Karma Styling Head

Building Karma’s World: Inside the launch of the toy line

How 9 Story and Mattel created a Karma's World CP line that reflects the series' themes of authentic self-expression, representation and a love of hip hop.
September 20, 2022

While the Karma’s World team is building hype for the toy line at Brand Licensing Europe this week–complete with a touring “Beat Bus,” Kidscreen magazine takes a deep dive into how it came to life, from its pandemic-tailored initial pitch sessions to retail launch this summer. 

By Maryam Siddiqi

Launching a toy line was always part of the plan for the team behind Karma’s World, the hit animated series from 9 Story Media Group about an energetic 10-year-old who uses her love of hip hop to find her voice and navigate the world.

But with Karma’s big personality and the socially conscious themes of the series, the company knew a one-size-fits-all approach to CP wasn’t going to work—nor should it.

“We really felt like we had an opportunity to show the market something that hadn’t been done before: to create a line that zeroes in on authentic representation and gives kids products they can interact with that represent them,” says Kyra Halperin, co-head of consumer products at 9 Story.

The original series, created by rapper/actor/ producer Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and inspired by his oldest daughter, launched on Netflix in October 2021. But the toy line was in the works long before the premiere.

Karma, Switch, Winston

The toy line reflects the series’ central themes of music and dance through articulated dolls and accessories that can move and groove.

With Licensing Expo cancelled in late 2020, the 9 Story team created its own virtual pitch event for potential licensing partners, sending invitations and goodies to toy companies showing the direction the company wanted to take the brand.

“We sent out boxes featuring products from Black-owned businesses, snacks and some branded goodies,” says Halperin. “Chris Bridges came and spoke about his passion and why he created the show, our production team walked through the details of the show, and then we walked attendees through our consumer products plan.”

A number of major toy companies attended, but it was Mattel’s pitch that blew 9 Story away, Halperin says. The feeling was mutual.

“Our team immediately fell in love with the property,” says Katie Buford, Mattel’s VP of dolls global marketing. “Karma’s World is unique from other doll properties. We love Karma Grant. She’s an aspirational and relatable Black girl lead, and we love how the property brings hip hop culture to kids; this idea of music and dance as an outlet for self-expression.”

Mattel’s pitch included a full vision for the product line, adds Buford. “At the time, we had what we call a 3D—an initial sample of what a doll could look like. And then lots of ideation around product concepts and through lines for the range,” she says. Mattel’s pitch also addressed systems of play and key elements that would weave the line together.

There are nine SKUs in the initial collection, split into two global launch dates—July 17 (to coincide with the show’s third season, which debuted on Netflix July 7) and October 22, with toys available at major retailers like Amazon, Walmart and Target. The product line ranges from a music journal with a hidden record player and a marker so kids can write lyrics, to a doll set of Karma and her friends Switch, Winston and pet pup Major.

Karma's World Creativity Journal3 (1) (2)

Included in Mattel’s line are collectible records and a karaoke-inspired microphone that lets kids rap along with Karma or create their own lyrics to beats.

One doll immediately resonated with the 9 Story team: Singing Star Karma. “Music is the central element to the series. Her being a music creator—that just felt like such a natural fit,” says Kristin Lecour, co-head of consumer products for 9 Story.

Development of the line was very much a collaborative effort, and focused on supporting the goal of the series.

“A couple times, [9 Story] shared sneak peeks of episodes during the animation process, giving our designers insight so we could be as lockstep as possible,” says Buford. “Then our design team would take that inspiration, craft toy designs, and 9 Story provided feedback on them as those toys came to life.”

Key for 9 Story was ensuring that the products represented the series’ pillars— music, dance and creative self-expression— which are often reflected in Karma’s fashion.

Included in Mattel’s line are collectible records and a karaoke-inspired microphone that lets kids rap along with Karma or create their own lyrics to beats. The dolls’ limbs are moveable so kids can recreate dance moves, and every doll has a unique fun and colorful outfit, letting fans build a closet full of Karma’s clothes.

Both Mattel and 9 Story were mindful of representing Karma in an age-appropriate way, particularly because the typical age for kids playing with these dolls can be as young as five.

9 Story was already working on the series development with the Perception Institute (PI), a consultancy that helps companies make decisions that reduce race, gender and other types of identity discrimination. And it was an easy decision to extend the institute’s counsel for the toy line.

“One of the things [PI] mentioned was that Black girls—and Black dolls—can sometimes be over-sexualized in terms of the types of dress that they’re put in,” says Lecour. “So that’s one we’ve been really careful about, making sure that Karma’s midriff is not showing—all the characters, quite frankly—and making sure that the shorts pass the ‘sit test,’ like, how short are they?”

The clothing line was designed through a partnership with the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. “We worked with a bunch of diverse up-and-coming student designers to create a collection that reflected what Karma’s closet might look like if you were able to step inside of it,” says Halperin. “Mattel then took that and turned it into clothes for the doll.”

Aya Tavares, PI’s director of story and representation, says the institute’s work with the toy line included how characters
were presented, focusing not on potential “cancellation,” but on opportunities for authentic representation. “We were called in at inflection points where decisions [were being made] about how to present really pivotal pieces…that I think are most
inextricably linked to potential pitfall moments,” she says.

One of these pivotal pieces is Karma’s hair, whether in a coloring book image—”Should it be an open space that kids could color in themselves? Or does that create some potential harm in what could be understood as appropriation of choices made by people who don’t share affinity with Karma?”—or the Karma’s World Styling Head, a bust of Karma flowing with soft curls that kids can style.

“Achieving authenticity in Karma’s natural hair was extremely critical for us,” says Buford. “The process to ensure that we had the right elevated hair play in the dolls was a major focus throughout the development process. Our team used the most premium doll hair fiber, and we made sure that the fiber was rooted properly.”

For this particular aspect, Mattel consulted with 9 Story and Perception Institute, as well as internal resources.

“We tapped into our employee resource group here at Mattel called Black at Mattel. We leveraged focus groups with kids, over-indexing with girls who identify as Black. And then, of course, our consumer insights team always has their ear to the ground when it comes to trends and consumer perception,” says Buford.

The result is a toy line that is beloved by both contributors and fans. Halcyon Person, Karma’s World head writer and co-executive producer, attended the Essence Festival of Culture in early July, where the team previewed some of the toys and fans got to interact with the Styling Head.

“We had grown women spending an hour on her hair, which I thought was the most amazing thing,” she says. “Every single person who touches her head is in awe of the quality of the hair, from the thickness to the fibers. It’s unlike anything you have ever felt before on a toy.”

One of the things Mattel loved about Karma’s World, says Buford, was the show’s focus on purpose. “It’s so important to today’s customer,” she says. For production companies considering a toy rollout, she adds it’s essential to bring a unique perspective to the market.

“If there is a smaller company or a founder who’s really passionate about a certain topic, make sure that comes through in the content pitch.”

And 9 Story’s Lecour urges content creators to remember that they know the content best. “We’ve been lucky with Mattel that we haven’t had to push [back against] trying to get us to do things that make it an easy sell,” she says. “But that would be my advice—stay true to what the brand is and what makes the brand special and unique, versus falling into just doing what is maybe more cost-effective.

“As the content company, you know what is special about the series, what makes it unique, and what the key DNA is.”

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