Barbie’s got a new body – and now Mattel is tackling her other big image problem
By Sarah Halzack
In her nearly six decades on toy-store shelves, perhaps no year has brought bigger change for Barbie than 2016.
After watching the iconic doll’s dominant market share slip every year since 2009, Mattel gambled in January on a major makeover. It gave Barbie more varied body shapes, skin tones and hair types. The overture was meant to address what has long been the hardest part of selling Barbie: Legions of parents think the buxom, often-pale-skinned doll sends a lousy message to girls about beauty standards.
But, it turns out, her body was only part of the problem.
Barbie, it seems, has developed a reputation as something of a material girl.
“A lot of the conversation was focused on what Barbie had — her stuff,” said Tania Missad, Mattel’s senior director of global insights.
In other words, Mattel researchers found that when people thought of Barbie, they thought about the pink convertible, the Dreamhouse and the closet full of tiny, plastic stilettos. They thought of a character whose life was more “Real Housewives” than real world.
And this, executives knew, was a problem. Generation-X parents were often content to have their girls play with a doll as long as it was merely entertaining. They found that millennials, however, were fixated on giving their children toys that had purpose and meaning.
And so begins yet another crucial quest for Mattel: It is working to use marketing and other strategies to reposition Barbie as an emblem of imaginative, creative play.
They’ll likely find a receptive audience in moms who have nostalgia for the brand, the ones who remember the offbeat careers and personal adventures they cooked up themselves while playing with the dolls back in the day. And yet they’ll be challenged by the persistent perception that Barbie is a perpetuator of gender stereotypes, not an agent for smashing them.
Until now, if Mattel advertised on television, it was largely with commercials that spoke directly to 5- to 7-year-old girls, offering descriptions of the toys and showing them how to play with them.
But, starting this fall, look for the company to be on the airwaves with ads aimed squarely at parents. During “Dancing With the Stars” and some of ABC’s holiday programming, for example, executives plan to run a 30-second spot that shows a girl playing with her Barbies, pretending to be a science professor and lecturing her dolls about the human brain.
Even sooner than that, Mattel will take a new tack in marketing its President and Vice President Barbie dolls, a set that has been rolling into stores in recent weeks and gets its marketing launch Wednesday. While it’s not new that Barbie is running for the highest office in the land — she’s been doing so in most presidential campaign years since 1992 — it’s new that she comes with a running mate. And Mattel this year has teamed up with a nonprofit group called She Should Run to cast the tiny politicos in a somewhat different light.
She Should Run is a nonpartisan group that works to get more women interested in running for public office. So, this year, instead of just presenting girls with an elegantly coiffed doll in a White House-worthy power suit, the dolls’ packaging will come with a prompt to download a worksheet co-created with She Should Run that’s meant to get parents and kids talking about leadership.
The worksheet asks girls to circle words that describe them as a leader, with choices such as “brave” and “fearless.” And it has a fill-in-the-blank speech where girls can write about what they would do if they were president — a clear bid to push the buttons of the purpose-driven millennial parent.
Mattel executives like to say that they want to change the focus from what Barbie has to what kind of play activity Barbie enables.
“It’s sort of the beginning of our brand to start encouraging girls to do something,” said Lisa McKnight, senior vice president and general manager of the Barbie brand.
If you’re wondering whether the doll is a warm embrace of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Mattel says not so much: The company works on an 18-month product cycle, so this doll was in the works before the outcome was clear in this year’s presidential race. (And, for what it’s worth, President Barbie’s skirt suit and Vice President Barbie’s short peplum top are decidedly un-Clintonian ensembles.)
Mattel has also convened an advisory council of people outside the toy industry to offer it different assessments of the Barbie brand. The group includes young female entrepreneurs, women who work in science and math fields, and Erin Loos Cutraro, chief executive of She Should Run, who is immersed in the political world.
That’s because the company has realized that while mothers and girls are its primary audience, there are plenty of people who don’t buy Barbies but are critical in shaping the conversation about them on social media and elsewhere. The council is an effort by Barbie to get some big-picture perspective on how the doll is perceived in the marketplace and represents a shift for a toy brand that was typically very secretive about its intellectual property.
In some ways, it shouldn’t be surprising that Mattel is finding millennial parents are seeking out purpose-minded brands, because they are doing so across all kinds of retailing categories. Retailer Warby Parker has gained traction in part by touting its donations to nonprofits in order to increase access to eyeglasses. Apparel start-up Everlane has found an audience by sharing what factory has made each piece of apparel it sells. Millennials have shown that they like their shopping with a side of corporate responsibility.
It is urgent for Mattel to cater to this mind-set. The company was dealt a serious blow when Disney decided to take its lucrative Princess licenses to rival toymaker Hasbro. And while its portfolio includes other major toy lines such as Hot Wheels, Fisher-Price and American Girl, Barbie is among its biggest attractions, with $906 million in gross sales last year.
Mattel executives say that, in some ways, this new strategy takes the brand back to its roots. Before Barbie, most dolls were baby dolls, designed to allow girls to practice nurturing. Barbie was invented by a mother named Ruth Handler who wanted girls to have the option of acting out other grown-up activities.
Barbie executives arrived at their new positioning for Barbie after conducting thousands of interviews and focus groups with mothers and children, observing girls playing with dolls with groups of their friends, conducting surveys, and examining social media comments.
Now, there are early signs that the efforts to reinvent the brand are working: In the United States, Barbie saw sales momentum picking up in the second half of 2015 and an increase in sales at retail stores in the first quarter. More data is scheduled when Mattel reports second-quarter earnings on July 20.
“Mattel is doing a good job making her relevant again,” said Jim Silver, editor in chief at toy review website TTPM.
And the company says it is encouraged by its recent interactions with customers. For example, some parents seemed more willing to bring a Barbie as a gift to a child’s birthday party.
In the past, Missad said, “Mothers would tell us, ‘I don’t know if I can bring a Barbie to a party. I don’t know if the other mom would want that in her household.’ ”
And yet it may be difficult to change plenty of other people’s deeply ingrained views about Barbie.
Elizabeth Sweet, who studies gender-based toy marketing at the University of California at Davis, said she sees the new roster of diverse Barbies as a clear sign of progress for the brand.
And yet, Sweet said, “Unfortunately, the Barbie brand is rooted in appearance and beauty and body. And I don’t think they can really get away from that.”
For example, she noted that the doll line with the expanded body shapes and skin types is called “Fashionistas” — a sign that the toy is still outfit-centric.
McKnight said this kind of criticism is hardly new for Barbie brand to deal with. While many parents praised the launch of the new body types, for example, others complained that the tall Barbie was too skinny or that the curvy doll wasn’t quite curvy enough.
“We can’t be reactive to every piece of feedback that we hear,” McKnight said. “That said, we also want to make sure that we’re listening, that we have an evolutionary mind-set, that we’re not too precious about any aspect of the brand.”