Dr. Seuss Made More Money Than Ever Before After Pulling Racist Books. Here’s How CEO Susan Brandt Did It

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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.”

The Seuss brand has since expanded from books to include films, television, stage productions, digital games, theme parks, exhibitions, licensed products and more. 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 to closing a filmmaking deal with Warner Animation Group for a forthcoming trio of movies adapted from The Cat in the Hat and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! to launching 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, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), and If I Ran the Zoo (1950), because of racist and offensive imagery. The other four books pulled from the Seuss catalog were McElligot’s Pool (1947), Scrambled Eggs Super! (1953), On Beyond Zebra! (1955) and 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.

In a statement on its website, Seuss Enterprises said it arrived at the decision to discontinue the six titles after consulting a panel of experts, including educators, to review its catalog. “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.

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This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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. But even in the book business, we move when the genre moves. So when ebooks were big, we were there. 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 of 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.

What inspires you about the work of Dr. Seuss?

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 The Lorax, which focuses on saving the environment and being good Earth stewards, to The Sneetches, which teaches us to respect and accept differences and 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.

What do you feel is your responsibility as CEO when it comes to managing such well-established and 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. We take that very seriously.

In March 2021, Seuss Enterprises announced it was discontinuing six books due to racist and offensive imagery. Can you explain how the company ultimately arrived at that decision?

This was not a decision that was made in a short period of time. We consulted with a panel of educators and experts on racial relations to make our decision about what the best move forward was.

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. I will tell you that our decision was very positively received by our fans.

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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?

How we conduct our business did not change from before our announcement to after. We continue to strive to ensure that our body of work, both our books and our non-books, reflect and include our broad 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 stewardship, 2021 was the highest revenue year in the company’s history. To what do you credit the surge in book sales that followed the discontinuation controversy?

We made a decision. We made an announcement. Our fans embraced that. And they purchased our books.

Seuss Enterprises recently launched an officially licensed Dr. Seuss NFT collecting experience. What do you see as the biggest challenge of entering this relatively new space?

The biggest challenge is first understanding it. This is a whole other 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. But when you drill down to how this is done, you have to pay the miners gas, you have to put files on the intergalactic filing system, you have to know what flow blockchain is, you have to figure out where [customers] can buy with a Visa, where they can buy with cryptocurrency, how to encourage trading. All of that is a whole other 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. That was [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. So the challenge has been learning about all these different businesses, and gaining enough expertise to ensure we put the best product out. 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.

You worked with Audrey Geisel for years. What was the most impactful lesson she taught you?

Audrey was the best. I miss her dearly. She took our business very seriously and was a very, very savvy businesswoman. I first learned how to look through the Seussian lens and create products through that lens from her. Ultimately, she taught me that this is Dr. Seuss. It should be delightful. It should be fun. Everything we do should be good for families and kids in our communities. She also just taught me to laugh.

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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com