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Barbie is on a roll: The good news from Mattel's dismal quarter

A young girl plays with a Mattel Barbie doll in Tiskilwa, Ill., on July 1, 2015. Bloomberg photo by Daniel Acker.

Hidden within Mattel's announcement of plunging sales and massive layoffs were two bright spots that may be the key to the toymaker's turnaround -- and they've been around for a combined 100-plus years.

Barbie, the 59-year-old doll that's Mattel's biggest brand, had a 12 percent jump in sales in the second quarter, its third straight gain. Hot Wheels, which just celebrated its 50th birthday, had a 21 percent surge in revenue.

What's behind the revival in old-school brands? A strategy that's summed up in company Power Point presentations as "giving them a new view of what they've been watching all along.'' The "them" refers to today's young parents, who may have grown up with Barbies and Hot Wheels only to snub them in favor of educational apps and fancy gadgets for their own kids. Mattel is trying to lure those customers back by recasting the toys' image to play up not only the nostalgia but a newer notion: they're beneficial to child development.

The sales gains indicate this new view may be taking hold.

"When you apply the right strategy behind these brands, you cannot just turn them around, you can put them on a path of accelerated growth," said Ynon Kreiz, who in April became Mattel's fourth chief executive officer since 2014. "We're going to take this same approach with the rest of the company."

A broader turnaround is still a challenge. Mattel's total revenue declined 14 percent to $841 million in the second quarter, missing Wall Street projections, as other major brands, like Fisher-Price and American Girl, sank. The El Segundo, California-based company, hit hard by the liquidation of retailer Toys 'R' Us Inc., also said it was eliminating more than 2,200 jobs, or about 22 percent of its corporate workforce, as part of a cost-cutting plan started last year.

But the growth of Hot Wheels, the second-largest brand, and especially Barbie, which has seen sales decline in three of the past four years, is encouraging, according to Gerrick Johnson, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets.

"Everything they reported on Barbie and Hot Wheels was positive," said Johnson, who recommends buying Mattel's stock. "They have two brands really working."

And the foundation of those gains is this new view, according to Chief Operating Officer Richard Dickson, who's spearheaded this strategy since returning to the company in 2014. Parents, who were already overloaded with choices for their kids, increasingly were considering these frivolous and disposable -- Hot Wheels start selling at just 99 cents -- and that placed a cap on their growth potential.

For Barbie, the issues were bigger: a growing perception of the brand as an outdated collection of stereotypes, like that all girls care about are clothes and boys, while setting an unrealistic standard of physical beauty. In an age of female empowerment, that smelled like death.

Dickson talks incessantly about the "purpose" of the company's brands, and how it should drive everything from products to marketing. For Barbie, that boils down to being good for girls. And this is not just that the doll is fun, but that the play it inspires is a good -- even great - child development tool.

"We're re-framing our play as beneficial," Dickson said in an interview.

It may seem far-fetched that an 11 1/2-inch doll could engender creativity and ambition, while a miniature car is a hot bed for critical thinking -- and that parents would believe such a concept. But there is a growing movement of academics and educators pushing mounds of research that shows such open-ended play is paramount to developing these essential skills. Something as seemingly mundane as playing house is really role-playing that builds empathy, teamwork and communication.

"Play was absolutely crucial to human evolution," said Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College who studies childhood with a Darwinian bent. And the decline of play time from all the structured activities that have been hoisted on kids is "clearly having harmful effects" like less resiliency and not being able to solve their own problems, he said.

Dickson has latched onto Mattel's own research about the changing behaviors of millennial parents. A rising number care more about what their kids consume -- whether it's food, entertainment or toys. And with the aftershocks of the Great Recession and globalization making life more competitive, they are spending on child development.

U.S. middle-class parents of a child born in 2015 are projected to dish out $38,000 on education and development from birth through age 17, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's a $10,000 inflation-adjusted increase, or a 35 percent gain, from a decade earlier. For high-income families, spending is estimated to surge 85 percent to $87,000.

Dickson internalized this and saw Mattel's way forward as layering the developmental benefits of play over its brands. In a bid to stand out, it would have to keep making toys loved by kids, but now, more than ever, also be parent-approved.

Dickson, who spent almost five years running licensing and then Barbie, left Mattel in 2010 to become an apparel company CEO. In July 2014, the toymaker's board brought him back, with marching orders to fix Barbie and then the rest of Mattel.

Within months, the company moved into full-blown turnaround mode. Walt Disney, a longtime partner, decided to move the lucrative license for its Disney Princess and Frozen brands to arch rival Hasbro Inc. Then CEO Bryan Stockton was fired and replaced by board member Chris Sinclair.

A shift began in October 2015 with the "Imagine the Possibilities" ad campaign. In it, girls teach neuroscience and coach a men's soccer team. The spot ends with the viewer realizing these are just scenarios a girl is playing out in her bedroom with a Barbie doll. The ad, which is still running and has 120 million online views, helped lift the brand's affinity scores, according to Mattel.

"That was the turning point for Barbie and the perceptions about what it means," Johnson said. "It's a 180-degree turn. It used to be 'ick, I don't want my daughter to idolize Barbie,' to my daughter can use Barbie to live out her aspirations."

Three months later, Mattel did more for the brand's approval ratings by giving Barbie curvy hips, shorter legs, seven skin tones and 22 eye colors -- diversifying from the primarily white, blonde-haired character she had been. The press was glowing, including the cover of Time magazine.

Barbie's content also changed. Gone are the stories of her becoming a mermaid, or obsessing about Ken in an otherwise perfect life. In a new Netflix series, "Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures," she's portrayed as a gutsy and empathetic older sister. She also has a video blog on YouTube with 4.5 million subscribers, where short posts range from how she deals with "feeling blue" to Valentine's Day DIY gifts.

"Barbie can have a bad day," Dickson said. "It's more realistic."

Barbie's comeback has given Dickson even more confidence that company's pivot toward beneficial play will work. He sees a pathway to when Mattel will have in place a toy lineup -- anchored by its Fisher-Price toddler brand -- that can help develop the thousands of skills kids need from birth through elementary school.

Add a robust online platform -- already being tested in China -- that offers parents assessment tools, advice and product recommendations and Mattel can "capture them for a decade, or more," Dickson said. For increasing the company's value, "that is the bigger, longer-term unlock."

Whether the company has the leeway, and investors have patience for all of this remains to be seen. The stock has lost about one-quarter of its value in the past year.

"This is a turnaround," CEO Kreiz said. "It will take time."

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