Mattel reinvents play value with new licensing initiative

IT's been about a year since Richard Dickson started implementing his vision to reinvent the core play values of Mattel, and since then, the pet project has grown into a global initiative that's changing the way its licensees are designing product.
September 1, 2007

IT’s been about a year since Richard Dickson started implementing his vision to reinvent the core play values of Mattel, and since then, the pet project has grown into a global initiative that’s changing the way its licensees are designing product.

The SVP of marketing, media and entertainment worldwide for Mattel Brands wanted play to be infused in everything the toyco touched – and he meant everything, starting within Mattel’s own walls, which were quite literally taken down. Feeling that the company’s internal environment should also reflect play, Dickson reconfigured the office space, doing away with cubicles to create an open-concept ‘playground’ and even renaming boardrooms as playrooms. ‘It became contagious,’ he says. ‘It was an internal way of navigation, and we began to look at +Play as a design language and directive.’

As the movement picked up momentum, every single style guide for Mattel’s many brands was completely overhauled by design VP Tim Parsey’s team to include examples of how +Play could be applied to licensees’ product to further reinforce the concept. Dickson says 15 licensees are already on-board with +Play, including Thermos, Meredith Publishing and Global Design Concepts, all three of which mostly target the three to eight demo with their product ranges. Millennium Apparel Group has rolled out a line of Polly Pocket t-shirts that have a small pocket and doll sewn on the front, letting girls take the mini-doll play experience with them wherever they go. And +Play product is even skewing as young as infant, with Adidas rolling out Fisher-Price baby footwear embedded with rattles and packaged with additional toys.

Emerson Radio Corporation was one of the first worldwide Mattel licensees to apply +Play to its products with the Barbie Real Electronics line that launched this past spring. The process began in November 2005, when Mattel presented the idea and some very rough product concepts to Emerson’s director of product development Judi Robinson and her team. Working on these early designs with the Mattel team, Emerson came back to the table with a more developed set of concepts and applied them to its Barbie-branded consumer electronics line. The idea was for the rejigged boom boxes, TVs, DVD players and clock radios to offer up a gemstone fun button that, when pressed, would activate a different feature on each product. So pressing the gemstone on the clock radio, for example, triggers a light and prompts Barbie to tell bedtime stories.

Robinson says the fun button is meant to be a surprise for kids, so the packaging doesn’t explain what it does; it just says that pushing it will unlock something special. ‘We were looking for ways to integrate a fun, unexpected surprise to delight the consumer,’ she says. ‘+Play is an excellent way to build interaction with the product.’

Mattel has dedicated major resources to the implementation of +Play and is going way beyond simply sending out packages and materials in hopes that its licensing partners’ R&D teams will get it right on their own. The toyco has a dedicated team in place to help global licensees navigate their way through the process from start to finish, and these execs are giving orientation presentations around the world and staying on afterwards to work on design concepts.

Though the initiative is not currently trumpeted in consumer marketing efforts, Dickson says that if +Play really takes off, trademarking is a definite possibility, and the next phase will involve a consumer message of some kind. In the meantime, since Mattel is committed to making +Play a priority going forward, it would behoove licensees looking to work with the toyco to proactively address it in their pitches.

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