Restoring Barbie: The CEO's Golden Rules for modernizing a legacy brand

Grace Blue's North American CEO describes what it takes to bring a brand back from the brink

At the beginning of the year, Mattel reacted to plummeting stock prices by firing its chairman and chief executive, further proof of the huge impact an individual leader can have on a company’s bottom line.

Incoming CEO Christopher Sinclair now faces the huge challenge of transforming a legacy brand as Mattel stocks lose value, competitors like Hasbro monopolize the most lucrative Hollywood partnerships and new media alters toy marketing. What qualities does Sinclair, or any turnaround leader, need to have in order to modernize a legacy brand? Through my work with agency and brand leaders around the world, I have identified the traits needed in an executive to lead this kind of brand transformation.

Marketing and media-first thinking. It doesn’t matter where you sit in the C-suite; marketing now influences decision-making in all departments, from IT to finance. And as the leader of all of those departments, the chief executive must have a deep understanding of today’s marketing and media landscape and how to leverage those platforms in new ways.

He must also possess an equally deep understanding of how media is consumed. If Sinclair and his marketing team stay committed to big TV buys on Nick Jr., he will miss the rising power of YouTube as a force in marketing to children.

Rather than engaging with potential toys via 30-second spots, many kids now engage with toy brands via user-generated videos of toys being unwrapped and child-led tours of their personal American Girl collections. An executive with media and marketing first thinking, and agility at his or her core, would have long ago leveraged that trend.

Innovate like an entrepreneur. Companies now expect their leaders to create new revenue streams and brand opportunities, not just improve on the existing ones. This means a transformation leader must be entrepreneurial to the core.

This is especially true with a legacy brand like Mattel, where the products it sells are sometimes decades old. Mattel must innovate new and exciting brands if they want to compete. Mattel seems to be making some smart moves internally to create a spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation; it recently partnered with Google to create a virtual reality view finder. And they recently launched a new creative innovation hub, Toy Box, to innovate toys and explore tech partnerships. Sinclair will have to designate more funding and talent to these innovation efforts if he wants to catch up to some of the newer, more game-centric, toy brands.

Ability to find young and agile talent. In order to make sure your company is capable of being innovative and embedding new tech and marketing innovations quickly, turnaround leaders must have the ability to find and recruit agile and young talent. Trends can happen out of nowhere. New technology emerges everyday. You need people on your team who are trendsetters, live the technology and can connect your brand to emerging tools and platforms immediately.

Energy and resilience. But that agility isn’t just critical for young talent — it’s essential for the CEO himself. We’re living in an era that demands a willingness to act quickly, decisively and intelligently in reaction to change, which is moving at the speed of light.

Addressing the evolution of technology, partnership models and budgets requires a massive amount of physical and mental energy, and Sinclair will have to prove he’s up to task of bringing that attitude to work daily. Resilience is equally as important. In the case of Mattel, threats from competitors, new media and big data will be constant, and moving fast and with deliberation will be essential to bouncing back from the inevitable pitfalls.

A renaissance skill set. The recent uproar from parents and youth-marketing watchdogs group about the use of voice data in Mattel’s "Hello Barbie" makes it clear that the new-breed CEO has to master PR and data along with all the other executive functions they had to master in the past.

As the new CEO, Sinclair must be able to figure out the risk/reward ratio of Hello Barbie and her data. Is the public outrage over connecting kids and big data worth the possible engagement of young consumers who expect a digital component to their toys? The transformation leader must have the skills to correctly answer that question.

Power negotiating skills. In this day and age, the power partnership seems to be one of the best ways to reach new audiences, and it is an area where Mattel has missed many opportunities. Hasbro has been awarded the majority of the most lucrative Hollywood licensing agreements, including Avengers, Transformers and Star Wars. And in 2016, it takes over the Disney partnership from Mattel, thus stealing away Mattel’s money-making line of "Frozen" merchandise.

The CEO of a turnaround brand requires the creativity to imagine great partnerships, the negotiating skills to make those partnerships financially worthwhile, and the charm necessary to get powerful players to sign on the dotted line.

Hiring for a turnaround is obviously a very special challenge — the necessary skill set is broad, and it is rare to find all of those traits in one person. But if a legacy company focuses on finding the perfect leader with the necessary attributes, it will see that one individual can help turn their company story into one of transformation instead of failure.

Jay Haines is the North American CEO of executive search firm Grace Blue.

Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free