How Build-A-Bear Builds Buzz Beyond Bears

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Build-A-Bear holiday 2016
Build-A-Bear holiday 2016 Credit: Build-A-Bear

When Build-A-Bear Workshop arrived on the retail scene in 1997, it had the distinction of being one of a few experience-based retailers. Now, it's grappling with more competition in a tech-infused world. In 2007, sales were $474 million, but last year, just $378 million. Gina Collins, who joined the St. Louis-based outfit from Coca-Cola in 2014 as chief marketing officer, talks about Build-A-Bear's holiday plans, expansion efforts, and two-year-old brand refresh.

Advertising Age: The holidays are just around the corner. How are you marketing your brand this year?

Gina Collins: This year the marketing platform is the Merry Mission—it's a repeated platform we started in 2014. It tells the whole story of the Build-A-Bear Christmas and how our reindeer save the day. It's been a compounding story and we invest in character arcs. From a family perspective, we want to make sure there are characters to bond with that come to life through stories on Build-A-Bear Live, gaming applications and the physical product. This year, the key character is Golden Glisten—a magic deer that was created last year and gets her powers from the Aurora Borealis.

Ad Age: What are you doing beyond your 400-unit store base?

Gina Collins, CMO of Build-A-Bear
Gina Collins, CMO of Build-A-Bear Credit: Build-A-Bear

Ms. Collins: While we did a small set of pop-up shops last year, we actually did more than we ever have this year. One of the most exciting [new] partnerships is with AMC Theaters. It started in eight regions in mid-November and will continue through January. When we talk about memories and experiences during the holidays, there is this need to try to spend some time together in hectic schedules. When guests are going to the movies, they can also engage with Build-A-Bear. One of the big partnerships is with "Trolls." We're also present on almost a dozen Carnival Cruise Lines ships and by next year we'll have a presence on all [25] of them.

Ad Age: Any plans to continue the AMC partnership?

Ms. Collins: We'll see how they do and revisit. From a partnership perspective, we envision potentially in key movie seasons like summer and next holiday.

Ad Age: Build-A-Bear has been around nearly two decades. How are you keeping your product offerings fresh and relevant for today's younger shoppers?

Ms. Collins: The exciting thing about turning 20 years old next year is that it's a big marker for any brand, but for Build-A-Bear, it makes us a multigenerational brand. The kids that grew up when Build-A-Bear started now have children of their own. In preparation for the birthday, we've honed in on the development of our own intellectual property and created many storylines that focus on universal audiences. Over the last three years, we've introduced about a half-dozen of our own storylines.

Ad Age: What new products has Build-A-Bear introduced this year?

Ms. Collins: We carefully select all of our inbound licensing partners to stay relevant from a pop culture perspective. Pokemon has had an amazing year and they've been a great partner for us. We started with Pikachu, which quickly sold out, and followed with Eevee. This week, Charmander will hit the shelves.

Ad Age: You guys kicked off a brand refresh two years ago with updated stores. What kind of feedback have you received?

Ms. Collins: The Discovery stores have been double-digit comping themselves now that they've had a full year in the market. That tells us there's a wider range of guests that find the updated refresh more appealing and our previous guests still have a place.

Ad Age: In the past, Build-A-Bear has worked with JWT Atlanta on the creative side. Is that relationship ongoing?

Ms. Collins: We have taken a different approach—JWT is still a partner, but we are doing a lot of our own creative. We're moving more in-house, but when we have strategic new platforms that we're engaging with, we're partnering with JWT and others. We've found it works best to have some flexibility—we're too big to be small and too small to be big, which is an interesting challenge from an agency perspective.

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