Barbie is about to meet up with some old friends. Mattel, the maker of the popular fashion doll, is dusting off three dormant lines that haven’t been on toy shelves in decades: Major Matt Mason, Big Jim and Pulsar.
The reappearance of three action heroes is part of a strategy hatched by Ynon Kreiz, CEO of Mattel, to capitalize on the company’s intellectual property by reviving old brands for new generations.
Mattel will reintroduce the toy lines under an umbrella label called Back in Action this week at Comic-Con International, the pop culture fan festival in San Diego.
“This is our toe in the water,” said PJ Lewis, vice president of global marketing for Mattel. “Back in Action helps us keep our IP valid and decide what to do next.”
Mister. Kreiz’s strategy has helped Mattel turn its fallen fortunes since taking office in 2018. The company reported a 19% increase in sales in 2021, to $5.5 billion, and despite supply chain bottlenecks and rising raw material costs, it has forecast growth of 8 to 10% this year. (Will be informed second quarter results Thursday.)
Part of the toymaker’s recent success stems from the expansion of legacy brands. Barbie will appear in a live action movie starring Margot Robbie, one of a dozen films in the works for various Mattel brands, including a live action hot wheel movie produced by JJ Abrams’ production company Bad Robot and another for masters of the universe, in association with Netflix. Other brands making their way to the big screen include Thomas the Tank Engine, Magic Eight Ball, and Polly Pocket.
“When you walk into a store and walk down the toy aisle, almost everything is related to a movie, TV show or video game,” said Danny Eardley, lead author of “The Toys of He-Man and the Masters of the Game.” universe.”
But how will Mattel generate interest in brands that have been off toy shelves for decades?
Major Matt Mason, an astronaut action figure, was introduced in 1967 and was successful until children began to lose interest in space exploration. He resurfaced in pop culture in 2019 when Tom Hanks signed on to produce and star in an upcoming spaceman movie. Big Jim arrived in 1971, followed by Pulsar in 1976, but they, too, have been out of the public eye for decades.
Reintroducing the trio makes financial sense because Mattel doesn’t make any revenue from the properties that are locked up, said Gerrick Johnson, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets who covers the toy industry.
“You own the intellectual property, so there is an opportunity to capture commercialization,” he said. “One of the great benefits is elevating a toy line that was underperforming or not working at all.”
Mattel’s strategy for reviving a dormant brand is to engage die-hard fans first, said Richard Dickson, the company’s president and chief operating officer. If they accept it, the next step is to create related content and create a line of toys for children.
This formula can be seen with Masters of the Universe, which was introduced in the 1980s and quickly became a $2 billion franchise. After the He-Man-led line went out of print, Mattel shelved it, only to revive it years later as a collector’s item. Then last year it was followed by a pair of animated series on Netflix, one for adults and one for kids, which were accompanied by toy lines at retailers.
“We test and see if we should bring the brand back in a meaningful way,” Mr. Dickson said.
Buoyed by the success of Masters of the Universe, Mattel is using the same formula for Monster High, a line of spooky dolls that was introduced in 2010 and became one of the company’s best-sellers. The dolls have been off shelves since 2018, but they made a comeback last year with a “Skullector” series. Mattel also plans to unveil an exclusive doll, Voltageous, Frankie Stein’s superhero alter ego, at Comic-Con this week and has announced a live-action Monster High musical that will air on Nickelodeon and Paramount+ in October.
Mattel is using Comic-Con, which has become a major marketing venue for toy companies, to test the waters with Major Matt Mason, Big Jim, and Pulsar. Hasbro will also be there, promoting brands like Nerf and Transformers, as well as the first line of toys in its Dungeons & Dragons fantasy franchise and an exclusive GI Joe action figure, Dr. Master of Mind (Last week, The New York Times Announced a partnership with Hasbro to develop a board game based on Wordle).
Reintroducing brands like Major Matt Mason to a new generation presents challenges. For starters, the Back in Action trio’s toys have been off the shelves for a long time.
“There is no parent of a 7-year-old who knows what Major Matt Mason is,” Mr. Johnson said.
To help bridge the generation gap, Mattel will introduce the toys in a smaller size that appeals to 1980s toy collectors.
“That figure shape is beloved among collectors,” said Brian Heiler, editor of Toy-Ventures magazine, which examines the history of vintage toys. “Those people may not care much about Big Jim or Pulsar, but they could buy this format.”
And if they do, it could be a sign that Back in Action brands will live up to their name.
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