Mattel: Creating Play with Purpose

This fall, there’s a new train from Kenya rolling into the station in the world of Thomas & Friends, and her name is Nia. And while Nia is part of an overhaul to the Thomas & Friends brand with new messaging supported by a partnership with the United Nations, Nia also stands as an example of a larger change taking place throughout Mattel. Nia’s name in Swahili means purpose, and looking to 2019, Mattel is moving full steam ahead on its own corporate message of purposeful play.


This is a message that Mattel has steadily been honing for a few years now, and its 2018 second quarter results have pushed the message front and center in the form of Barbie and Hot Wheels. Overall sales for the toy giant may have dipped in Q2 (partly due to the impacts of the Toys “R” Us liquidation), but these two heritage brands stood out with double-digit gains—Barbie rising 12 percent and Hot Wheels up 21 percent.


Consumers have watched as Barbie has transformed in the last two years to better represent every girl (and boy) with new body types, ethnicities, and styles under the Barbie Fashionistas line. The doll has also tapped into the message of female empowerment with the launch of its Sheroes line, which features inspiring female figures throughout history, as well as its career dolls, which touts the message that you can be anything. Barbie, in a sense, is no longer just looks; she’s got substance.


“More than half of moms want to buy from companies or brands that ultimately make them feel good,” says Richard Dickson, president and COO of Mattel. “These were indicators that were really important to figure out, across our portfolio: how we can portray our brands and the meaning of our brands as more purposeful.


“When we looked at that insight in connection with Barbie, it fit perfectly with what Barbie stood for. Barbie’s identity is about unlocking limitless potential for every girl through imaginative play. That is a really meaningful statement and how we translate that in today’s world was the task at hand.”


While Barbie Fashionistas has gotten most of the exposure for its addition of curvier figures and dad bods, what may not be as well known is that the Barbie career line is currently the brand’s fastest growing segment. It has been up double and sometimes triple digits. This can be attributed, in part, to better communicating the line’s purposeful message that lets kids play out and test-drive careers with Barbie.


“Our latest Career of the Year Robotics Engineer doll has been a stellar success both from a PR perspective and a sales perspective,” says Dickson. “The career dolls are canvases for girls’ play experiences and their imaginations to be unlocked. The dolls also offer a great way for moms and dads to dialogue with their daughter about their dreams, about their aspirations, and about different ways that they can apply their passion and their imagination. It’s been a great segment for us and one, I think, is uniquely Barbie.”


The career line has also offered Mattel a means to engage in topical subjects and extend Barbie through partnerships like the one seen in its Robotics Engineer doll. For the development of this doll, Mattel teamed with Tynker, an educational coding platform for kids, to introduce coding, a critical 21st century skill set, through doll play as well as Barbie-inspired coding games on the Tynker platform.


“The team’s done a great job at figuring out how to incorporate purposeful play and purposeful messages across all of our touchpoints,” says Dickson. “Whether that be products in our Barbie career line, whether it’s diversity, whether it’s Barbie documentaries, or whether it’s our new content on Netflix. The Barbie Blogger channel on YouTube is another piece of content that’s doing extremely well that has more of a purposeful tilt. We’ve taken the insights we’ve gotten from parents, how they were feeling about the brand, and the state of parenting today, and incorporated that. It’s a formula that’s working not just on Barbie but also on Hot Wheels, with early signs of some good consumer feedback on Thomas as well.”


From a sales perspective, 2018 has been the biggest year yet for the 50-year-old Hot Wheels brand. But much like Barbie, Hot Wheels has had to tune into its consumer feedback as well. In Hot Wheels, like Barbie, parents saw the value of the play but once again lacked context in how the play could help from a development perspective. “That really cued a compelling question that the brand needed to answer: What is the essence of Hot Wheels, and what is the purposeful play of Hot Wheels? And ultimately what it comes down to is perseverance and challenge,” says Dickson.


Last fall, Hot Wheels introduced the Challenge Accepted campaign to better engage parents about these brand values, and this messaging now hits all brand touchpoints — from play experiences, to digital experiences, as well as its content programs. Three years ago, Mattel began to invest more heavily in its YouTube content, and it’s an investment that’s paying off. According to Dickson, the Hot Wheels YouTube channel has become the No. 1 channel for boys through various campaigns.


Here, the brand has an always-on approach featuring daily content with two distinct characteristics: 1) Content that focuses on the experimental, creative, and competitive nature of the brand; and 2) Content that infuses the brand in a way that lets consumers see the aspirational ways they can interact with it.


“When you play Hot Wheels out, you’re playing to win and/or you’re playing through trial and error to achieve the epic stunt, the loop, the speed, the win, the challenge,” says Dickson. “ It may take 10 or 15 tries, but when you get it there’s nothing more exhilarating or thrilling. What they’re actually learning is perseverance and the will to continue through failure to try and achieve.”


Hot Wheels is also a brand in Mattel’s portfolio that’s honed in on more purposeful partnerships, particularly in support of its 50th anniversary, which helps speak to all its audiences (kids, parents, and adult collectors) and keeps them engaged. Its partnership with the e-sports giant Rocket League is offering Hot Wheels a runway for growth and seeing the brand beyond the physical toy in a new way. New licensing initiatives are also feeding the brand with unique story arcs that also tap into the messaging of challenge and perseverance. For example, demand spiked for the Hot Wheels Tesla Roadster following the February launch of the SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket after the toy was spotted on the dashboard of Elon Musk’s own Tesla in space.


What is clear from all these initiatives is that the success for both these brands — and Mattel’s future work with Thomas & Friends, Fisher-Price, and beyond — starts and ends with the consumer. It’s this methodology that’s ultimately helping to steer these brands back on the right track and simply tuning into not only what the consumer wants but needs from their play experiences. Being the gatekeepers for play is not always an easy job, says Dickson, but it’s one for which Mattel is up to the challenge.