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How does a decades-old iconic brand keep multiple generations of fans engaged?

Lisa McKnight, Senior Vice President and Global Head of Barbie and Dolls, Mattel, and Jim Tricarico, President of Sales and CRO, Cadent, took part in a virtual fireside chat session for Brand Innovators to discuss. The executives, both with years of experience supporting children’s properties, shared insights on connecting with audiences and staying on top of changing viewership habits. 

Read insights from Lisa and Jim’s conversation below, including Barbie’s multi-platform approach and why storytelling is a critical part of keeping multiple generations engaged with the iconic brand.

The following has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Jim: I just want to say that this is a little bit near and dear to my heart, for those who don’t know. I was the EVP of Sales for Nickelodeon for many years, and Mattel was our largest account. So thank you, Lisa, for joining us today.

Lisa: My pleasure, it’s great to be here. Jim, I want to echo what you said, obviously we’ve had such a great, long standing partnership with Nick and it’s fun that our paths have crossed.

Jim: I’m going to jump right in. I’ve always been amazed by the legacy of Barbie and how, for so many generations, Barbie has maintained its incredible place in kids’ and adults’ hearts. How have you kept a brand like Barbie so relevant for so many years?

Lisa: It’s certainly not easy. Barbie has been around for 61 years and certainly throughout the decades, we’ve had many highs, but we’ve also of course had a couple of lows. 

I would say what remains true is when we connect to culture, and when we stay true to the original vision behind the brand, which is to inspire the potential of girls, we usually are in good stead. It’s amazing and as you said, it’s really exciting that there’s a timelessness to Barbie, that we’ve spanned multiple generations. I would argue today, we’re actually more relevant than ever before.

Jim: Tell us a little bit about how content has kept Barbie relevant and who you’re trying to reach.

Lisa: Content and storytelling is so critical, certainly now more than ever as everybody’s sheltering at home. We’ve made a conscious effort to be choiceful in the ways that we try to reach consumers, as well as the storytelling narrative itself. 

About six or seven years ago, we had an opportunity to make Barbie more in the front and center of our stories… We realized that what girls and consumers were really looking for was more information about Barbie herself, they wanted to get to know her, they wanted to know who her family members were, what she did for fun. 

What remains true is when we connect to culture, and when we stay true to the original vision behind the brand, which is to inspire the potential of girls, we usually are in good stead.

Today, Barbie is the number one YouTube channel for girls. We have over 11 million subscribers and one of our best pieces of content is Barbie Vlogger, where she entertains the kids and mimics what cool hip influencers are doing on YouTube. But at the same time, she also sometimes talks about important topics that are teachable moments. We’ve recently been resurfacing some of our vlogs about feeling sad because there are kids at home that are struggling with emotions right now and don’t know how to articulate how they’re feeling. And we want them to know that’s okay and that’s normal. 

Jim: Tell us a little bit more about your Thank You for Heroes program that you’re running now.

Lisa: Mattel introduced a macro program called Play It Forward, where we’re trying to bring all of our brands together to give back to certain communities in times of need. We launched Thank You Heroes as a campaign underneath Play it Forward a few weeks ago with Fisher Price. They introduced action figures, celebrating real folks out on the front lines right now like doctors and nurses and firefighters. 

Jim: How have you adjusted Mattel and Barbie’s media to meet the ever changing viewership habits of today’s kids?

Lisa: Obviously there’s been so much disruption in the media landscape, I think what we found early on is there isn’t one linear path. Kids are consuming multiple platforms almost at the same time, and there are multiple screens in front of them. We really just try to go wherever our consumer is spending their time and where their viewing habits are. 

We do a lot of analytical work, and we look at that annually to see the media levers that we’re pulling. What’s driving both short term sales, as well as a long-term sales benefit that helps us get more guidance on where we want to invest more. But it’s absolutely a combination of top of the funnel to bottom of the funnel activation. 

Jim: How important is co-viewing to you?

Lisa: We are finding more and more that there are shows where there is co-viewing. So we think about our advertising with that multi-audience in mind. We think about what’s the right messaging for those types of programs when we do media buys. And then, what I like to say is our content does have adults in mind. We think about kids, but we also think about adults. 

Again, I mentioned earlier, some of our content has teachable moments. There are moments in our Barbie blog where she’s doing fun challenges, and one is called the Baby Food Challenge. Her eyes are closed, and Ken feeds her baby food and she tries to guess what it is. That’s something that’s very appealing to the kid audience. But when she’s talking about feeling sad, one of her episodes is about why do women say they’re sorry so often, that really strikes a chord, not only with kids, but also with adults. We’re definitely always thinking about multiple audiences.

Jim: Talk a little bit about your insights team inside Mattel and how that helps direct your marketing and continue to keep Barbie so relevant.

Lisa: We’re very proud of our insights team. We talk to consumers almost every day. Now we’re doing this virtually, but when we are literally in our offices or when we’re able to go outside of our offices, we also like to go to people’s homes. 

We’ve got a really robust learning center at Mattel itself, where we invite kids and families in to test products, talk about themes and issues that are going on in their lives. I think that key to success is to always listen and be in lockstep with what’s happening, not only with consumers, but with society and culture.

Jim: Tell us what’s next for Barbie. 

Lisa: We’re actually starting to brainstorm our 2022 product line. We’re talking now about the post-COVID generation kids and what that looks like. 

What I can share is that this generation of kids not only is incredibly resilient, but really cares about the world around them. And so we’re going to be thinking more about infusing even more purpose into our product and our communication programs. This is a group of kids that has a ton of empathy. You can rest assured there’ll be more play sets and themes around the medical profession in Barbie’s world coming up. And of course we’re always looking at what’s an authentic way for us to focus on sustainability, more intently.

Playtime is not canceled, I think the more that we can think about ways to bring comfort to our kids in this extraordinary time, the better. 

Jim: How was Mattel planning to promote the Dream Gap project in the post-COVID world?

Lisa: We’re working on a virtual execution of a festival or a convening moment with inspiring speakers and role models and activities to celebrate the fact that girls today, now more than ever actually, need to continue to be inspired and need to see that there are many possibilities out there for them. We’re that girls in underserved communities are really struggling right now with what’s happening with COVID. So we’ll be doing a lot to raise awareness about these underserved communities and ideally raising funds to work with organizations to help give these girls the tools that they need to achieve their dreams.

Jim: With that, I just want to say thank you for spending this time with us. What’s the message you would love to leave everybody with today?

Lisa: I’d love to just remind everybody that certainly for all of us, we’re in this together. For any of you with kids at home or that have kids in your lives or in the neighborhood, now more than ever it’s important to celebrate playtime and we’ve got to get creative. Playtime is not canceled, I think the more that we can think about ways to bring comfort to our kids in this extraordinary time, the better. 

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