Play, purpose and platforms: Mattel wins the game

NRF 2023: President and COO Richard Dickson joins Shopify President Harley Finkelstein to discuss how the iconic toy brand stays relevant

Since 1945, when Ruth and Elliott Handler first collaborated with Harold “Matt” Matson in a Southern California garage, Mattel has been associated with creativity and innovation. These days, however, its audience and relevance are expanding in fresh ways.

It’s not only that “kid-adults” are the fastest-growing segment in the toy industry. It’s also that there are new opportunities with NFTs, limited-edition drops, celebrity collaborations, sustainability initiatives, inclusive product offerings, carbon-neutral dolls and even reimagined Disney princesses. Everything “old” — whether Barbie, Hot Wheels, UNO, American Girl or any of the company’s more than 400 other brands — is seemingly new again.

At NRF 2023: Retail’s Big Show, Mattel President and Chief Operating Officer Richard Dickson joined Shopify President Harley Finkelstein for “Preparing for the future of retail with Mattel and Shopify.” The collaboration between the two companies began with the launch of Mattel Creations, a site for special-edition items, as well as American Girl dolls. Mattel has since announced it will bring its entire brand portfolio to the platform through Commerce Components by Shopify, an offering that uses modular components for customization.

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Around 2020, Dickson said, the company celebrated its 75th anniversary with the start of Mattel Creations. Taking its name from the unassuming lettering over the founders’ garage, it aimed to “capture the opportunity we have within our portfolio to reignite with older audiences,” also known as the “collector community.” It gives artists, entertainers, designers and musicians a canvas to work with Mattel’s brands, with limited-edition offerings as a result.

Mattel needed to find an ecommerce partner that could be flexible and work with a scarcity “drop” model, Dickson said, and “Shopify really stepped up to the plate.”

Mattel Creations is now one of the fastest growing brands at Mattel. As for American Girl, it was an existing ecommerce platform, but had room for ongoing innovation. The legacy brand is largely direct-to-consumer, but its physical locations were pioneers in the store experience space, e.g., the famed “doll hospitals” for care and repair.

Finkelstein believes American Girl gives a glimpse into the future of retail. “You’ve always been channel-agnostic with that,” he said. “It didn’t matter whether or not someone bought it in store or online. What mattered was, were we serving the consumer in the way the consumer preferred?”

Overall, Mattel takes a lot of pride in methodology, considered its “playbook,” Dickson said — it’s simple to talk about, but “simple does hard.” The elements of that playbook include individual brands being led by brand purpose, understanding the intrinsic value the brands represent to consumers.

"Studying the trends that are happening in the world, filtering that through and ultimately developing a product for the narratives that you believe will create relevance and drive demand."

Richard Dickson, Mattel

Barbie, for example, is about inspiring girls’ limitless potential. There’s also design-led innovation, which means “really knowing your consumer inside and out,” Dickson said, “and studying the trends that are happening in the world, filtering that through and ultimately developing a product for the narratives that you believe will create relevance and drive demand.”

Third is cultural relevance, and fourth is execution. “Great ideas come and go,” Dickson said. But executional excellence is needed to make a great idea relevant. And distributing brands in more than 500,000 retail doors takes execution that’s exceptional.

In the midst of all this play, there’s certainly some joy. Dickson expressed his delight, for example, at the creation of a Braille version of UNO, developed in partnership with the National Federation of the Blind. There’s also exploration of 3D printing, the future of hair texture for Barbie dolls, and AI that allows Thomas the Tank Engine to deliver personalized video messages on Cameo.

“The craft, the authenticity, the quality that you bring across 400 different brands and all the next brands, that’s the reason why we want to partner with you,” Finkelstein told Dickson. “Obviously, Mattel is a huge brand to have on our website. We love that. But ultimately, we want to enable the future of retail commerce and entrepreneurship. And I think, 75 or 80 years later, you’re still doing that.”

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