Mattel Opens Its Vault to Revitalize Dormant Brands
Barbie is about to reunite with some old friends. Mattel, the maker of the popular fashion doll, is dusting off three dormant lines that have not 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, Mattel’s chief executive, 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 fest in San Diego.
“This is our toe in the water,” said PJ Lewis, the vice president of global marketing at Mattel. “Back in Action helps us maintain the validity of our I.P. and decide what’s next.”
Mr. Kreiz’s strategy has helped Mattel turn around its sagging fortunes since he took over in 2018. The company reported a 19 percent jump in sales in 2021, to $5.5 billion, and despite supply chain bottlenecks and the rising costs of raw materials, it has forecast growth of 8 percent to 10 percent this year. (It will report second-quarter results on Thursday.)
Part of the toymaker’s recent success derives from the expansion of legacy brands. Barbie will feature 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 Wheels movie produced by J.J. Abrams’s Bad Robot production company and one for Masters of the Universe, in partnership with Netflix. Other brands headed to the big screen include Thomas the Tank Engine, Magic Eight Ball and Polly Pocket.
“When you walk into a store and go down the toy aisle, almost everything is tied to a movie or a TV show or a video game,” said Danny Eardley, the lead author of “The Toys of He-Man and the Masters of the 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 saw success 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 a forthcoming movie about the spaceman. Big Jim arrived in 1971, followed by Pulsar in 1976, but they, too, have been out of the public eye for decades.
The trio’s reintroduction makes financial sense because Mattel isn’t earning revenue from properties that are locked away, said Gerrick Johnson, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets who covers the toy industry.
“You own the I.P., so there’s the opportunity to capture merchandising,” he said. “One of the huge upsides is to elevate a toy line that was underperforming or not performing at all.”
Mattel’s strategy for reviving a dormant brand is to engage hard-core fans first, said Richard Dickson, the company’s president and chief operating officer. If they take to it, the next step is to come up with tie-in content and create a toy line 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 line led by He-Man petered out, Mattel tucked it away, only to revive it years later as a collector product. Then last year it was followed with a pair of animated series on Netflix — one for adults and one for children — that were accompanied by toy lines at retailers.
“We test and see whether we should bring back the brand in a meaningful way,” Mr. Dickson said.
Encouraged by the success of Masters of the Universe, Mattel is using the same formula for Monster High, a line of spooky fashion dolls that was introduced in 2010 and became one of the company’s top sellers. The dolls have been off the shelves since 2018, but they returned last year with a “Skullector” series. Mattel is also planning to introduce an exclusive doll, Voltageous, the superhero alter ego of Frankie Stein, at Comic-Con this week and has announced a Monster High live-action musical that will air on Nickelodeon and stream on Paramount+ in October.
Mattel is using Comic-Con, which has become an important 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 toy line from its fantasy franchise Dungeons & Dragons and an exclusive G.I. Joe action figure, Dr. Mindbender. (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 toys in the Back in Action trio have been off the shelves for a long time.
“There is no dad of a 7-year-old boy 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 collectors of toys from the 1980s.
“That figure form is beloved among collectors,” said Brian Heiler, publisher of Toy-Ventures magazine, which examines the history of vintage toys. “Those folks might not care much about Big Jim or Pulsar, but they might buy this format.”
And if they do, it could be a sign that the Back in Action brands will live up to their name.