How Dr. Seuss Enterprises CEO Susan Brandt Leads the Iconic Brand
(To receive weekly emails of conversations with the world’s top CEOs and business decisionmakers, click Here.)
In the wake of a record-high revenue year for Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the privately held company that oversees children’s author Theodor Seuss Geisel’s estate, Susan Brandt was promoted to president and CEO of the organization in late January.
Following Seuss’s death in 1991, Dr. Seuss Enterprises was established by his widow, Audrey Geisel, in 1993 to fulfill her late husband’s wish of spreading his beloved body of literary work across “the widest possible audience in any and all media throughout the world.”
Since then, the Seuss brand has expanded beyond books to film, TV, stage productions and digital games. It also includes exhibitions, licensed products, films and television. Brandt, a Seuss veteran who has been with the company for 24 years and most 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 Warner Animation Group has closed a filmmaking agreement for three movies to be adapted. The Cat in the Hat Oh, the Places You’ll Go!To launch a Seuss-themed NFT collecting experience—that have kept the brand not only relevant, but thriving.
Brandt’s promotion comes amid continued success for Dr. Seuss Enterprises following a surge in book sales that resulted from the company announcing in March 2021 that it would no longer publish or license six of Seuss’s books, including his first children’s book, Just to think, I SAW IT ON Mulberry Street! (1937), If I Ran The Zoo (1950), due to racist and offensive imagery. These were the four other books taken from Seuss’ catalog. McElligot’s Pool (1947),Amazing Scrambled eggs (1953), On Beyond Zebra! (1955) The Cat’s Quizzer (1976).
The announcement quickly sparked controversy over whether “cancel culture” was coming for Dr. Seuss, with a number of prominent right-wing pundits and politicians criticizing the move. Soon after, sales of Seuss’s books soared, sending a number of his most popular titles (none of which were being pulled) to the top of Amazon’s bestsellers charts.
Seuss Enterprises stated that it made the decision to end six of its titles following consultations with educators and a group of experts. “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” the statement read.
TIME spoke with Brandt about the evolution of the Seuss brand, how last year’s controversy played out, and breaking into new spaces.
TIME.com/charter offers coverage about the future of work. Subscribe to the Charter newsletter and get the TIME.com/charter Newsletter for free.
This interview has been edited to be more concise.
You led Seuss Enterprises for over two decades. What’s the most striking way the company has evolved, to you?
The way we’ve taken this IP and translated it into new and different mediums in order to continue to provide content to our current fans and reach new fans in innovative ways. Sure, we’re a book company and we have traditional books. Even though we are in the book industry, our business is flexible. When ebooks first became popular, we had them. We’ve got our books as apps. We’ve moved into the workbook space. We’re exploring graphic novels. But we’ve also gone beyond that. We’re exploring podcasting. We’ve got a number of streaming shows, both available and in progress. We’ve got feature films. We’ve done a number of stage productions. We’re in [subscription video on demand], [advertising-based video on demand]All those services. And really how we’ve grown is that we continue to watch where content is being consumed and we make sure that we’re not only there, but that we’re there appropriately with our characters, our stories, and our themes in order to reach our targets.
How do you feel about Dr. Seuss’s work?
We’re really blessed with a property that has universal and timeless themes. We’ve got this beautiful body of work that has stories that run from LoraxTo help save the Earth, and be good Earth stewards. The SneetchesThe book teaches us how to accept and respect differences as well as embrace diversity. Then there’s Horton the Elephant, who teaches us about the importance of kindness and being a faithful friend, and even the Grinch, who, no matter how you celebrate, gives us the opportunity to pause and say, ‘What is the true meaning of our holiday?’ That’s what really excites me.
Which do you consider your responsibilities as CEO for managing this well-established, beloved IP?
As CEO or as any role in the company—it doesn’t just lay at my feet—we’re stewards of the DNA of this property. So while it’s extremely relevant and important to translate the property into new and different mediums, our ultimate goal is to ensure that it’s still a Dr. Seuss experience whether you’re going to a museum, watching a television show, or entering the Metaverse. This is something we take very seriously.
Seuss Enterprises declared that six of its books would be discontinued by Seuss Enterprises in March 2021 because they contained offensive and racist imagery. Can you please explain the reasoning behind this decision?
It was not an easy decision to make in short time. To make the right decision, we consulted a group of experts and educators on race relations.
The announcement sparked criticism that Dr. Seuss was being “canceled.” What was your take on this backlash?
I’m not going to speak about cancel culture. Our decision was well received by fans.
(You can visit this website to learn more about the future of work. TIME.com/charter Sign up Get the Charter newsletter for free)
From a business standpoint, how do you walk the line of preserving an author’s legacy while acknowledging that certain aspects of their work don’t align with current social and cultural values?
From before the announcement, our way of doing business has not changed. As a company, we continue to work to make sure that both our books, and non-books reflect the diverse communities in which they are part. We support children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion and friendship, and that’s what drives this company.
Under your stewardship, 2021 was the highest revenue year in the company’s history. How can you be credited? The surge in book sales following the discontinuation controversy
We made a decision. An announcement was made. That was received enthusiastically by our fans. They also purchased our books.
Seuss Enterprises launched a Dr. Seuss NFT Collecting Experience. How difficult do you think it will be to enter this space, which is relatively new?
It is important to first understand it. It’s a completely different universe. It’s a whole other language. So at a 30,000-foot level, you’re creating NFTs that are distinct, traceable, and unique and you’re providing them for sale for customers to buy, collect, and trade. When you get down to the details, however, it becomes clear that you must pay miners gas and place files on intergalactic file systems. You also need to understand what flow blockchain means. [customers]You can purchase with Visa. This is all a new world. So while we’re experts on ensuring that when you enter this universe and get one of your NFT collectibles, you’re getting Seuss—just in a new flavor—we needed to find a partner that knew how to make the experience what customers would expect from an NFT on the flow blockchain. This was the result. [NFT startup] Dapper Labs.
As a woman who’s held a number of leadership roles, have you run into any significant roadblocks in your career?
Any roadblocks I’ve come across certainly weren’t because I was a woman. As head of Dr. Seuss, I’ve had to take on challenges that I hadn’t encountered before because we’re not just in one business. We’re in the publishing business, the NFT business, the apparel business, the movie business, the podcast business. You name it, we’re in that business. The challenge was learning all about these businesses and getting enough knowledge to make sure we have the best products. But professionally, I haven’t really encountered anything that was a significant roadblock. If you put your head down and study and surround yourself with very smart people, both on your team and through partnerships, that’s the road to success.
Audrey Geisel was a friend for many years. Which was her most important lesson?
Audrey was the greatest. I miss her dearly. She treated our business with great care and was a savvy businesswoman. From her, I learned to see the Seussian lens through which to create products. She taught me this was Dr. Seuss. You should find it enjoyable. You should have fun. All we do must be beneficial to our community’s children and families. I also learned to laugh from her.
Read More From Time