Catherine Balsam-Schwaber Talks Transformation of Kids’ Business


CANNES: Catherine Balsam-Schwaber, chief content officer at Mattel, weighed in on key shifts in the children’s media business at MIPJunior before being interviewed on stage by Kristin Brzoznowski, the executive editor of World Screen.

Kids are “transforming the business that we’re in from a ‘push’ business into something that is entirely consumer-centric,” Balsam-Schwaber said. “Kids are the primary reason that people everywhere have become consumed with creating their own content. Most significantly, when we think about what kids are doing, they’re turning media from less of a medium that is defined by form [into] one that is defined by platform. They’re the ones driving us into this new age of connected platforms for telling stories.”

Balsam-Schwaber talked about the widespread usage among kids 3 to 12 of smart devices. “One-third of kids under the age of 12 are making their own video content. Imagine what that is going to be five years from now.”

She went on to note that kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend almost half of their waking hours engaging with screens. “They don’t see as much of a difference between brands and content,” she said. “This is why anything or anyone, particularly brands, competing for kids share of mind have to treat them as participants and not just as viewers. We have to change the way we think about connecting with kids.”

This is good news for the content business Balsam-Schwaber noted, and for the toy business, both of which are growing. “The incomes of the parents most likely to buy toys is also growing around the world.” Balsam-Schwaber added that parents are “embracing digital content as more valuable tools in the play phase of children.”

She continued, “Kids are growing up in this increasingly blurred line between content and toy, in particular. Kids expect toys to have content and kids expect content to have toys.”

Right now, she said, “is a pivotal moment for one of the most influential businesses ever, which is our collective business and connecting with children in new ways. At Mattel, it’s a moment that has inspired a whole new way of thinking about our business and thinking about the vital role of story in child development today.”

Mattel sees “content as a critical component of how we inspire wonder for children. Wonder is a deeper and more meaningful brand connection that is initiated and enabled by story. So whether producing an animated half-hour or a fashion doll, we know that inspiring wonder is what makes today’s kids form lasting connections with brands and with products. These are the kinds of relationships they carry with them into the future. For any brand to thrive in content-intensive world, they’re going to needs these kinds of relationships to drive viewership or product sales or both.”

In this “wonder-driven content revolution,” Mattel is trying to “reinvent the way we create and build brands. The biggest shift at Mattel since we invented the toy business 57 years ago, we’re changing the mindset of the entire way that the business runs.”

Mattel saw television as a critical part of its strategy early on in its history. “They knew it was a way to tell stories about brands that static ads and display billboards could never do.” Mattel was one of the first national advertisers on U.S. television.

“It was not till recently that Mattel realized that what were doing as a marketing tactic in the content business really was becoming the foundation of the way kids see brands. Content is where brands and story meet. Content is where kids meet brands for the first time. They become inspired to wonder.”

Mattel is less and less of a “toy-centric company and more and more of a story-centric company. Toy is the thing that enables the kid to play out our brand stories but also tell stories of their own through the content they’re making. Moms are increasingly open to the notion that story can come from anywhere. One of the shifts we see happening is that today’s moms are actually more enthusiastic about digital content than they are about TV.”

Inspiring wonder is a business strategy, Balsam-Schwaber went on to say. “Wonder is what kids are looking for in brand experiences today. Wonder is one of the things that parents are seeking for their children. They know it fosters aspirations and skills and creativity that encourages them to flourish and be more fulfilled in their future life.”

This philosophy is so important to Mattel that the company has “built a new capability within our company. It’s essentially a ‘wonder studio’ to create these wonder-based relationships between the brands and kids. We call it Mattel Creations.”

New initiatives at Mattel include a partnership with Lady Gaga to reimagine the Monster High brand with a Zombie Gaga doll. The company is also trying to think more globally about the content it creates. “So we’re taking stories that have been successful in one region and then porting them in expressions that are culturally relevant around the rest of the globe.”

An example is the work around Battle Claw, created specifically for China. “In the future we’re bringing Battle Claw to the U.S. and other markets.”

Mattel is also using AI technology to extend the experience of the Hot Wheels toy.

The company is also working on a reality series “that brings the magic of toy-making to life.” The Toybox is set to air on ABC next year. “We have plans to roll out the show and the format around the world.”

Following her keynote, Balsam-Schwaber was interviewed by World Screen’s Kristin Brzoznowski, beginning with a discussion about content extensions to the Barbie brand. “Barbie continues to resonate in new ways with girls around the world. For us, the time was right to help redefine Barbie. That’s been going on for a while.”

The content includes Barbie Life in the Dreamhouse and Barbie Dreamtopia. Mattel Creations is also behind the series WellieWishers on Amazon. “It’s a reimagining of the stories we’ve been telling about American Girl.” WellieWishers features a multicultural cast of girls coming together having adventures.

Balsam-Schwaber went on to say the company is looking for new IP opportunities. “The first thing for us, whether it’s product or content, is that it needs to be rich with story, it needs to have the possibility to inspire wonder in children and have global appeal.”

Brzoznowski then asked Balsam-Schwaber about opportunities she sees in content space. “It’s the continued intersection between the content and the product,” she said, adding that she’s looking forward to seeing someone reinvent the choose-your-own adventure ideas.