Meet the Fire Behind the Fandom

How do you take an iconic doll with an anti-feminist reputation and turn her into a modern-day role model? For starters, says Lisa McKnight, Mattel’s EVP and Global Head of Barbie and Dolls, you think about your customers as fans. “We’ve always been very consumer-centric,” Lisa told The Drum in a recent interview, “but thinking about our consumer now as a fan is much broader.” You’re talking about a much (much) bigger demographic — as evidenced by the record-setting (pink-clad) turnout for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. But it’s about more than just volume: “There is a dialogue that’s happening with those fans, there’s engagement that ultimately strengthens brand love and affinity,” Lisa says, adding “It’s more of a long game.”

For Barbie (and Lisa), that long game included a path back to cultural relevance that started long before the movie became a box office hit. Launched in 2018, the Barbie Dream Gap Project gave the doll a global social mission to reverse the gender “dream gap” and help girls reach their full potential. It also meant partnering with more than 100 brands (including Xbox, Balmain, and OPI) and opting into experiential activations, like a themed boat cruise or Barbie’s iconic Dreamhouse being listed on Airbnb.


Barbie’s dramatic transformation from toy to Forbes’ first fictional Person of the Year is just the beginning for Lisa. 

“We have an incredible library of IP — probably the most valuable library in the industry — and we’ll be looking to unlock all sorts of experiences by thinking through a fan lens.”

Her fan-centric approach is just one of the reasons Lisa is one of XP Land’s XLISTERs. She joins the likes of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creative geniuses behind South Park; David “Dez” Hernandez, the visionary behind Universal Hollywood’s Super Nintendo World; and Tony Khan, whose upstart All Elite Wrestling (AEW) has been instrumental in stoking the fires of wrestling devotees worldwide. Collectively, we’re dubbing this group the Fire Behind the Fandom, and they make it look easy to bring almost any fan favorites, from the latest Netflix series to America’s favorite pastime (see MLB’s Field of Dreams-maker Brian O’Gara and Savannah Bananas owner Jesse Cole), to life.

XLIST 2023: The Fire Behind the Fandom

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Besides giving fans a hero moment in their favorite TV show, Netflix Vice President and Head of Live Experiences Greg Lombardo says it’s critical to balance authenticity and staying true to the IP’s DNA while also expanding the universe. Ann Morrow Johnson, a creative leader for Walt Disney Imagineering who has worked on one-of-a-kind projects for the House of Mouse for the past decade, agrees — with a caveat.

The experience, she says, has to appeal to the superfans, but it also has to resonate with those who aren’t as familiar with, say, the backstory of Boba Fett. 

“A thing that we often consider or contemplate is… What are the things that make Star Wars feel like Star Wars? And then [we] try to think about how you expand that and how that might manifest itself differently in a physical world,” she says. (This is her sweet spot, as someone with a background in both architecture and theater.) But, she adds, there’s a difference between what a very core fan is going to geek out over and what’s just good storytelling. “We’re building stories for people who love Star Wars and also for people who love the people who love Star Wars,” she explains. “I think one of the cool things about working for a company like Disney [is that] we have a tendency to always come back to story as our root.”


A huge part of telling that story is creating just the right environment, so the audience gives themselves permission to access the imaginary worlds beyond what the real world tells them is possible. The very best experiences, she says, give you a feel. Maybe it’s delightful and surprising, or maybe it scares you, but it hits something she calls “your lizard brain.”

An example? Ann Morrow helped take the classic Space Mountain attraction and convert it to “Hyperspace Mountain” for the release of Force Awakens. Although it was just a simple overlay that involved adding the(awesome) John Williams music and some blasters for visual impact, it had an exponential effect on the already thrilling coaster ride. Or, for the Netflix hit show Bridgerton, Greg says the big moment was when one lucky member of the audience at the Queen’s Ball was named “Diamond of the Evening,” a buildup that involved costume, dance, music, and food to create a prolonged moment of suspended disbelief. 

Put differently, the folks who stoke the fires behind franchises like Stranger Things and Super Mario are alchemists of sorts, carefully balancing the power of the IP with an emotional X factor that unites fans and nonfans alike. 

Join us in XP Land. A community for experiential creatives and experience-makers, brand leaders and IP-owners, space stewards and venue visionaries — all of those in the business of epic gatherings and live, immersive storytelling.

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Experiential Is Everything

XP Land is for experiential creatives and experience-makers, brand leaders, and IP-owners, space stewards and venue visionaries — all those in the business of epic gatherings and live, immersive storytelling.