Telling Brand Stories w/ Mattel

Episode · 1 year ago

Telling Brand Stories w/ Mattel


You can't compete in today's marketplace if you're just making long commercials. Viewers are savvy, and they pick up on that.

So, how can you tell culturally sensitive stories that turn a brand's product into a living, breathing piece of entertainment?

On this episode of Brand-side, we sat across the mic from Christopher Keenan, SVP and Executive Producer, Global Content Development and Production at Mattel, to discuss how to master the art of brand storytelling.

What we talked about:

- How cultural nuances play into content creation

- Best practices for creating long-form content

- Tips for succeeding in brand storytelling

Find this interview and many more by subscribing to BRAND-SIDE on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or our website.

Listening on a desktop & can’t see the links? Just search for BRAND-SIDE in your favorite podcast player.

Welcome to brand side, a new podcast by Celtra, where we interview marketing creative operations and design meters to find out what life is like in house, first agency side and how big creative ideas come to life at the world's best brands. This is brand side by Seltra. Welcome back to Brandside, and today we are discussing all things branded entertainment with Christopher Keenan. He is the SVP and executive producer global content development and production. Add Mattel. Did I get your title right? Did except we have to add mantell television at the end. Oh Man, I almost had it there. How you doing today? I'm doing very well. How are you? I'm good. I've been waiting to have this conversation just because, you know, we've been diving deep into the CPG world the past couple of episodes and now we're getting to my favorite part, which is storytelling, and boy, you have an experience that rivals I had. I don't know if I've spoken to a brand marketer with this much experience that are their belt. So you've been working in kids entertainment for nineteen years. So how did you get started? What's the story? Well, it's actually been a little over, I'm embarrassed to say, a little over thirty years, and I'm wow, an taming, and I started my career at Warner Brothers in the production office for their first television production and animation, which was tiny Tun Adventures back in one thousand nine hundred and eighty nine, oh wow. And and through those years it's kind of taken you then over to the grand side. You worked across different markets, different countries, and obviously all of those markets are different. So how do cultural nuances play into creating content for brands? You know, cultural nuances always have a role in creating content, but the degree to which changes are made to that content really varies by a territory or by region. Some are more comfortable with, or familiar with Western storytelling or Western sensibility. Others, you know, have very specific cultural parameters that need to be adhered to or traditions that need to be recognized and respected. It's something that we always take into account everywhere I've ever worked. You know, it's something that's absolutely critical because you're speaking to children and audience is particularly parents. Want to make sure that the kids are seeing things that are appropriate for whenever their community happens to be. That's so fascinating. And you know you've been over at Mattel for quite some while now and then you've had quite the journey and compassing multiple countries as well, so tell me a little bit about it. Well, working with mattell and hit entertainment prior to that, which is own by Mattel, has really been a terrific experience because I'm working with really, really iconic characters and brands that that are, by definition, global. When you're talking about, you know, a character like Barbie or brand like hot wheels or masters of the universe or promised the tank engine. All of these have played a role in entertainment you across the Globe and kind of in line with your earlier question, some of them have been, you know, altered, depending on the region, from the initial way they've been developed or produced. Some changes that made, but one of the things we're trying to do more and more is create content that can resonate with a global audience and doesn't need to be changed and made specific for a particular territory, but is accessible and appropriate for as well an audience as possible. Yeah, and I think also today it's sort of the netflix phenomenon ride. Like I noticed that in my own content consumption where, you know, I was just a I bench watched to sell, which is an Israeli show that's in Hebrew and Yiddish. At obviously that's not made for... culture. Are My you know, what I'm used to viewing. So I think there's this sort of trend towards also kind of like seeing content that is completely different to what you're used to. That's a really, really interesting point because, you know, matell spends in a great deal of time and energy doing all sorts of global research and and I'm not good, never tend to be a researcher, but I will tell you anecdotally that what I've seen just over the course of my time to tell or even my whole career, is that the the kids audience is becoming more and more of a global audience and global community than ever before, and in many respects it's with the advent of the Internet, you know, kids are seeing things from all over the world and exposed to things from all over the world. Well, it's a global awareness, but it is a respect interest in content that was maybe created in a different region for a different audience and there's an acceptance of that. I think it's really you know, it's a phenomenon that certainly is happening on Netflix. I imagine it's happening on other platforms as well, but I just see it with, you know, again, anecdotally, the things kids show me that they're looking at on Youtube or, you know, other other places on the Internet, and I realize that as a producer, I'm not just competing with, you know, the other shows on Netflix or Nickelodeon, I'm competing with the entire world, Nobod who owns a camera, you know, in their phone, and that kind of you know, also widens that realm of creativity because now you can start thinking about like, outside of maybe episodic or serious thinking, you can also think about tick tock or again, like you mentioned, youtube and these like different types of content as well. But I'm really curious to know what your role consists of today. So what's your day to day like? Well, every day is a is an adventure and each day is a little bit different. But because I'm involved with almost every step of the content creation process, from, you know, ideation or acquisition, creative development, deal making and dealing with attorneys and business affairs and all the legal ins and outs and then hiring for development and production, putting the teams together, as I say, kind of iating and leading the creative generation of an idea or story. Then that, once we sort of get into we get through good place of the development there's a sales effort where I'm working closely with our distribution team at mattell television in identifying potential buyers or platforms and then meeting with those buyers and platforms and presenting the material. Once we actually get a green let and we're good to go into production, I work really closely with our production team on putting together the production plan and working out our different vestures and how we're actually gonna deliver on what we've sold and then creatively oversee the project through the actual production. Currently we have seventeen productions going and twenty four projects and development, and I don't sleep a whole lot right now. Yeah, that's how that sounds really intense but also very interesting and so obvious. Sleep. For Toys there is like a very sort of organic continuation from a product to entertainment. But do you think any brand can turn their product into living and breeding entertainment that goes just beyond marketing or advertising. You know, that's an excellent question and it's one that comes up almost on a daily basis in one form or another, because there's two ways to look at this. Putting aside the idea that branded content is just advertising, which for me and for mentell television, it really isn't. That may have been the case previously, you know, metell or other companies, but you cannot compete in today's global marketplace if you're just making longbated commercials. You know deserve are savvy and then they pick that up very quickly and frankly, that's why I...

...and others have been brought into mattell is to create content that stands on its own merits, even if it happens to star, you know, an iconic character or helped really tell the brand story. So it's often a matter of looking at what's the cart and what's the horse. Sometimes a toy may pre predate any content and you're developing content around that toy or around that product or that kind of friends. But again it's got to stand on its own merits as content. Or the inverse can be true. You can have a terrific, you know, animated series or character that has no product associated with it, and you know once that has found an audience, then you develop product around it. Working for Mattel, one of the first things that we think about it not so much what will the toys be for this show? If this is an original idea, I'm our new idea, but what's the play pattern inherent to this concept? Meaning, you know, when the television or the The you know, the pad is turned off power, kids going to continue to engage with these characters for this story? You know, is it going to take the form of playing with toys, or is it going to take the form of reading books? Or how do we extend that experience so that it truly is a three hundred and sixty experience? And it's not about looking for ideas or shows that are bringing to life a bunch of toys. It's about looking for ideas or show concepts or characters that kids are going to want to engage with across all sorts of platforms and in all sorts of activities. That's that's sort of the you know, the brass ring that we're going for is something that when a kid turns off the content, they pick up, the toy they pick up, the game they put on the past for me, open the book, you know, whatever it may be, but if it's just great entertainment, it doesn't deserve mattell as well as something that can really be experienced across a wide variety of media and product I love that you're thinking beyond just that show and with that. So if you were to give some advice for brands who are looking to get into long, firm content, whether that he's a series or other other types of pieces, what are your best practices for really succeeding in that? You know, that's a tough question because you're sort of asking, you know, what's the key to success, and if I knew that I'd be a very rich man. But it's in some ways, you know, it's always a bit of a gamble. You're investing your time, your energy, you know, your creativity into something with no guarantee that it's going to be, you know, successful, let alone a hit. But there's a couple of rules of thumb that that I kind of live by and if they're at all helpful to anyone else, great one is that, to the best of my knowledge. No one has ever made it really big by imitation. When you think about all of these, you know, big properties that you know, sort of take the world by storm and, you know, surprise everyone. All of them seem to have come out of left field. Nobody is imitating someone else. It's something that nobody ever did before or a character we've not seen before or a world that is unlike any other. You know, there's or an execution, you know, and a production execution that's completely different from anything else that's that's out there. There's always something about it that stands out because someone took a risk, and I think that, to me, is probably the most valuable thing to keep in mind, that if someone else is doing it, it's already being done and you may be able to ride those coattails, but you're never going to be leading the leading the way. So that, I'd say, is sort of rule number one. Rule number two, and this is a sort of a Biggie for me, is it is animated storytelling or is narrative storytelling...

...really the best use of this character or franchise or prayer? And it may be or it may not be. I mean, if what you have at hand and I'm completely making this up, you know, but if what you have is a it's a really cute tomato, you know, it's a tomato with a really cute face and that's what you want to sell, is storytelling at the heart of what makes that character or that thing? You know, is that what is appealing about it? And if it's not, trying to force a square peg into a round hole is is not going to bring you success. So, you know, maybe it's better to put those energies into something else. And I see this all the time where we're almost inevitably, whether it's a toy or, you know, book or some product or creative execution from a different arena, you know, outside of actual anim of storytelling, people are saying, and then of course we do an animated series, and my question is always why, you know what, what about this? And it happens frequently with book properties where something is an amazing book, it doesn't necessarily lend itself to, you know, narrative animated storytelling. You know, it works best in the media that it's in and it medium that it's in and it doesn't need to travel into other mediums because it just sort of doesn't work you know, I'm sorry it's a really long wind of answer, but but I think that that the number the number one thing about being original and unique is is probably most important to me. Number two is really making sure that it's a property or character, a thing that lends itself to storytelling. And then number three is to make sure that whenever you're sharing that vision, that you're sharing that vision with thing, with elements that really reflect what that vision is. The number of times I've been pitched properties where someone says, you know, here's what the shows about and here's some artwork, but it won't really look like this artwork. I just couldn't afford to get a different artist. Are they you know, they're sort of apologizing for all the things they have that are not representative of what they really want to do. To me, less is more. If it's if it's just that you have an idea or you have something written or you have a piece of art, whatever it is, whatever materials you're using to share that, I yet make sure it represents the idea and not just taking a box. That makes sense absolutely and it's so interesting that you mentioned risk taking. I just had a call with another marketer earlier today and and we were discussing how not enough brands are are taking risks with their content and there and their marketing. And so how do you ad mattell foster a culture where it's okay to take risks and also fail, because that ultimately is the key to innovation and new forms of storytelling? Well, you know, we mattell is a large organization and I will say, from from the top down there is a shared sentiment that if you're if you're going to fail, fail big, you know, sort of go for it. There's enormous internal and corporate support for experimentation. I mean we have whole departments that are about superm experimentation on the product side, and the same is true for the content side. I mean development is experimentation. I would say, you know, roughly ten percent of what we develop actually gets into production and sold. You've got a plan for a lot of spit bawling and throwing things against the wall to see if they stick, because that is part of the creative process and, as I say, thankfully at Mattel, that's in Mattell's DNA, is lots of research into element and that is...

...experimentation and most things end up on the scrap heap and it's only, you know, the cream that rises to the top and that's what moves forward. I think we would see a lot more interesting stunts and initiatives from brands if more of these organizations took your approach versus. You know, we've got this one shot. We have to make it perfect. It has to communicate all the product USP's the right way, and then it ends up being so safe and boring and but you know what, and I'm sorry into a Christine, but as you're saying that, I was thinking yes, and we're able to do that because mantells had such success with certain brands that they allow for, you know, the spending of resources on experimentation. You know, he didn't have our be and hot wheels and, you know, a number of others, we wouldn't be able to take those risks. As it's you know, content creation is very expensive. Let's see, you know it is, and there is there's a I want to say a luxury to being at a larger company. Cut there there's benefits to being at a successful company where you know, the success of one project begets the experimentation on many others. You know, but for many years prior to joining hit and Mattell, I was independent on a small company. I worked with clients and partners all around the world and many of them were small, some of them were individuals, and I was always encouraging and experimentation. I was always encouraging taking the creative risk. It doesn't have to be an expensive risk, but it's got to be a risk because you want to go into, you know, fire or a market or wherever it is that you're going to be presenting and you want to stand out. You want to be the project that people remember. I mean the television markets. When you go it's a week of buyers hearing, you know, pitches and presentations every fifteen minutes or a half hour for a week, you know, eight hours a day, and they're burned out and you want to be the one they think that one really stood out, because I guarantee you, at the end of that market week they don't remember, you know, eighty percent of what they've seen. Yeah, in a many way. In many ways consumers in the are in that same bowl. Like we get bombarded with marketing messages all week long and all we want is that one brand story that stands out. I always love hearing about, you know, real life examples from from brand. So maybe talk the audience through a recent motel product launch where you amplified the launch through original content. One of the most interesting productions that I've been involved with since I joined hit and then mattell is Thomas and friends, and the reason it's been fascinating in terms of your question is that in the short time I've been with both companies, which is now about seven years, Thomas has undergone a couple of evolutions and has grown and changed and the product line has grown and changed a number of times. A few years ago we decided collectively with Fisher price to make some changes to the content and to the product line and introduce an incredibly diverse group of characters. They happen to be engines, but we more female engines, engines that hailed from different countries, engines with different accents. We wanted to make sure that, you know, if our cast of characters was to be diverse, that we were diverse, you know, in the traditional ways, but also in ways that were perhaps non traditional but almost more of a metaphor. Forts so, for example, when we when we began to think about diversity, we thought about it in, you know, many of the traditional senses. We wanted to have gender equality, we wanted to have different national origins represented different...

...cultures, but we also wanted to introduce this idea of sort of physical differences amongst the engines as a metaphor for diversity in many and so, you know, in addition to the steam engines, we added a diesel engine and an electric engine and, you know, a why variety of fuel types, so that we were truly embracing diversity in a way that was true to the Thomas Universe, to the train universe, and then was also in reflected in product. So that was really a journey we went on hand in hand with Fisher Price, where the content and the and the product were developed simultaneously and meant to really compliment each other. And we're taking it a big step further in that we just recently made the decision to do a new version of Thomas called Thomas and friends, all engines go, which premieres in the US and September, and it is a d version of Thomas versus the traditional CGI version, and it's much more cartoony, it's much more lighthearted, it's really colorful and it's meant to play to a younger audience, but it's meant to bring back some of the fun to Thomas and in response, the product group has developed a whole line of toys and product that reflect this new content direction. And again it's it's keep going back, sort of playing badminton, you know, sending the the Birdie back and forth in terms of WHO's leading the charge. The diversity example is just brilliant. It's something that you know you would never think of, but once you say it it's so simple that you're like, you know, this is just you know, why didn't I think of that? And the best ideas offen our. I really love that. That especialist is everybody's trying to nail diversity, but I think you guys just took it one step further with this project. And actually, if I can just share, we're doing a show with nickelodeon right now which is a monster high, and we're really approaching it in the same way that. You know, Monster High, from its inception over was all about diversity and inclusion and we wanted to maintain that and take it a step further where, you know, it's not just about being different. It's about, you know, what you do with that difference and how you how you stand out and stand up, you know, for who you are. And it's fascinating because monster high was all about the you know, the the teenage kids of famous monsters, and it was their monsters that was sort of the metaphor for adolescence and feeling like you're different or you're standing out or whatever. And so we're bringing in some other elements to make it even more diverse and you'll have to watch and see what those are. But the same idea being true, that there are so many ways to depict diversity and depict individualism and uniqueness, you know, within a fantasy animated world, that it doesn't just have to be about, you know, race and national origin. You know, there's more, there's other ways to depict this, because there's all kinds of diversity that that is important to showcase, and I love what you said about, you know, how can we not only show this diversity but also explain how it is a strength and how it plays into each of these characters? And I think there's a lot that brands can also pull out of it, even if they're not in the animated space. So I've got one more question for you. So obviously you are a brilliant storyteller with a wealth of experience in the space, but what would be your tips for other marketers out there and succeeding in telling their brand story? You know, if I can borrow a page from my experience with Mittell, I think I would use Barbie as the best example of choosing a...

...direction and choosing a story to tell. The reason I say that is because Barbie's been many things to many people over the years. You know, she is an Avatar. She's an icon many respects. A few years back we decided that it was really important that Barbie not just the you know, the Avatar. I have her appear in content and product as different characters. But we start to establish Barbie's character. Who is she? You know, har be is a seventeen year old girl who lives with their family in Malibu after being transplanted from Wisconsin. Like she she we have to create that character and then give her a perspective, give her a point of view, give her personality traits that will be true across, you know, whatever roles she plays or content she appears and and that's been an ongoing effort over the last couple of years and it's made an enormous difference in the way we approach content with her period, because we're always taking, you know, the pillars of the brand and sort of the brand's purpose into account, but we're also taking Barbie Roberts character into account. You know, I almost want to have tshirts. It's Ay, what would Barbie do, you know, because we think about, you know, how one but how is she going to respond to something? And we've been really fortunate to have an outlet for that, which is Barbie vlogs, where we produce these short vlogs where Barbie is, you know, online and talking to her audience about what she thinks, what she feels and and it gives her a point of view. And this is a longwinded way of answering your question. When you say, you know, for marketers who are are looking to tell the brand story, my advice would be to choose a point of view. You know, to you known, you might be the best, you might be this you, but those are all sort of marketing claims. They're not a marketing story, and a marketing story to me is is the essence of a point of view. It's where you've been and what your perspective is looking forward, and that sort of what we're trying to do with Barbe and I think this is the same thing. You can do without saying you're better than so and so. Are Your this or your that, or you know, just you know. What are you about? You know, and that's the story to tell, and tell it from your unique point of view. I really love that, Christopher. This conversation has been the highlight of my week. I've learned so much. So thank you so much for coming on to the show. If people want to connect with you, where can they find you? You can find me on Linkedin. You can find me at Mattel. Just Google me. Now I'm getting but yes, I'm I'm at Christopher Dot Keenan at mattelcom and they can also watch your shows, I'm sure. Yes, please do, please do now. So thank you so much and if you like this episode, please give us a little rate, review and and follow and we'll see you next time. On the brand side. You've been listening to brand side. If you like what you heard, subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player. If you'd like to learn more about creative production automation. Is it Sultracom? Thanks for listening, UNTIL NEXT TIME.

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