Mattel Future Lab VP Transforms Play

Mattel Future Lab VP Transforms Play


Ron Friedman (’11) applies management skills he learned at UCLA Anderson

August 29, 2023

  • UCLA Anderson alumnus Ron Friedman and his team at Mattel Future Lab are focused on pioneering the future of play
  • Friedman earned his MBA at Anderson to gain skills in the CPG industry and he still applies the same structures and ideas he learned as a graduate student to his executive role with the iconic toymaker
  • He thrived at Anderson because the school was a perfect cultural and academic fit

As vice president of Mattel Future Lab, Ron Friedman (’11) and his team are transforming the future of play by using new and emerging technologies.

With a background in product marketing and product management, Friedman says that throughout his career he’s “taken a lot of inspiration” from the new product development classes he took as an MBA student at UCLA Anderson. As he works day to day on new product development and innovation at Mattel, he continues to “apply those same structures and ideas” he learned from his final capstone project at Anderson.

El Segundo, California-based Mattel is currently riding high on the wave of success of Warner Bros.’ box-office blockbuster, Barbie, based on one of the company’s signature toys (invented, incidentally, by Ruth Handler, the first female graduate of UCLA’s Executive Program). Though Friedman was not involved in the development or production of the film, he is a fan.

“They approached it in a very authentic way, and I loved how Mattel was willing to be in on the joke with a little self-deprecation,” he says. “Greta Gerwig and her team, and Margot Robbie and the rest of the cast did a phenomenal job,” says Friedman, who moved to Los Angeles from Mexico City with his wife in 2009 to attend Anderson. “We’re really proud of that accomplishment. Our CEO Ynon Kreiz (’93), who’s also a UCLA Anderson alumnus, had a vision for this from the very beginning of his leadership, and seeing it finally come true like this is tremendous.”

Friedman and the Mattel Future Lab

Friedman (far right) and the Mattel Future Lab team visited the VR arcade Two Bit Circus

The success of the film has also improved morale at the company. “The entire company is buzzing,” says Friedman, a father of two. “I think everyone’s feeling super proud of the work, and even people that don’t work with the Barbie brand still feel that they’re part of something special. It’s building a lot of momentum and positivity. The company has been on a journey of turnaround for a few years, but we’re now back to growth. Starting to see the full value of our IP come to life in this way is very meaningful and exciting.”

At Mattel Future Lab, Friedman and his team have been plotting the course of the iconic toymaker’s products since June 2022. “We’re still a pretty young organization,” he says. “We’re barely a year old. It’s a team that is focused on pioneering the future of play,” he explains. “It’s specifically focused on disruptive digital engagement models, which range across a variety of areas.”

One space Friedman and company are focusing on is connected products. “These are toys or games that are either enhanced by or brought to life by a digital application,” he says. Products in this category include Pictionary Air, Jurassic World Facts and Hot Wheels ID, which is a web-connected version of the classic toy car equipped with an NFC chip.

More than a decade after receiving his MBA from Anderson, Friedman still points to the lessons from specific classes that come into play in his role as VP of Mattel Future Lab.

One course he recalls vividly was Brand Purpose taught at that time by Professor Jim Stengel, the former CMO for Procter & Gamble. “The idea of building purposeful brands was not something that many people were talking about back then,” he says. “Obviously, today everything is about brand purpose and it’s very common knowledge, but back then it was a new way of looking at marketing. Professor Stengel did a phenomenal job of introducing us to those concepts.”

There were also marketing strategy courses helmed by Professor Andres Terech, particularly the course that Friedman says was “the most impactful” of his tenure at Anderson.

“At the end of the MBA, I chose the Business Creation Option capstone,” he says. “The business my team and I wanted to launch ended up not going to market. But we were able to apply everything we had learned during the first two-and-a-half years of the MBA. That just put it all together in a very practical way.”

His current role is actually Friedman’s second stint at Mattel. He initially joined the company in 2013 as a marketing manager. He advanced to senior product manager and, ultimately, as director of product management and global marketing in 2018, before leaving the company for Amazon, where he served as head of product management and marketing for over two years.

“I was one of a handful of product managers at Mattel and the only one that was working on the product side. All the other product managers were on the IT side of things. I felt that I needed to prove something to myself,” he says. “When a tech company — one of the world’s largest, most innovative in the world — came knocking, I had to take the challenge.”

Having earned his undergraduate degree at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City in 2002, Friedman, a native of Mexico, had long aspired to enter graduate school. “I didn’t think that I could get a role in a CPG company, much less in the United States, without an MBA,” he explains. “I needed those credentials to open the doors for my career.”

In late 2008, when the financial crisis hit, Friedman felt like it was time to make the move. “That was the perfect opportunity to go back to school and, as things stabilized, get that degree,” he says.

However, he wasn’t certain which school he should attend. “I was down to two final choices,” he says. “One was on the East Coast, where I thought I was going to go for sure. I have two brothers who were born in New York. I have a lot of family from the East Coast, and I’d thought about living in New York one day, so I thought for sure I’m going to that school.”

“Consumer needs or basic human needs never change. How we satisfy those needs is what’s changing. With the advent of technology, our behaviors are changing dramatically.”

However, the situation didn’t work quite as he anticipated. “I went to visit, and I didn’t feel at home there,” he says. “I felt that the student body and the culture there weren’t a great fit.”

Unsatisfied with his experience on the East Coast, Friedman decided to pay a visit to UCLA. “I didn’t know much about L.A. before and didn’t have a perception about the city. I didn’t know anything about the school — except that it was one of the most prestigious institutions in the world,” says Friedman, who at various times has also lived in cities in Israel, Sweden and France. “I went to the campus and fell in love. It’s one the most gorgeous campuses, and the people at Anderson were just incredibly welcoming and inspiring. Everyone was super friendly, inviting me to go sit in on a class, inviting me and my wife for dinner, and it just felt like a much more collegiate, welcoming culture. So, when you put those things together, I felt like, ‘Do I go to a city I dreamed of, or do I go to the school that I feel really inspired by?’”

Of course, Friedman’s choice ended up paving the road to his first stint at Mattel in 2013.

As it happens, Friedman first served as group brand manager at beauty brand L’Oréal for two years in Mexico City — which may on the surface seem far from the world of toys and games, but Friedman says there are commonalities.

“I think you’d be surprised by how similar things are between L’Oréal and Mattel from an organizational perspective. They are two best-in-class marketing organizations that are incredible at what they do in their respective industries,” Friedman says. “But I think that, also, the industries themselves are very similar in many ways. Both the toy industry and the beauty industry are incredibly trend-based. It’s all about what’s most fashionable and how you need to innovate on a constant basis. You need a keen understanding of customers’ ever-evolving behaviors and preferences.”

It’s with that philosophy that Friedman and his team continue to move the Mattel Future Lab forward with products like the Hot Wheels NFT Garage, virtual collectibles that allow users to collect digital versions of Hot Wheels cars.

“It’s a new way to collect Mattel-based products in a digital environment,” he says. “This is based on adult collectors and the ‘kidult’ trends that have been moving the entire toy industry over the past couple of years.”

“Consumer needs or basic human needs never change,” Friedman says. “They’re the same as they were thousands of years ago. But how we satisfy those needs is what’s changing. With the advent of technology, our behaviors are changing dramatically. For brand owners like ourselves, it is our responsibility to evolve to meet consumers where they are, and utilize and leverage these technologies to build experiences, play patterns and products that that deliver delight in today’s world.”