Plastic Surgery: Can Mattel rebrand Barbie as a model feminist for 2018?

By Anna Hart,

The man whose job it is to style the world’s “ultimate fashion muse” is wearing head-to-toe black: Prada boots, Saint Laurent trousers, a chequered Dior shirt and a tailored Balenciaga jacket.

As I’m greeted by Barbie senior design director Robert Best at Mattel HQ in El Segundo, on the outskirts of Los Angeles, I can immediately see the appeal of these neutral shades. When Best selects his outfit each morning, he has to keep one extra colour in mind: Pantone 219 C.

Here at Mattel, there is no escaping the pink; with walls painted from floor to ceiling in Barbie’s signature hue, Best’s workplace is less an office and more a sugary shrine to the world’s most famous doll.

It’s 2016 and I’m in LA for the grand unveiling of three new body shapes for Barbie. I’m greeted by an army of 33 new Barbie dolls that mark a radical departure from the blonde, blue-eyed, improbably proportioned doll we all know and some of us love.

The new Fashionistas range – three new body types, plus seven skin tones, 22 eye colours and 24 hairstyles – is the culmination of a top-secret 18-month Mattel operation, Project Dawn.

Kim Culmone, VP of design for Barbie, admits it’s been tough concealing Barbie’s diversity of new looks from friends and co-workers at Mattel: prototype dolls had to be transported around the building in sealed containers.

Reinvention is a dangerous game. And it must continue.

BARBIE, THE BRAND

Barbie is so much more than a pretty face. She is a multi-million-dollar empire. More than a billion Barbie dolls have been sold across more than 150 countries. Three are sold every second.

As a heritage toy brand, Barbie is perhaps the most universally recognised 11.5 inches of plastic ever assembled, with Mattel claiming 98% brand recognition globally. “When you say ‘Barbie’ to someone, most have a very clear image of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, slim doll come to mind,” Culmone tells Influence, in 2018.

“In a few years, this will no longer be the case. We’re exploding a system that’s been in play for 59 years and a heritage that’s been passed down from generation to generation.”

It’s an about-turn for the manufacturer, which has fought hard to maintain the doll’s image since its creation by Elliot and Ruth Handler in 1950s California.

Before her death in 2002, Handler said: “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that, through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

But it was Barbie’s buxom proportions and ever-expanding line of high-profit-margin fashion accessories that were most distinctive.

“Mattel has made enormous efforts to control the image of Barbie, suing artists that the company views as threatening her clean image,” explains Orly Lobel, a professor of law at the University of San Diego and author of You Don’t Own Me: How Mattel v. MGA Entertainment Exposed Barbie’s Dark Side.

Along the way, she believes Mattel has stumbled, “first, by being overly litigious and often losing these court battles against artists and competitors, which is bad PR, and, second, by neglecting the social movements behind consumer discontent, being rather tone-deaf to both the feminist and racial critiques of Barbie”.

The main criticism levelled at Barbie is that she promotes an unrealistic body image for young girls. Barbie’s vital statistics have been estimated by Yale academics as a 36-inch bust, 18-inch waist and 33-inch hips. Barbie-bashers also seized on the observation by Finnish researchers in 1994 that she lacked sufficient body fat to menstruate.

During the 1990s, the Barbie backlash intensified, as critics attacked what the doll stood for. “Barbie is the woman who has everything, and every year receives more,” wrote Eric Clark in The Real Toy Story: Inside the Ruthless Battle for America’s Youngest Consumers. “The plastic princess of capitalism, with her cars, houses, pools and clothes, invites attack as programmer of little consumers.”

Barbie’s tiara had slipped. In 2014, she was ousted as the top-selling girl’s toy, for the first time in over a decade, by Frozen’s Queen Elsa. Nobody at Barbie HQ was disputing that she needed a makeover.

THE MARKET RESEARCH

Sarah Allen is director of PR for Mattel UK. “In 2015, we started a new journey for Barbie, after recognising that we had begun to lose relevance, and sales had started to decline. Attitudes had changed but the brand had not. Instead of evolving to stay relevant, the brand became increasingly wary of change and consumer sentiment reflected that.

“In a society where values were shifting from hedonism to substance, Barbie had become less of an icon of empowerment for girls. We had lost touch.”

In particular, Mattel realised that it had a problem with ‘millennial mums’. “We were seeing that millennials are driven by social justice and attracted to brands with purpose and values, and they didn’t see Barbie in this category,” says Tania Missad, Mattel’s former director of global insights, and now VP of research and insights at Warner Bros.

Compared to Baby Boomers and Generation X parents, millennial mums are more likely to question institutions and hold anti-consumerist views.

“Girls still love Barbie,” says Missad. “But mums, and specifically millennial mums, were having a real crisis about whether they wanted their children to play with Barbie or not.”

What Missad discovered led to an urgent re-evaluation of brand vision, alongside a corporate restructuring.

“We dismantled the commercial advertising and re-engineered our advertising with a mum-directed strategy,” says president and COO Richard Dickson. “Previously we grew our business by making 15-second commercials directed at kids.”

This strategy led to a YouTube ad, ‘You Can Be Anything’, created by BBDO, which became the most-watched advert on the site in October 2015, scooping awards for deftly positioning Barbie as an enabling figure for little girls’ career aspirations.

One young girl appears in a lecture theatre teaching, another is a palaeontologist, and another a vet.

“With each change, we were able to create a vast amount of earned media and social currency, generating positive buzz around the brand,” says Allen. “We leveraged this positive momentum as a launching pad for our new comms strategy, which was to re-engage with mums about the all-but-forgotten noble purpose of Barbie. The ‘You Can Be Anything’ campaign was based on Ruth Handler’s original ethos, after all.”

MIND THE THIGH GAP

Despite this progress, Barbie’s body remained a source of controversy in the media and in homes. “While girls looked at Barbie and saw adventure and endless stories, mums saw an unrealistic body image and that was a barrier,” says Allen.

“We knew that nothing would be a bigger demonstration of our willingness to resolve this and to make Barbie purposeful, relevant and more valuable than taking this on. We had to take the bold step of changing the fundamental feature of a product that had been iconic for half a century.

“So, we introduced multiple body shapes for the first time ever, with curvy, tall and petite dolls joining the classic Barbie. This saw the launch of Fashionistas Barbie, to reflect the multicultural and globally diverse society we live in today.”

PR-ING THE CHANGE

Allen recalls that Mattel recognised this would be an “incredibly noisy moment for the brand”, and so the company invited me and other journalists to Mattel HQ on that day in 2016, to witness its turning point.

“We wanted to show that we were listening to consumers, so we invited one national media outlet from all the major markets to LA to see behind the scenes of Barbie, meet the people behind these decisions and come on the journey with us,” says Allen.

NEXT STEPS

In 2017, Mattel continued to alter perceptions of Barbie, with another BBDO advert. The ‘Dads Who Play Barbie’ campaign subverted gender stereotypes, with a self-described “typical man’s man” explaining his Sunday afternoon ritual of watching American football interspersed with Barbie time. The ad was screened during NFL play-offs.

I NEED A SHERO 

Then, in March this year, Barbie unveiled a further 14 ‘Shero’ Barbie dolls, as part of International Women’s Day. “With 84% of UK mums worried about the type of role models their daughters are exposed to, we wanted to ignite a conversation around the importance of positive influences,” says Allen.

The dolls are likenesses of high-performing women from across the world, and include body activist and model Ashley Graham and US Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. The first ever British Shero honours two-time Olympic gold medallist boxer Nicola Adams OBE.

“Our communications strategy is to reflect the times, which is why 2015-2016 was the right time for Fashionistas; this year it’s the extension of our Shero programme with Nicola Adams, a modern role model who breaks boundaries,” says Allen.

CAN YOU REINVENT AN ICON?

Mattel’s aggressive campaign to bring Barbie in line with a world where gender roles are dominating headlines appears to be working. “The changing fortunes of Barbie present insights that are much broader than the toy industry,” observes Lobel. “It tells us about how our laws and business strategies shape the culture we create; how cultural icons are made, remixed and challenged; and how we innovate, compete and battle in creative and inventive markets.”

So what will Barbie do next? At Mattel HQ, I heard whisperings about targeting boys.

“For so many designers, male or female, playing with a Barbie doll as a child was their first introduction to fashion, and their first awakening to the power of clothes to change your identity, career and life,” observes Best.

“Barbie has always been a mirror of social and fashion trends.”

And, in 2018, we’re moving towards  a world where gender divisions – in Hollywood, in the political arena and in children’s bedrooms – are being challenged and eroded.

Pink isn’t just for girls any more – not even Pantone 219 C.

Anna Hart is former features editor of Stylist magazine and a columnist for The Telegraph.


This article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q2 2018.

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