CommonSense Blog

Millennials Unplugged: Interview with Nancy Zwiers Expert in Youth Marketing

By Bob Pearson | Sep 04, 2015

In Texas, we would say “Nancy Zwiers?  Yeah, she’s done a few things in her life”.  Typical Texas understatement, of course.  Nancy has held multiple executive positions for Mattel, the #1 toy company in the world; she led worldwide marketing for Mattel’s $2 billion Barbie doll brand; she re-launched Polly Pocket and grew the #1 Cabbage Patch brand.  And she has advised clients ranging from Disney to Hasbro to Spin Master about the area of kids and play.  Yeah, Nancy knows a few things.

So we thought this Millennials Unplugged should be an interview with Nancy to learn more about youth marketing and what it all means.  Here’s excerpts from our talk.

Q: You were selling over 100 million Barbie’s a year, inventing new Barbie’s and learned a lot about what matters.  What did you learn about how we think as kids? 

A: I like to say that we had big data before there was big data—with so many transactions, we were able to see patterns that others missed that helped us develop our understanding of “Core play patterns.” These play patterns are amazingly consistent across time, geography, and culture.  We have concluded that play comes from the inside out.  It is a biological drive.  If you tap into these core play patterns, you are more likely to be successful in engaging kids.

 Q: That’s fascinating.  We always think we are so unique.  Why are we actually so similar?

A: Play is nature’s way to ensure we learn what we need to learn to survive.

For example, the original play pattern is “exploration & discovery,” which starts at birth—or maybe even before.  It’s innate in us and it drives us to explore our environment.  As we grow up, that same play pattern is fueled by curiosity and the little thrill that goes with each new discovery. 

Q: Very cool.  What are some examples we can relate to?

A: Reading flows from this play pattern.  Our desire to travel is a form of exploration & discovery.  Scientists feel like they are playing as they are driven to explore their scientific fields.  We want to learn in order to survive and we play to discover and learn.  The second play pattern we all share is “challenge & mastery,” which is at the heart of sports and most game play.  It drives us outside of our comfort zone to help us grow.

Q: How is entertainment viewed compared to play?

A: Entertainment flows the opposite direction of play.  It comes from the outside in.  That said, the new “discoverability” of entertainment content is a manifestation of exploration & discovery.  Further, the more entertainment is interactive, the more the lines are blurred between entertainment and play. 

Q: We realize it’s hard to ask you what your favorite toy has been…..but we will……

A: My favorite toy of all time is Barbie.  And the most innovative Barbie dolls are the ones that I like the most.  We created the first radio-controlled Barbie (Dance n Twirl Barbie), Becky the first “differently abled” friend for Barbie, the first mass customized doll (University Barbie) and even Barbie’s baby sister, Kelly, so we could facilitate the nurturing core play pattern.

Q: What’s the importance of nurturing as it relates to toys? 

A: Girls, especially, are irresistibly drawn to nurturing play—whether a baby doll or a pet.  Girls are also drawn to toys that let them explore what beauty means to them—think fashion dolls and arts & crafts. Frozen’s famous star Elsa personifies girls’ beauty fantasies.

Q:  What happens when we grow up? 

A: Our behaviors change but the drive behind them stays the same, so instead of Chutes and Ladders or Candyland, now we play with X Box or Minecraft.  You know, boomers didn’t have as many opportunities to play with a wide range of toys.  We only had a few TV channels*, but we were ok with that.  Now, kids and millennials have a wide range of toys and they see play as digital or physical.  Plus, they have an expectation that we can personalize our play experiences.  Customization and interactivity are the big things.

Q: When we think of the movies, what is happening when we love a character?

A: We find that you need an aspirational lead character that is also relatable.  Aspirational means “I want to be like her/him.” and relatable is “He/she is like me.”  These are the characters we most want to play out fantasies with. The real life Princess Diana illustrates this.  She was actually a princess, she was beautiful AND she had flaws.  Having a weakness makes us love characters more.  Think of Superman and kryptonite.   One quick note:  In the key imaginative play years of children from 3-6 years old, they will often fantasize with a toy/character that often reflects gender stereotypes.  Many adults think this should change but it is part of an overall process of developing one’s identity. 

Q: What is the future of the toy industry?

A: 3D printing will have a big impact on the toy industry…..digital (and physical arts) and crafts will grow…..kids are getting more focused on wanting to express themselves more……the need to differentiate from our peers is growing….customization and personalizing experience is important.  The Internet of Things will have powers we never realized.  Imagine a new 3D view master with augmented reality or having Siri-like interaction with dolls?  Or learning how a child is using a toy and then suggesting what else they may like based on sensors in the toy itself, sending back data to headquarters that is meaningful. 

Q: Nancy, what was your favorite toy growing up?

A: It was my microscope.  I loved it.  I still remember what my hair looked like under the microscope.

Thank you Nancy, this was fantastic.  Very insightful!

Brittany Pearson (millennial) and Bob Pearson (boomer)

*Bob’s favorite Saturday shows were Speed Racer and Jonny Quest.