In a recent episode of the MTM Visionaries Podcast, Lisa McKnight, EVP and Chief Brand Officer at Mattel, Inc., and William White, SVP and Chief Marketing Officer at Walmart discussed how they marry innovation with tradition for their legacy brands.
Throughout the conversation they shared valuable insights and brand strategies, including aligning your brand’s purpose to every action, balancing tradition and innovation, creating maximum touchpoints across physical and digital experiences, inspiring innovation across the organization, and most excitedly–the Walmart and Mattel Barbie Cart campaign with that surprised and delighted everyone involved in terms of engagement.
If you’re looking to gain some inspiration and learn more about how you can enhance your team, talent, and career from two of the world’s top brand leaders, give this a listen/read and ask yourself these questions to see where your brand stands:
- Does Your Customer Know Your Why?
- Who is Your Innovation Serving?
- Are Your Collaborations Creating a Unique Experience?
- Are You Connecting Content to Commerce?
Ask Yourself: Does Your Customer Know Your Why?
Lisa McKnight: At Mattel, driving purpose throughout our brands and portfolio is critical to what we do. Even though Mattel itself isn’t a widely recognized consumer-facing brand, we’re changing that. Mattel’s purpose is to empower the next generation to explore the wonders of childhood.
Within our portfolio, we have many brands—Barbie being the most popular right now. Barbie’s purpose is to inspire the limitless potential in every girl, while Fisher-Price, another important flagship brand, focuses on giving kids the best start in life. Each of our brands has a clear purpose and mission behind it.
It’s important for us to connect with our consumers emotionally and for them to appreciate why our brands matter. We have a playbook that emphasizes purpose, connection to culture, consumer-centric innovation, and a franchise mindset, which are key tenets of our brand management.
“Innovation is a central part of Mattel’s playbook, and the consumer is at the center. We are at our best when we’re connecting to consumers and culture. “—Lisa McKnight
William White: Serving communities has been a part of Walmart’s DNA since its inception. We have always responded to the challenges faced by our customers, be it socioeconomic, environmental, or healthcare-related. This is our guiding principle.
However, historically, we have not always shared our story with the world. It is crucial to do so now, especially for emerging customers, younger generations who are digitally native, always on, and make purchasing decisions based on personal affinity for brands. Companies need to share their values with their customers, and Walmart is no exception. Telling the why behind Walmart is just as important, if not more important, than telling what we sell.
Living our purpose is evident across all parts of the organization, but marketing plays a significant role in how we communicate our story to the world.
Ask Yourself: Who is Your Innovation Serving?
William White: Walmart is a blend of Norman Rockwell and NASA. We take pride in our Americana heritage, history, and everyday human approach. At the same time, we also have an extensive technology and innovation agenda that covers everything from supply chain to marketing. Maintaining a balance between these two extremes is crucial. Our DNA is rooted in the disruptive and innovative mindset of Sam Walton. He wanted to bring the assortment found in big cities to rural communities at affordable prices, a novel concept at the time.
Over the years, Walmart continued to evolve and disrupt itself with various formats and approaches, always keeping the customer at the forefront. Today, when we think about innovation, it’s not just for innovation’s sake. We strive to serve today’s customers and prepare for tomorrow’s customers. Our focus is always on serving them better. This guiding principle helps us maintain our balance between tradition and innovation.
“Today, when we think about innovation, it’s not just for innovation’s sake. We strive to serve today’s customers and prepare for tomorrow’s customers. Our focus is always on serving them better. This guiding principle helps us maintain our balance between tradition and innovation.“— William White
Lisa McKnight: Innovation is a central part of Mattel’s playbook, and the consumer is at the center. We are at our best when we’re connecting to consumers and culture. Barbie is a good example of this. Over 10 years ago, we lost our footing with Barbie. Not only were our sales declining, but when we spoke to parents who grew up playing with Barbie, we heard they no longer saw Barbie as a positive role model. They didn’t know what she stood for, and they didn’t feel good about giving her as a birthday present.
This was a bad reflection of social currency. We knew we needed to rapidly evolve and modernize Barbie to make her connect with culture. We modernized her by introducing new body types, skin tones, eye colors, and hair fibers. Barbie now comes in over 175 different expressions. Today, she is the most diverse doll line in the world.
We also knew we needed to connect to culture through important conversations around impact and female empowerment. All of the work we did grounded her in purpose and made her culturally relevant. This allowed us to have a breakout movie in partnership with the genius Greta Gerwig, Margot Robbie, and the Warner Brothers team. If we hadn’t done that foundational work, they would not have wanted to partner with us.
Barbie is about to be 65. In the toy industry, the average life cycle of a toy brand is 3-5 years. To stay relevant, it’s about continued iteration, evolution, and innovation. We’re starting to think about a broader universe beyond our core kid audience, which is exciting for us as we pursue future growth streams.
Ask Yourself: Are Your Collaborations Creating a Unique Experience?
Mattel and Walmart Partner on the Barbie Cart
William White: One exciting project was our collaboration with Mattel on the Barbie cart. As part of our “Welcome to Your Walmart” campaign, we wanted to showcase what was in celebrities’ carts, including singer Becky G, NFL player Patrick Mahomes, and Barbie.
My team was excited about Barbie, but I admit I was skeptical about how big it could be. We partnered with Mattel to bring Barbie’s cart to life. With one click, customers could add all the items to their cart, including Barbie products like OPI nail polish (for the pink carpet), pickleball paddles (America’s new favorite sport), a reusable Walmart bag, and more. The launch included a never-before-seen integration on Good Morning America, where Barbie talked about her summer and all the fun things she got from Walmart. The campaign was a huge success, capturing the zeitgeist of the moment with tremendous energy, engagement, and purchases.
Lisa McKnight: Our team loved collaborating with Walmart’s team on this project. The partnership between Mattel and Walmart is truly the best in class. Walmart is highly valued as a strategic thought partner. I loved working with William, and I’m excited about what’s to come. It was great to have Barbie participate in this campaign as a celebrity influencer. She shared her top picks in products from Walmart, and it was a blast. Barbie is more than just a doll; she is a cultural icon, an influencer, and has something to say. Your report shows that her pink carpet cart was one of the best-performing campaigns in terms of conversions. It was a great experience.
Ask Yourself: Are You Connecting Content to Commerce?
William: William: There are many exciting things happening in our business, particularly in marketing. A lot of the work we’ve done has been focused on shortening the distance between inspiration and purchase. We’re trying to figure out how to take moments of inspiration in social platforms, digital environments, and even the metaverse, and quickly turn them into transactions without disrupting the experience.
To that end, we’ve done hundreds of shoppable live streams on seven different platforms and with various partners. We’re building a ‘visual ingredients’ search that will allow users to search for ingredients using their phone’s camera and get recipe suggestions. We were the first T-commerce partnership with Roku. In addition, we’ve created virtual experiences within Roblox and are now on Spatial.
Lisa McKnight: As mentioned earlier, we conduct extensive research on consumer behavior throughout the year. Our focus is primarily on the digital platform, and we view all our brands as intellectual property. We aim to expand our storytelling and reach consumers through new experiences and connection points.
We constantly innovate our play experiences and have an impressive collection of top toys for the holiday season. We are already working on 25 product lines, keeping up with the latest trends and staying relevant to the current culture. We aim to continue iterating and innovating within our legacy brands, making them even more amazing.
Question from The Audience
“Do you have tips for partnering with product teams and other teams to inspire innovation across the organization?”
William White: The more value you add, the more likely you will be invited to the table. When I think about large matrix organizations, everybody wants to have a seat at the table. The best way to achieve this is to be a strategic thought partner, work towards shared goals, and ensure that all parts of the organization are in alignment with what they’re setting out to do. Being an active participant in driving this goal is crucial. The more you do this, the more people will want you to be there.
William and Lisa’s Career Advice
William White: I am a big runner, and sometimes I draw analogies between my running and my career. For instance, when training for a marathon, it’s a 16-18 week training plan. Instead of thinking of the outcome, such as the time I want to run or the distance I want to cover, I also focus on the little things that add up over the training period.
Similarly, in my career, I have noticed that many young people have a specific goal in mind, such as wanting to achieve a particular job title at a certain company by a specific date. While it’s great to have a goal like that, it’s important to focus on the daily inputs that will get you there. Rather than solely concentrating on the outcome, you should focus on the competencies and capabilities you are building to help you achieve your goal through on-the-job learning experiences. Therefore, it’s essential to be curious about improving your capabilities and competencies, which will ultimately lead to the outputs you want.
Lisa McKnight: Building coalitions with different teams is critical. Over the past three months, I have been traveling to different campuses, connecting with people, and listening more than speaking, trying to get to know as many people and levels of talent as possible in the organization to build trust.
Throughout my career, I have been most successful when I bring partners and colleagues in and treat them as stakeholders. For instance, during the Barbie turnaround over 10 years ago, I made it a global initiative for the company, inviting my head of Latin America, EMEA, among others, to join me as stakeholders. I used a rallying cry, “We are Barbie,” to create a sense of collective responsibility.
Lastly, I believe that showing people why their work matters is incredibly inspiring and can get you through the good and the low times. People, especially the younger generation, want to do things that matter and have a sense of purpose in their daily lives.
Meet the Visionaries
Lisa McKnight, EVP and Chief Brand Officer at Mattel, Inc.: Lisa joined Mattel in 1998. In her current role, she oversees all of Mattel’s toy categories and global brands, as well as design and development. Lisa has held several senior leadership positions at Mattel for nearly 25 years, including the global head of Barbie since 2016 and Executive Vice President and Global Head of Barbie and Dolls since 2019 where she oversaw the entire Dolls portfolio for Mattel, and led a global team in brand strategy, product development, and marketing execution. Prior to leading Barbie in 2016, Ms. McKnight was the SVP of Marketing for North America working across the Mattel portfolio. Prior to Mattel, Lisa held agency advertising roles supporting clients like Taco Bell and Fairmont Hotels before transitioning to a marketing role at Gap, Inc. Forbes recognized Ms. McKnight as one of the top brand marketers in the world for 2023. She has served on the boards of MAKERS Women and the Toy Industry Foundation, with a focus on the DE&I committee and was previously the executive sponsor of Women of Mattel employee resource group. Ms. McKnight is a member of Women in Toys, through which she serves as a mentor to women in the toy, licensing, and entertainment industries.
William White, SVP and Chief Marketing Officer at Walmart: William joined Walmart in 2020 in his current position, in which he is responsible for the full range of marketing strategy, planning, and experience. He spearheads the company’s efforts in driving demand, building customer loyalty, and strengthening the Walmart brand. William has 25 years of business leadership experience across the consumer-packaged goods and retail industries. Prior to joining Walmart, William served as senior vice president of marketing at Target. Prior to Target, William held global and domestic leadership positions at Coca-Cola. He began his career as a media planner for Starcom, a division of Publicis Groupe. William has been recognized by numerous publications, including Forbes, Adweek, and Business Insider, as one of the world’s top CMOs for his leadership in creativity, innovation, and growth. William serves on the boards of the Walmart Foundation, the Association of National Advertisers, the Mobile Marketing Association, and the Duke University Fuqua School of Business.
Visionaries, hosted by Nadine Dietz, airs every week and is brought to you in partnership with The Wall Street Journal. Each week, two new visionaries share their game plan and how that impacts today’s teams, talent, and hybrid work environment.
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