Barbie is about to reunite with some old friends. Mattel, the maker of the popular fashion doll, is dusting off three dormant lines that haven’t been on toy shelves in decades: Major Matt Mason, Big Jim, and Pulsar.
The reappearance of three action heroes is part of a strategy by Mattel Chief Executive Ynon Kreiz to capitalize on the company’s intellectual property by reviving old brands for new generations.
Mattel will be reintroducing the toy lines this week at Comic-Con International, the pop culture fan fest in San Diego, under an umbrella label called Back in Action.
“That’s our toe in the water,” said PJ Lewis, Mattel’s vice president of global marketing. “Back in Action helps us maintain the validity of our intellectual property and decide what’s next.”
Mr. Kreiz’s strategy helped Mattel reverse course declining fortunes since he took over in 2018. The company reported a 19 percent jump in sales to $5.5 billion in 2021, and despite supply chain bottlenecks and rising raw material costs, it forecasts growth of 8 to 10 percent this year (it will report Second Quarter Results on Thursday).
Part of the toymaker’s recent success can be attributed to the expansion of legacy brands. Barbie will be starring in a live-action film with one of them, Margot Robbie a dozen films in the works for various Mattel brands, including a live action Hot Wheels Movie produced by the production company Bad Robot by JJ Abrams and one for masters of the universe, in partnership with Netflix. Other brands heading to the big screen include Thomas the Tank Engine, Magic Eight Ball and Polly Pocket.
“When you walk into a store and walk down the toy aisle, almost everything is connected to a movie, TV show, or video game,” said Danny Eardley, lead author of The Toys of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
But how will Mattel spark interest in brands that have been off toy shelves for decades?
Major Matt Mason, an astronaut action figure, was introduced in 1967 and was successful until children lost interest in space exploration. He resurfaced in pop culture in 2019 when Tom Hanks signed on to produce and star in an upcoming film about the spaceman. Big Jim came in 1971, followed by Pulsar in 1976, but they, too, have disappeared from public view for decades.
Reintroducing the trio makes financial sense because Mattel doesn’t derive revenue from properties that are locked away, said Gerrick Johnson, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets, which covers the toy industry.
“They own the intellectual property, so there’s an opportunity to conquer merch,” he said. “One of the great benefits is improving a toy line that has underperformed or not performed at all.”
Mattel’s strategy for reviving a dormant brand is to target diehard fans first, said Richard Dickson, the company’s president and chief operating officer. If they’re into it, the next step is to connect with content and create a line of toys for kids.
This formula can be seen with masters of the universe, which launched in the 1980s and quickly became a $2 billion franchise. After the lineage led by He-Man dried up, Mattel hid it, only to revive it as a collector’s item years later. Two animated series followed last year on Netflix — one for adults and one for kids — which were accompanied by toy lines at retailers.
“We’re testing and seeing if we should bring the brand back in a meaningful way,” said Mr. Dickson.
Encouraged by the success of Masters of the Universe, Mattel uses the same formula for Monster High, a line of spooky fashion dolls that launched in 2010 and became one of the company’s best-selling products. The dolls have been off shelves since 2018 but came back with a “Skullector” series last year. Mattel also plans to debut an exclusive doll at Comic-Con this week, Voltageous, the superhero alter ego of Frankie Stein, and has announced a Monster High live-action musical to air on Nickelodeon and stream on Paramount+ in October becomes.
Mattel is using Comic-Con, which has become a major marketing hub for toy companies, to test themselves with Major Matt Mason, Big Jim and Pulsar. Hasbro will also be there, bringing brands like Nerf and Transformers, as well as the first line of toys from its fantasy franchise Dungeons & Dragons, and an exclusive GI Joe action figure, Dr. Mindbender, promote. (Last week, The New York Times announced partnered with Hasbro to develop a board game based on Wordle.)
Reintroducing brands like Major Matt Mason into a new generation comes with challenges. First off, the back in action trio’s toys have long been off the shelves.
“There isn’t a father of a seven-year-old boy who knows what Major Matt Mason is,” said Mr. Johnson.
To bridge the generation gap, Mattel will introduce the toys in a smaller size that will appeal to collectors of toys from the 1980s.
“This figure shape is popular with collectors,” says Brian Heiler, editor of Toy-Ventures magazine, which researches the history of vintage toys. “These people may not be particularly interested in Big Jim or Pulsar, but they may buy this format.”
And if they do, it could be a sign that the Back in Action brands are living up to their name.