Brick-And-Mortar Retailer Build-A-Bear Expands Into Digital

BB2Build-A-Bear Workshop, the children’s specialty retailer with strong roots in American shopping malls, is getting a facelift.

Plagued by the realities of brick and mortar retail—Build-A-Bear was in a slump with steady profit declines, but has more recently ignited a comeback in sales—the company is transitioning away from its focus on traditional retailing.

Instead, it’s looking to create what CEO Sharon Price John describes as “a branding and IP organization where retail just happens to be one revenue-generating arm.”

With digital high on her priority list, John, a former VP of international marketing for Mattel, said the company’s turnaround involved a decentralization of technology within Build-A-Bear’s internal organization to deploy it more horizontally across its executive ranks.

“Technology used to be owned by the CIO, but we’ve flipped it over so it reaches all functional areas,” John said. “From my COO who’s running our stores to … my financial guys, we’re asking, ‘How can they access data and metrics in our mobile apps and compare it in real-time to sales information?’”

For marketing, Build-A-Bear’s goal is no different, according to CMO Gina Collins, who joined the retailer last January from a post as VP of entertainment marketing at Coca-Cola.

“We have to consider where our consumer is engaging, so we tag all of our sites on the back-end and learn how they’re accessing us,” Collins added. “At the same time, we have to be very thoughtful about what we do and ensure we’re COPPA-compliant [Children’s Online Protection Privacy Act] throughout our site and social partners.”  

For the most part, Build-A-Bear is focused on increasing traffic to its own channels.

Earned media is still a relatively new concept for the brand. Although it has invested an undisclosed amount in traditional media like TV in the past, Collins said paid media campaigns will help support Build-A-Bear’s new earned media strategy.

Last winter, the brand converted the seven-year-old site,, into a new virtual gaming center dubbed ‘Build-A-Bear Play.’ The premise was to extend the shelf life of the Build-A-Bear Workshop store experience to a digital world where customers could interact with its products.

The brand supplements the video on its own properties with YouTube page Bearville Alive!, which the brand is now populating with its own content, as well as sourcing third-party content from experts around topics of interest to parents, such as “how to get through back-to-school season.”

“We launched new YouTube music videos the second week of July and [within] 60 days, we’ve had about 2.5 million interactions with girls,” Collins said. By allowing customers to engage in music videos and extend the experience to its mobile apps, the brand says it is driving virtual “play after plush,” (that is, the in-store experience).

Collins noted that for the first time, Build-A-Bear has experimented with in-app purchases (kids who prove they are 18 or older or who have parental permission), which has “elevated the play factor, because you can buy additional musical  instruments, or change your outfit in the game.”

“Ultimately, mom is our dominant purchaser, but she’s often buying for her child or a family member is the ‘gifter,’ especially during the holidays,” Collins added. “It is a tricky marketing balance to appeal to both parent and child.”

In the next 30 days, Build-A-Bear will launch a content series focused on millennial moms, who the brand has learned through behavioral and psychographic data, are busy, professional, and mobile but still want tips on engaging in their kids’ lifestyles.

The company plans to continue testing content and commerce hybrids, and ramping up outbound licensing agreements such as Build-A-Bear’s partnership with McDonalds for its products to appear in Happy Meal messaging.

“This may sound old school, but the consumer engagement curve hasn’t changed,” John said. “We’re trying out new technology, but what helps us is getting back to basics.”

She added, “We used to ask, ‘how much budget should we use in print vs. television or network vs. cable?’ Anytime a new channel emerges, it sort of overtakes the mindshare, but the end goal should always be to get back to the consumer.”

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