Living Doll

Mattel's Richard Dickson told delegates at last month's MIPTV conference in Cannes that Barbie was now a living doll—not just a toy, but a fully-fledged lifestyle brand. In an exclusive interview with License! Global he reveal

April 6, 2018

6 Min Read

Mattel's Richard Dickson told delegates at last month's MIPTV conference in Cannes that Barbie was now a living doll—not just a toy, but a fully-fledged lifestyle brand. In an exclusive interview with License! Global he reveals more.

Giving a run down of life with Barbie, who will be 50 next year, delegates at the MIPTV conference in Cannes last month could have been forgiven for wondering what Mattel's Richard Dickson was doing at a television market.

Indeed, Dickson—who is Mattel's' senior vice president, worldwide marketing, media and entertainment—himself threw the question back at his audience. What he suggested was that Mattel is now more than the largest toymaker in the world. As an IP owner and licensor, Mattel is responsible for managing brands—and key among them is Barbie. i1_424.jpg

Barbie's troubles have been well documented, and after decades in the market, the world's first fashion doll is not what it once was. Recent competitive challenges to Barbie from within the toy industry —from the likes of Bratz and Disney Princesses—have been exacerbated by changing and fragmented children's play patterns.

Decreasing sales of dolls across the world have hit Mattel's bottom line—indeed, a report on first quarter 2008 trading showed doll sales down by 12 percent in the United States. This is being somewhat offset by recovering international sales.

But Barbie is no longer just about doll sales. "The play paradigm has changed forever," Dickson told MIPTV delegates. "From entertainment to apparel—being in the play business now means being in a lot of adjacent categories. At Mattel, we believe that relevance today is about being where your customer is, 24/7." From its first step into DVDs and a Web site launched in 2000, the Barbie brand is now spread across some 45 different consumer categories and the non-toy business is worth $1.5 billion wholesale—half of all Barbie branded sales.

And, like other IP owning toy manufacturers before it, Mattel is exploring the movie and television route for Barbie. Discussions are already taking place, and Barbie will take to the screen. But the approach is cautious. There is no compulsion to create television, Dickson maintains, particularly as the motivation for a manufacturer is very different to those of a broadcaster. Manufacturers want to build brands and sell more product; broadcasters want to drive ratings. And in the context of Barbie's 50-year lifespan, there is no need to rush, he says.

"And movies are addictive because they gain awareness and business. But when the movie is over, so are you. Whatever we do has to be relevant to our product as well as being culturally relevant."

The roll out of the Barbie brand into non-toy categories over recent years is part of what Dickson describes as the "living brand" strategy, based on cultural insight and evolving brand behavior.

With the key insight that Barbie resonates with adult women and noting how brand collaborations are surfacing across fashion and lifestyle brands and retailers, Mattel married the two to create a project with on-trend cosmetics brand Mac.

The Barbie Loves Mac collection was launched in January 2007 simultaneously in premium department stores worldwide. A small collection of products accompanied the cosmetics range—a Barbie Loves Mac doll as well as a T-shirt and makeup bag.

Perhaps even more groundbreaking has been the 2008 follow-up. An innovative tie-up with Barbie and New York retailer Patricia Field—who famously styled the leads in "Sex and the City"—kicked off with a launch in Macy's in New York and was followed with the opening this spring of a pop-up store in Tokyo, Japan for the Barbie by Patricia Field collection. This time Mattel has created an alliance between Barbie, fashion credibility, and innovative retailing. Similar projects are to be rolled out in Europe this year and next. And in the meantime, a permanent 5,000 square-foot Barbie store has opened in Buenos Aires in Argentina, bringing the Barbie experience to life with a beauty room, party room, and café, as well as shelves stacked with Barbie fashion, accessories and toys.

While brand collaborations are part of a global strategy, local adaptation is important to keep product in the right context for the market. "In the UK this led to promotions with girl bands Sugarbabes and Girls Aloud," says Dickson. In Japan, where Barbie has a huge adult business among young women, the opportunity is in apparel and accessories. We started that six years ago and now have a $40 million business from one standalone store."

Last year also saw the launch of the Web site, an online community accessible across the world and operating in six languages. Mattel's recent report stated that the community has some 11 millions users, and that a fee could be introduced for 'VIP' level membership. In a sector that is still looking for ways to 'monetize' the virtual world, this would be a bold move.

Mobile marketing is an obvious extension, but Dickson says, "Five to eight year olds are not there yet—but when they are and it is relevant we will be there too. Our formula is to be on trend, not leading the trend. We will be there when it's relevant to our consumer." Content is, however, already being tested in the United States.

The two phrases that Dickson uses most frequently when discussing Barbie, and all the Mattel brands, are "relevance" and "flawless execution." And retailing is close to Dickson's heart, having worked at Bloomingdale's for 10 years before moving into the cosmetics industry at Estée Lauder prior to joining Mattel eight years ago.

"The right product with flawless execution is the magic formula," he says. And while Barbie may harbor her own retail ambitions, Mattel is still dependent on its retail customers to put its stories across. Mattel is trying to break the rules for Barbie, but is operating in an essentially risk averse environment. "There are retailers who are gutsy enough to see the advantage of risk," he says, adding that some are now trying to establish risk within their organizations. "And, we are working with retailers to mitigate the risk between the two."

Flawless execution is as relevant to Mattel as a licensee as it is as a licensor, Dickson believes, the difference being whose business plan is being implemented. "On the licensed side we share best practice on every front across the business. But as a licensee we are fulfilling someone else's plan—they have chosen us to fulfill a category execution. We innovate and execute at retail flawlessly in conjunction with their plan.

"But as a licensor, we are working to our own plan and the beauty is that we have the product at our fingertips."

For the future, Dickson is absolutely clear that success will come from control of IP. "For manufacturers and for retailers, without a brand, what have you got?" he asks. "If you don't have your own brand then you are always relying on other people's IP. For retailers that means their P&L is driven by other brands. The only way to control your destiny is to control your most important asset—the brand. It's a most exciting time as a marketer. It's about what is relevant—and if it is not relevant you need to rewrite the rules, and quickly."

And it is now clear what Richard Dickson was doing at a television market—he was there as Barbie's agent.

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