Mattel exec Sejal Shah Miller on rebranding Barbie, and why diversity matters
The bodacious bod (her original dimensions would be impossible for a human woman), the handsome boyfriend and don't get us started on that dream house. Barbie, as we knew her, was pretty much nauseatingly perfect. Thing is, she was always sort of a one-note kind of lady -- you know ... blonde hair, blue eyes and a triple zero waist. Luckily, the executives at Mattel, which creates the lifestyle toy, got the memo that girls (and their moms) needed a more realistic doll.
In comes Sejah Shah Miller, vice president of global marketing for the iconic brand. For the past three years Shah Miller has been tasked with the multilayered duty of figuring out what was missing from the brand. Her answer was simple: diversity. The dynamo talks to espnW about her journey to the top of the toy industry, reimagining the original "Queen B" and more.
espnW: You spent a good portion of your career working with luxe beauty brands, such as L'Oréal. What attracted to you to Mattel?
Sejal Shah Miller: When Mattel reached out to me for the role I was intrigued. I hadn't thought about toys. But when I did, my research proved that sales were declining. We'd lost brand equity with moms. Girls were saying Barbie wasn't as cool as it used to be. Being a woman of color, and having had played with Barbie dolls, turning the brand around was an interesting challenge for me. Take a look at the things the brand has done in the last three years: It's shifted the idea of Barbie. It's exciting to be part of the evolution of the brand, and the team was acutely aware of the problems ahead of us.
espnW: Please discuss your duties at Mattel.
SSM: I'm responsible for brand marketing, which entails driving the strategies behind content, advertising, digital social channels, partnerships and consumer products. Additionally, I handle product development and the commercial marketing of our business.
espnW: What's your advice to women working their way up the corporate ladder?
SSM: Being true to your authentic self is important. You will exude confidence and that's half of the battle. It sounds cliché, but it's true.
espnW: Provide an example of how being your authentic self has paid off for you.
SSM: I'm not shy. I'm always quick to give my opinion. I obviously back up my thoughts with data, but I'm direct. And being direct has served me really well because people know what they're getting. And I'm very transparent. I'm also pretty consistent and that helps build your reputation. My other big tip is to learn how to take a seat at the table. Act as if you own a seat at the table, because you are one of the key decision-makers.
espnW: How do you cultivate relationships with colleagues and other professional acquaintances?
SSM: First, you have to perform well at your job, so you're respected. Second, I don't really subscribe to the idea that you have to wait for someone to select you [to build a professional rapport with them]. I've always been pretty forthcoming about reaching out to people and setting up an informational or coffee meeting, and then the conversation evolves.
As a woman of color I tend to seek out a variety of people who I can go to for advice and mentorship, both in and outside of my company. I still keep in touch with previous bosses because I think diverse views help you navigate whatever you think you may be dealing with in your own organization. If you only go to women, men or people of a certain background, then you're limiting yourself.
espnW: Tell us about how all of your training came together, which has now helped you transform the Barbie brand.
SSM: Our goal was to change the way the world talked about Barbie. This brand has been around for years, and it's continued to reinvent itself. It always pushed forward this idea that, with Barbie, a girl could imagine everything she could become. One of our first moves was to make sure the brand reflected what girls saw in everyday life, so we launched Barbie Fashionista. That line has 24 dolls with different skin tones, eye/hair colors and hair textures. We really thought it was important to reflect what girls see today and introduce more diversity. Next, we launched our award-winning "imagine the possibility" campaign tied to our "you can be anything" messaging. Last, in March, we introduced new body types -- curvy, tall and petite, to match our original body types. We listened to our consumers, and sales have confirmed that they are voting with their wallets.
espnW: Barbie is curvier, multicultural and has had a multitude of career paths. What's next?
SSM: We have our "heroes" program, which gives us an opportunity to recognize real people who are breaking boundaries with items that are a limited edition commemoration of these women. We launched a Misty Copeland doll earlier this year, and it was in such high demand that we had to do another production. And in spring of 2017 we're adding the Gabby Douglas doll to the line, in honor of her achievements as an Olympian. We want to highlight women that align with our purpose, and inspire youngsters to strive for limitless potential. The brand is continuing to listen and make sure that it's reflecting the world and trends. We are going to continue to evolve.
S. Tia Brown is a pop culture journalist, licensed therapist and an avid believer in the power of Spanx. Follow her @tiabrowntalk