While 2020 has been a year filled with challenges, the toy-making giant Mattel has hustled to find the opportunities to innovate and grow.
After a tough first half of the year, which included layoffs, the company’s sales increased by 22 percent in the third quarter, compared with 2019, with Barbie sales alone up 29 percent, as parents endeavor to keep homebound children entertained and busy.
Mattel — which began 75 years ago in a garage in Los Angeles— has also seized the opportunity to create a line of action figures celebrating essential workers, launch new online platforms, and shift its in-person promotional events to virtual.
In a recent interview with InnoLead, Mattel President and COO Richard Dickson shared insights on creating digital content for classic toy brands, how to present ideas to senior leadership, and more.
From the Toy Chest to the Screen
Prior to the pandemic, Mattel had already rolled out new ways for customers to interact with its brands — some more remote-friendly than others. On YouTube, the official Barbie channel has 9.98 million subscribers and over 2,000 videos. The company has also invested in digital gaming and podcasts.
Meanwhile, the Hot Wheels Legend Tour, a traveling car show where fans could enter a contest to have their own hot rod immortalized as a Hot Wheels car, has gone virtual. In 2019, the event boasted over 110,000 attendees. This year, the event was shut down after the first stop in Miami on March 7 — but it returned with live streams and a virtual submissions platform by May 16.
The company is also finishing the year out with another virtual launch: Mattel Creations, an online platform made to showcase collaborations. Mattel Creations partners with emerging creators like artist Gianni Lee and fashion illustrator Cristina Martinez to reimagine iconic Mattel toys through art. The website features art prints for sale, as well as limited edition products like an UNO deck designed by artist Nina Chanel in collaboration with the recording artist Pharrell.
Launching Products During the Pandemic
Dickson says he and the rest of the leadership team felt that Mattel was positioned to provide support to consumers, many of whom were struggling with balancing childcare with work and other responsibilities.
Being creative isn’t limited to just the creative department or the designer world. We have creative people throughout the company, whether they’re in accounting or HR or PR or the supply chain.
This is where the Mattel Playroom comes in. The free webpage was launched quickly in March, and features activities and content related to iconic Mattel brands like Thomas & Friends, American Girl, and Barbie. The page also gathers tips and resources for parents and caregivers.
Mattel Playroom is updated continuously and is currently a “holiday hub” for activities, audio files of stories, videos, and more.
The success of the online playroom in March led to the creation of the “Play it Forward” platform in April. This is an ecommerce platform where themed lines of toys are sold and the net proceeds of purchases go towards funds like #FirstRespondersFirst, which seeks to provide essential supplies to frontline workers. The first line of toys, dubbed the “Thank You Heroes” collection, included nurses, delivery drivers, and EMTs, among other professions.
This line was initially offered for “pre-sale” and then created to order based on demand to ensure they would be shipped by the end of 2020, Dickson explains.
“We had to react fast and ultimately build them to order,” he says. “So, supply chain really wasn’t an issue [with this line] because we developed them early and…based on the demand, we’re shipping those now. I will admit that that was unique. But given its success, I think we can assume that we will do more models like that.”
Creating Formal and Informal Innovation Opportunities
The ideas for products like the Playroom don’t exclusively spring from Mattel’s R&D and design departments, Dickson says. Rather, the company seeks to encourage all employees to participate in innovation. One way leadership does this is by tapping into the Virtual Garage — a platform from which leaders can source ideas.
Leaders begin by sending out a prompt to the entire company: “It could be [asking for] ideas around connected play, it could be based on a consumer insight or trends…” Dickson explains. Employees then submit ideas, which go through a vetting process with design and development leaders, who then make a decision about which to move forward.
We value new initiatives that challenge conventional thinking. It is actually part of our values, where we speak about challenging the status quo as everyday vernacular at Mattel.
“It’s been an amazing process that has engaged the entire company. What you realize is: Being creative isn’t limited to just the creative department or the designer world. We have creative people throughout the company, whether they’re in accounting or HR or PR or the supply chain,” he says.
In addition to the Virtual Garage, Mattel also offers more formal innovation opportunities, like annual on-campus activities that act “almost like a toy fair,” Dickson says.
Present Ideas Simply to Leadership to Make Change
From a leadership perspective, it’s important to have uncomfortable conversations about new ideas, Dickson says.
While Mattel works hard to foster an open and innovative culture, not all companies are in the same boat. If a company’s C-suite appears more closed off to new ideas, Dickson advises that lower-level employees begin asking questions like “what if?” and “why not?” He also suggests that ideas are presented simply at first, and that employees “respect the day-to-day of an existing business” while having creative conversations with peers and leaders.
According to Dickson, the metric that matters most is customer experience: “Nothing is more important than the consumer perception and experience with our brands. … When you speak to a consumer and you say what you do, and you mention our brands, they have amazing stories to tell you about their memories or their child’s engagement with our brands. That is the ultimate form of success.”
Mattel’s leadership also stays in tune with employees through annual surveys that seek to learn more about culture, and to gauge how employees feel about the company’s progress against its goals.
“We believe in accountability and ownership. We know that our people are at their best when they’re empowered to create and deliver results,” Dickson says. “We value new initiatives that challenge conventional thinking. It is actually part of our values, where we speak about challenging the status quo as everyday vernacular at Mattel.”