Behind Barbie's Brand-New Bag: Mattel Exec on Revamping Iconic Doll

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The 2016 Barbie Fashionistas line
The 2016 Barbie Fashionistas line Credit: Mattel
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It's been a big year for Juliana Chugg, who joined Mattel as exec VP-chief brand officer 13 months ago from General Mills, where she was president of the meals division. The Australia native is tasked with reviving the 57-year-old Barbie brand, and lifting Mattel's sales at a time when chief rival Hasbro now holds the licenses to the popular and profitable Disney Princesses and "Frozen" franchises. She's strengthening Barbie's message, infusing toys with tech and turning to digital channels to better engage young shoppers before they create their holiday wish lists.

Ad Age: We've seen a lot of female empowerment as a key theme in advertising recently. How has Mattel incorporated this message into its marketing?

Juliana Chugg
Juliana Chugg Credit: Courtesy Mattel

Juliana Chugg: Barbie is a great example of how we've taken a really important step forward in focusing not on what Barbie is as a toy, but what Barbie enables through the power of imaginative play. You've seen the ["You Can Be Anything"] campaign [from last year], focused on celebrating and inspiring girls to realize their limitless potential by thinking about all the various careers they could have when they grow up—whether that's fantastical or educational, a princess or a paleontologist. We wanted to inspire girls to not think there's a glass ceiling.

Ad Age: Barbie has retained the same body aesthetic until recently, when the brand incorporated ethnic and size diversity. Why did she need an image overhaul?

Ms. Chugg: Sales of Barbie had been declining, and Barbie had not moved forward in representing consumer values around diversity and inclusion and acceptance—she had always been this unattainable figure that was, quite frankly, not a healthy body representation. We were getting a lot of feedback from parents, mothers in particular, saying Barbie's body type was not constructive in creating positive body values. The campaign really focused not on what Barbie possessed, but what she enabled. It gave the campaign a lot more strength and advocacy when we demonstrated we're supportive of different body shapes, whether curvy, petite or tall.

Ad Age: I understand the consumer response has been positive, and Barbie saw a 23% lift in second-quarter gross sales this year. Did the results meet expectations?

Ms. Chugg: It was overwhelming. We were really trying to change the conversation around the brand—by addressing body image. It enabled us to focus on the power of purposeful and imaginative play. We saw 5.6 billion media impressions, and 97% positive brand sentiment. There was clearly some pent-up demand for this messaging.

Ad Age: What other marketing are you doing around Barbie?

Ms. Chugg: We want to evolve the ["You Can Be Anything"] campaign. We saw great success with that campaign; we had 145 million views globally. This year, we're significantly investing in increasing awareness and working with BBDO on the evolution into 2017. There are opportunities for us to showcase female role models and heroes. We're also evolving our content. Right now, we have two DVDs a year, but moving forward, we intend to create an episodic series where Barbie and her sisters talk about careers and adventures. We'll have two series of [52 11-minute] episodes. This will stream in the back half of 2017.

Ad Age: What are some other key toys Mattel is highlighting this holiday season?

Ms. Chugg: We have a lot of technology infusing into our brand. This year, with Barbie Hello Dreamhouse, we have a Wi-Fi-enabled Dreamhouse with lights and sounds that follows voice command, and Hot Wheels launched an artificial intelligence car race product. Holistically for Mattel, Dream-house has sold over a billion [dollars] since inception, and the reason that those products have been so successful is that we have created a system of play for girls to engage where they can imagine themselves in various scenarios. We're coming out with the Ultimate Garage for Hot Wheels and doing a similar thing with Thomas & Friends. We also have Think & Learn Code-a-pillar, which teaches young children how to engage with code. The American Girl brand has also evolved into wholesale—it's always been sold through our own sites and stores, but this year, we are going to have American Girl in Toys R Us. We're working with Amazon on producing content around the historical characters and there's a movie coming out in the fourth quarter.

Ad Age: Are you diversifying your media mix this year, with regards to digital as a way to engage with younger consumers?

Ms. Chugg: We're focused a lot more on digital. YouTube has become a really important channel for us, particularly with content. On Hot Wheels, the YouTube views are through the roof. There's been a shift to digital and social channels, which is where the consumers are, to ensure we're really inspiring and exciting children about the toys we're bringing to the marketplace so we can get on their wish lists.