Build-A-Bear Goes Digital: CMO Gina Collins on Engaging “Beyond the Plush”

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Ever since Gina Collins joined Build-A-Bear Workshop as CMO last year from Coca-Cola, her mission has remained the same: Maintain the brand’s core promise and move it into the digital age. 

The first Build-A-Bear store opened in 1997, and today there are over 400 stores worldwide—and more than 125 million furry friends travelling around the globe.

Build-A-Bear continues to focus on creative play, and each child selects a heart as they build their friends. A retail makeover program will start refreshing its stores, while it experimented with a pop-up in New York City’s Times Square and temporary boutiques at Macy’s and other retailers this past holiday season. On the digital side, the seven-year-old Bearville.com is shutting down with users being sent to buildabear.com/play instead.

Licensed toys continue to be a hit. Appealing to collectors of all ages, the company’s co-branded products include a Disney Princess line (with a limited edition $80 Cinderella Bear tied to the live action movie), a just-launched Easter collection and products inspired by Disney’s Frozen and Marvel characters in addition to Hasbro’s My Little Pony property. (Coming up: a collection tied to Disney’s December release of JJ Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII.)

brandchannel spoke with Collins about how Build-A-Bear is evolving to address today’s—and tomorrow’s—customers.[more]

brandchannel: How are you creating a more interactive, personalized store experience to engage new audiences, including millennials?

Gina Collins: Retail is not just about buying things—it’s an experience for kids to have fun and create emotion. Our founder, Maxine Clark, built the brand with pure heart. That’s our brand power—amazing history and organic bones.

With the pace of technology and social media, the brand needed a refresh to make sure today’s consumers know who we are.

Our new store design applies a facelift to the organic bone structure. At the core is the “heart ceremony” in which the furry animal becomes your friend for life. Many go from a child’s first bed off to college with them and then to their adult household.

brandchannel: How will you be leveraging the upcoming Promise Pets app to appeal to older children?

Collins: What the public doesn’t know is that 20 percent of Build-A-Bear’s customers are ages 14 and older. Promise Pets, which will be available in early April, provide a new adventure focused on teaching older kids the basics of responsibility and pet care.

So before someone gets a real puppy, they can take a trial run. The child nurtures it through our mobile app, by personally taking it on a walk and potty-training it.

We’re staying true to our core customer and adding the 14-plus fan.

Our global community participated in selecting the breeds: Yellow Labs, Yorkshire Terriers. We have a solid base of animal-lovers and a great learning for opportunity.

brandchannel: What sorts of licensing activities is Build-A-Bear involved in?

Collins: Consumers are interested in pop culture and the social world. With Disney’s release of the live-action Cinderella story, we needed to bring our Cinderella to life as well. But, of course, ours is different because you make your own. And it’s a Build-A-Bear limited edition collectible, with only 30,000 available.

Disney is a huge partner in licensing, marketing and real estate—a real strategic ally. We’ll be building off of Disney’s strategy for the next two years.

And we’re also creating new superheroes for the boys in advance of the May release of Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron movie. We launched the new Hulk Bear around Valentine’s Day. Consumer feedback was all about his infrastructure—classic lines, muscle and bulk. It was a smashing refresh.

brandchannel: How are you evolving your online experience?

Collins: Millennial consumers grew up in a tech world, so they expect more. So for last year’s Holiday series, we added storytelling elements to personalized animals and launched “Bearville! Alive.”

The 24-episode “Bearville! Alive” series garnered more than 5 million engaged views on YouTube, and the second season starts in April. In fact, YouTube told us, “With such impressive metrics, you’re on to something.” The app combines play, the Internet and storytelling—it’s a huge step forward.

brandchannel: What role does mobile play in how you’re engaging consumers “beyond the plush”?

Collins: As an experience-based retailer, we had to determine what consumers wanted.

So our new website, which launched in October, translates into mobile gaming, play, storytelling and shopping with the same experience across devices and platforms.

Mobile was up 200% last year—now, that’s interaction!

brandchannel: As a global brand, what’s your strategy for entering new markets?

Collins: We are very much a global brand. Build-A-Bear is in 18 countries, and we’re not stopping there. Emotion is at the core of who we are, and that extends across all cultures and borders. We’re not in China yet, but our strategy is to expand as far as we can.

brandchannel: Have kids today changed significantly compared to kids 17 years ago?

Collins: At the end of the day, Build-A-Bear stays true to organic play, sparking imagination and childhood wonderment.

“Who do I want to be my friend?” is a live, engaging, intellectual process that goes back to the core of how kids learn. We are special in that we combine experience and emotion to make memories.

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