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Following a record revenue year for Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the private company overseeing the estate of children’s author Theodor Seuss Geisel, Susan Brandt was promoted to president and CEO of the organization in late January. .
After Seuss’ death in 1991, Dr. Seuss Enterprises was established by his widow, Audrey Geisel, in 1993 to make her late husband’s wish come true to disseminate his beloved literary work through “the widest possible audience in all the media of the world”.
The Seuss brand has since expanded from books to movies, television, stage productions, digital games, theme parks, exhibits, licensed products and more. Brandt, a Seuss veteran who has been with the company for 24 years and recently served as president, is credited with spearheading recent savvy ventures – from partnering with Netflix for an animated TV series based on Green eggs and ham at the closing of a production agreement with Warner Animation Group for an upcoming trio of films adapted from The cat in the hat and Oh, the places you will go! to launch a Seuss-themed NFT collection experience– which have allowed the brand to not only remain relevant, but also to thrive.
Brandt’s promotion comes amid continued success for Dr. Seuss Enterprises following a surge in book sales that resulted from the company’s announcement in March 2021 that it would no longer publish or license plus six of Seuss’s books, including his first children’s book, And say I saw it on Mulberry Street (1937), and If I ran the zoo (1950), because of racist and offensive images. The other four books taken from the Seuss catalog were McElligot’s swimming pool (1947), Great scrambled eggs! (1953), On Beyond the Zebra! (1955) and The cat quiz (1976).
The announcement quickly sparked controversy over whether ‘cancel culture’ would come for Dr Seuss, with a number of prominent right-wing pundits and politicians criticizing the move. Soon after, sales of Seuss’ books skyrocketed, sending a number of his most popular titles (none of which were removed) to the topped Amazon’s Best Sellers charts.
In one declaration on its website, Seuss Enterprises said it made the decision to discontinue all six titles after consulting with a panel of experts, including educators, to review its catalog. “These books portray people in hurtful and false ways,” the statement said.
TIME spoke with Brandt about the evolution of the Seuss brand, how last year’s controversy unfolded, and entering new spaces.
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This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You led Seuss Enterprises for more than two decades. What is the most striking way the company has evolved, in your opinion?
How we took that IP address and translated it into new and different mediums in order to continue to deliver content to our current fans and reach new fans in innovative ways. Of course, we are a book company and we have traditional books. But even in the field of books, we move when the genre moves. So when the ebooks were big, we were there. We have our books as apps. We moved to the filing cabinet space. We explore graphic novels. But we also went beyond. We explore podcasting. We have a number of streaming shows available and running. We have feature films. We have done a number of stage productions. Were in [subscription video on demand], [advertising-based video on demand], all these services. And really how we’ve grown is that we continue to watch where content is consumed and make sure that we’re not just there, but that we’re there appropriately with our characters and our stories and our themes so to achieve our goals.
What inspires you about Dr. Seuss’ work?
We are truly fortunate to have a property that has universal and timeless themes. We have this beautiful body of work that has stories that range from The Loraxwhich emphasizes the preservation of the environment and the good management of the Earth, for The Sneetches, which teaches us to respect and accept differences and to accept diversity. Then there’s Horton the elephant, who teaches us the importance of kindness and being a loyal friend, and even the Grinch, who, however you celebrate, gives us the opportunity to do pause and say, ‘What is the real meaning of our vacation?’ That’s what really excites me.
What do you see as your responsibility as CEO when it comes to managing such well-established and valued intellectual property?
As CEO or any position in the company – it’s not just up to me – we are stewards of the DNA of this property. So while translating the property into new and different mediums is extremely relevant and important, our ultimate goal is to ensure that it is always a Dr. Seuss experience, whether you go to a museum, watch a TV show or enter the metaverse. We take this very seriously.
In March 2021, Seuss Enterprises announced that it was removing six books due to racist and offensive images. Can you explain how the company finally arrived at this decision?
It was not a decision that was made in a short time. We consulted a panel of educators and race relations experts to make our decision on the best solution.
The announcement sparked criticism that Dr. Seuss was “canceled”. What was your opinion on this backlash?
I’m not going to talk about cancel culture. I will tell you that our decision was very well received by our fans.
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From a business perspective, how do you go about preserving an author’s legacy while acknowledging that certain aspects of their work do not align with current social and cultural values?
The way we conduct our business has not changed from before our announcement to after. We continue to strive to ensure that our body of work, both our books and non-books, reflects and includes our large and diverse community. We support children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion and friendship, and that’s what drives this company.
Under your leadership, 2021 was the highest revenue year in company history. What do you attribute the surge in book sales that followed the abandonment controversy?
We have made a decision. We made an announcement. Our fans have adopted it. And they bought our books.
Seuss Enterprises recently launched an officially licensed Dr. Seuss NFT collection experience. What do you think is the biggest challenge of entering this relatively new space?
The biggest challenge is first to understand it. It’s a whole different universe. It’s a whole different language. So at a level of 30,000 feet, you create NFTs that are distinct, traceable, and unique and offer them for sale for customers to buy, collect, and trade. But when you explore how it’s done, you have to pay miners gas, you have to put files on the intergalactic filing system, you have to know what the stream blockchain is, you have to figure out where [customers] can buy with visa, where they can buy with cryptocurrency, how to encourage trade. It’s all a whole other world. So while we’re experts at ensuring that when you enter this universe and get one of your NFT collectibles, you get Seuss – just in a new flavor – we needed to find a partner who knew how experience what customers would expect from an NFT on the stream blockchain. It was [NFT startup] Dapper Laboratories.
As a woman who has held several leadership positions, have you encountered any significant obstacles in your career?
All the obstacles I encountered were certainly not because I was a woman. As director of Dr. Seuss, I had to face challenges that I had never encountered before, because we are not in one company. We’re in the publishing industry, the NFT industry, the apparel industry, the movie industry, the podcast industry. You name it, we’re in this business. So the challenge was to learn about all these different companies and gain enough expertise to make sure we were offering the best product. But professionally, I haven’t really encountered anything that was a significant obstacle. If you put your head down, study, and surround yourself with really smart people, both on your team and in partnerships, that’s the path to success.
You worked with Audrey Geisel for years. What was the most powerful lesson she taught you?
Audrey was the best. I miss her a lot. She took our business very seriously and was a very, very shrewd businesswoman. I first learned to look through the lens of Seussian and create products through that lens from her. In the end, she told me it was Dr. Seuss. It should be delicious. It should be fun. Everything we do must be good for the families and children in our communities. She also taught me to laugh.
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