Transforming Hasbro’s Mission from Toys to Brands

Dolph Johnson works hard to cultivate smart, driven young talent for the toy company’s ambitious branding pivot

For almost a hundred years, toy giant Hasbro has thrived in the competitive world of branded products and consumer goods, with revenues currently over $5 billion. However, the company’s sustainability is based largely on its ability to change and adapt to shifting market forces—currently, Hasbro is in the middle of a branding pivot from consumer goods/manufacturing to a global play and entertainment company, a move Dolph Johnson, executive vice president and global chief human resources officer, sees as a necessary and profitable one.

A twenty-year veteran of Hasbro, Johnson started in the human resources field as a group management development leader at Frito-Lay. There, he worked with leadership development and leader succession, cultivating key talent, and more, which was a great learning experience for him. “They tend to throw you into the deep end of the pool,” he says. Wanting to stay with Frito-Lay, he initially turned down an offer to work for Hasbro in 1993; four years later, they came to him again with a better offer, and he joined the team in 1997.

Dolph Johnson, Hasbro
Dolph Johnson, Hasbro

In his two decades of working for the company, he has seen it grow from a “sleepy little toy company in Rhode Island” to a thriving business with a lot of moving parts. At first, Johnson says, Hasbro was a very “toyetic” company, chasing other company’s brands and buying licenses to build toys around them. Over the past few years, however, the company has seen the value in controlling the brand itself and building multiple media and merchandise channels around it. “We started looking at the economics of being invested in our own business, instead of riding waves,” Johnson says.

There were many factors that precipitated this pivot, Johnson notes, chief among them the restrictions that came from being unable to look at the consumer in totality. “Every discussion with a brand started with, ‘What is the right toy or game?’” Johnson says, and did not go much further beyond that. With this pivot, Hasbro focuses much more on a “brand blueprint,” which speaks to a consumer base that wants a play experience in every format—from analog toys to digital games, as well as TV and film media and licensed products.

As global CHRO, Johnson sees the cultivation of talent as his most important role in facilitating this shift in Hasbro’s direction. “When I first came on, I would look for talent in other toy or game companies,” he notes, “and now I need to look for people who have all the skills required to manage a full brand.” To that end, he reshaped their talent acquisition strategies, talking to people from big brand companies and using more robust reward structures to attract that talent and ensure their full investment in the company. He also had to look at existing staff and determine who might not be as responsive to these changes.

“We started rethinking how to get people invested in the long-term success of the brand,” Johnson says, which includes moving away from performance reviews and ratings and toward a more fully formed career experience that interests younger millennial staff.

When it comes to his global staff, Johnson ensures that everyone involved is able to contribute to Hasbro’s new brand-heavy direction. This includes investing in development for their frontline leaders, teaching one thousand of them a new leadership model that best fits their revised mission. The process has not been easy. “Many leaders didn’t grow up native to the digital space,” Johnson says. “We’re used to a very analog business.” However, with virtual training and other development tools, the company has made great strides toward building a team ready for these modern changes.

Given a constantly changing media and market landscape, Johnson expects that Hasbro’s branding pivot will be an ongoing process. Part of his job is to anticipate the next turn of the market: “What is the new point of disruption? Who will be the new Amazon?” he frequently asks his team. In this way, Johnson and Hasbro can keep on their toes by consistently keeping ahead of the curve. “We must continue to think of ourselves as a learning company and challenge the way we think about everything.”

So far, Hasbro’s renewed focus on its own brands has yielded substantial fruit, with hit properties like Transformers, My Little Pony, and Power Rangers under its belt. Even so, Johnson feels there is always room for improvement. “We’re a great company, but not a perfect company,” he says. This motivates him to continue to seek out people who share the company’s values and sense of social responsibility. “Our ambition is to make the world a better place for children and families.”

Photo: Courtesy of Hasbro