As a mother in the 1980s, Madhavi Parekh refused her daughter’s repeated requests for a Barbie. No amount of cajoling, trips to the local Toys ‘R’ Us or names of other friends who had the dolls could persuade Parekh to purchase the brand, which she viewed as against her core values. “The bodies were not realistic. They were all skinny, tan and blonde,” she says. “And in between all of the tight clothing and the short clothing, it was about impressing Ken!”
Yet last month while shopping for toys, Parekh found herself in the Barbie aisle and did a double take. She spied a Barbie that resembled her young granddaughter with long dark hair and a guitar.
“My eyes didn’t believe it,” says Parekh, who bought the doll and plans to gift it to her granddaughter for the holidays. She also wants to purchase a Frida Kahlo doll, part of Barbie’s line of Inspiring Women.
Attracting shoppers like Parekh, who had long shunned the brand for its unrealistic portrayal of women at a time when society was moving toward gender equality and inclusivity, has been a new core mission for Mattel, parent of the 60-year-old Barbie. As recently as 2015, sales were tanking, and shoppers gravitated toward trendier items like Monster High dolls or products from Disney’s “Frozen.” Mattel executives overhauled Barbie with a diverse product lineup that included dolls of all shapes, sizes and ethnicities to better portray the larger culture. They added role models like Kahlo and Rosa Parks, and this year introduced a Barbie in a wheelchair. New marketing promoted a message of the power of play and portrayed the new Barbie as someone kids could aspire to be.
“The goal was to evolve Barbie to be modern again and a better reflection of the world around the girls,” says Lisa McKnight, senior VP and global general manager for Barbie. “And we’re starting to see tremendous results.”
Indeed, Barbie has become one of the hottest items on Mattel’s toy shelf. In late October, the brand reported its eighth consecutive quarter of sales growth. For the period, Barbie’s worldwide gross sales were $412.8 million, a 10 percent increase over the year-earlier period. The brand accounts for 73 percent of sales in the doll category for Mattel, a $4.5 billion company. “There’s few brands in the toy industry that are going to last for 60 years,” says Chris Byrne, a toy analyst. “The challenge with Barbie has always been ‘How do we reinvent it for this new generation of Barbie players?’”
Mattel started by reinventing the doll itself, an effort that has continued to play out with stronger sales. More than 55 percent of Barbies now sold are diverse in terms of skin tone, hair color and fiber, and body type, according to McKnight, who says that share increases annually. She says diversity has also played a big role in the marketing Barbie has released. Campaigns highlighting the “Dream Gap,” which prevents girls from realizing their full potential as adults because of societal constraints, have helped to further Barbie’s message of strength and possibility for children.
Mattel is also funding research to better understand the gap, and introducing more career dolls in categories where women are traditionally underrepresented, like judges, says McKnight, a mother of two girls. At the same time, YouTube content featuring Barbie as a blogger helps to promote the character as an imperfect person who makes the same mistakes as other girls, such as saying “I’m sorry” too frequently.
Diverse agency roster
While Barbie’s marketing team, which numbers about 60, has tapped BBDO in recent years for larger projects like the work around the Dream Gap and a “Power of Play" campaign, the brand began working with R/GA and Deutsch earlier this year. Barbie also worked with I Am Other, Pharrell Williams’ agency, on a pop-up shop in New York celebrating the doll’s 60th birthday. That shop, along with a partnership with Airbnb for a two-night rental of “Barbie’s Malibu Dreamhouse” in October, an announcement of an upcoming movie starring Margot Robbie—which the actress describes as “aspirational”—and holiday window decorations at Macy’s helped make the brand a trending topic on social media multiple times in 2019.
The success of Barbie has even trickled into the marketing playbooks of some of Mattel’s lagging brands, like American Girl, which is watching Barbie closely, according to McKnight. In addition, Mattel’s recently launched Creatable World, a line of gender-free dolls that kids can style, was a result of the purpose-driven results the company saw from Barbie.
As Barbie changes consumer perception, it still has its share of toy-aisle rivals, including “Frozen 2,” Disney’s recent blockbuster sequel, and less expensive collectibles including Shopkins. New products like Barbie Color Reveal, a doll whose hair changes color in water, should add to the brand’s visibility, says Byrne.
“The great thing about Mattel is they are willing to invest in trying,” he adds. “And that’s partially what’s kept Barbie around for so many years.”