dixon told attendees.

“In the beginning, our founders thought of their business not as toy company, but as a creations company. It was design-led before anyone knew what that meant. They were designers and inventors, not toy people.”

Dixon noted how Mattel was one of many organisations launched out of a garage in the post-war era, launching with a transformation of the paper fashion doll into Barbie, one of the most successful toys in history. This was followed by reinventing the toy car with its Hot Wheels brand.

“The first thing to come out of the garage was a mindset; a conviction that taking bold risks on insightful, thoughtful and innovative ideas would delight children and as a result, build a business,” he said.

Besides the products, Mattel also took bold moves and looked beyond traditional marketing, becoming one of the first brands to bet everything on TV. It also pushed co-creation, and positioned itself as a leader that thought like a challenger, Dixon said.

“But at some point, we became nearsighted, and failed to recognise how fast our business was changing,” he told attendees. “We had devolved from an innovative, creations company into a packaged goods company that made toys.”

Significant market challenges and trends he identified as impacting Mattel included toys becoming global intellectual property, and simple play being superseded by child development. The competitive landscape also opened up to not just toy competitors, but also media and tech companies. Even TV became an omni-channel universe.

“The business was changing for the simple reason that play was changing, with toys, media, games, content converging seamlessly in kids’ minds,” Dixon continued, “We repeated what worked instead of fearing the status quo. We mistook acting creative for being creative, and our ideas lacked purpose.”

To become relevant once more, Mattel needed to question everything it was doing, and embrace uncertainty, relentless experiments and co-creation, Dixon said. This new approach was first applied to Barbie, a brand that had been the biggest and most valued toy brands in the world but had seen quarter on quarter decline and lost its purpose.

“We had no greater reinvention challenge and we had so much at stake,” Dixon said. “Barbie’s empowerment message became too broad and unfocused. Not knowing what Barbie stood for made brand decision making subjective and inconsistent... We had to disrupt category we created without losing the things that made the brand in the first place.”

Mattel kicked this off by listening to consumers and the market, he said, in order to re-engage with the everyday consciousness of kids and mums in the modern age. The first step was overhauling the product range to include 20 new Barbies that promote diversity through a wide range of skin tones, textures, styles and facial features.

“Then we introduced a flexible foot, which liberated Barbie from high heels,” Dixon said. “This continued to contemporise the brand while adding new form of fashion and play for girls.”

This was followed by Hello Barbie, a new generation of artificial intelligence in toys. “We had in effect created brand content through product innovation,” he said.

Mattel also worked to leverage content and reframe the conversation around Barbie in order to re-engage with mums, critical decision makers in the purchase process about the importance of play. Core to this was a brand campaign and short film about young girls imagining what they could be. The film gained more than 50 million views, more than 500 million social engagements and helped provide a cultural substance that created momentum, Dixon said.

The final and arguably most disruptive step was to overcome the greatest fear and challenge for the brand: Barbie’s controversial figure.

“The fear of making a mistake and messing up the most popular toy ever led to silence and inaction,” Dixon said. “But we knew we had to tackle this head-on, and do so thoughtfully. We tapped into research, data, and many conversations with kids and mums, which led to important insights, which led to action.”

Today, Barbie is available in multiple body shapes including curvy, bold and petite. The decision garnered significant global media coverage and celebrity endorsements.

“This is content money just can’t buy,” Dixon said. “Bold decisions sparked cultural conversations that are changing perceptions of the brand and Barbie and Mattel are leading once again.”

Fuelling innovation across the business

Today, Mattel is working on similar transformations across other iconic brands including Hot Wheels, Fisher-Price, Thomas the Tank Engine, Polly Pocket and more.

“We’re applying this individualised reinvention formula to accelerate every brand and create a new culture at Mattel that emphasises creative sharing, global ideation and speed,” Dixon said. “Core brands and continuous innovation is necessary for those brands is necessary to retain relevance.”

To help foster this new innovation engine internally, Mattel has launched a program called Toy Box, inspired by the suggestions box its founders used to promote.

“The greatest idea can come from anyone, anywhere at any time,” Dixon said. “Today’s Toy box is a culture within a culture, and encourages us to work and create more entrepreneurially than ever before. It has accelerated our rebirth by putting design and creative first, thinking smarter, working faster, eliminating the barriers and instilling new purpose in our work and our brands. We’re driving for big, quick wins and consistently achieving them.”

As examples of the product innovation now coming from this approach, Dixon pointed to the new-look View-Master, which sees the company partnering with Google to deliver virtual reality capability, as well as the forthcoming release of its next-generation Thingmaker, which taps into Autodesk technology to become a 3D machine allowing kids to create and print a range of individualised toys.

“We are re-establishing ourselves as a creations company that inspires the wonder of childhood,” Dixon concluded. “We’re instilling purpose in our brands and connecting the brand experiences to each other in valuable ways.

With the power of our portfolio and technology and data, we can become a child development company like no other. We want to create valuable relationships with kids and families that transcend our brands and products.”

  • Nadia Cameron travelled to Adobe Digital Marketing Summit in Las Vegas as a guest of Adobe.

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