Insights - Brand & Marketing - Entertainment

Repositioning Barbie

Barbie’s journey from toy to cultural icon is a masterclass in marketing. With the upcoming Barbie movie, Mattel is attempting yet another shift in positioning.

screnshot of barbie movie wirth pink billboard saying Real world this way

“If you love Barbie, this movie is for you, if you hate Barbie, this movie is for you,” says the trailer of the Warner Bros Barbie movie, starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, set to hit theatres in August 2023.

The Barbie movie is bound to be controversial and rake in mega-bucks – much like the doll herself. Barbie’s journey to cultural icon is a masterclass in repositioning, so here’s a quick look at Mattel’s strategy through the ages.

From Mommy to Wife

In 1956, Ruth & Eliot Handler went on vacation to Switzerland with their children Barbara and Ken. The Handlers owned toy company Mattel, which had grown sharply by creating ads that targeted children instead of parents.

In the 1950s, the most popular dolls in USA were babies, which allowed girls to play ‘mother.’

At a ski resort in Lucerne, Ruth spotted adult dolls called Lilli, which were sold as sex toys. Each Lilli had a different outfit and Ruth had an epiphany. Mattel would create a range of dolls and sell the outfits separately. A prototype was created in Japan and Ruth called it Barbie, after her daughter.

Mattel’s executive team was horrified. No parent would buy a doll with breasts for their kids, they insisted.

Determined to find a way, Ruth turned to a psychologist for positioning advice. The acceptable roles for women in the 1950s and 60s were mother and wife.They decided that Barbie would be as pitched as the perfectly groomed, accomplished wife that all little girls could aspire to be. Small wonder then, that for the longest time, the best-selling Barbie costume was a wedding gown. And of course, Barbie needed a man, so Ken was launched in 1961. The first talking Barbie launched in 1968, said “Let’s go shopping.”

first barbie wearing black and white swimsuit
Launched in 1959 wearing a swimsuit and high-heels, Barbie was the first toy with adult features and was inspired by a sex toy.

Life in Plastic, Not Fantastic

The backlash from feminists who saw Barbie as regressive was almost immediate. Mattel tried to address this by launching professional versions of Barbie in a business suit.

It was only in the 1980s, however, that a Hispanic and Black Barbie were launched. An Indian Barbie wearing ethnic attire hit the shelves in 1995. Some tweaks were also made to Barbie’s shape, which critics had long insisted was ergonomically impossible for a human being. But on the whole, Mattel was too slow to change and keep up with the fast-evolving world of its buyers.

By 2015, Mattel had experienced ten straight quarters of declining sales. Barbie was accused of damaging self-esteem, causing eating disorders and promoting heteronormativity. The CEO was ousted and a new team brought in.

In 2016, Mattel introduce a plus-size, tall and petite Barbie. A year later, it launched a campaign called ‘Imagine the Possibilities,’ that showed how playing with Barbie helped girls realise their potential. The multi-million dollar repositioning blitz paid off and Mattel was back on its growth track, touching sales of US$ 1 billion by 2021.

Created by BBH, the ‘Imagine the Possibilities’ campaign succeeded in repositioning Barbie and bringing Mattel back on growth track

Mattel followed this up with a campaign called ‘A Doll Can Help Change the World’ – its biggest marketing initiative in five years, and a clear effort to keep that momentum going.

Mattel’s ‘A Doll Can Change the World’ campaign in 2021, continues to stress its progressive approach

In the Pink of Things

An unprecedented, year-long campaign has preceded the Barbie movie. Mattel’s marketing juggernaut has flooded the market with every pink-hued collaboration possible – from toothpaste (Barbie x Moon) to shoes (Barbie x Aldo) and lemonade (Barbie x Swoon) and ice-cream (Barbie x Cold Stone Creamery). There’s even a pink Barbie mansion in Malibu up for rent on AirBnB.

The company also encouraged ‘meme-ification,’ through a genius Barbie Selfie Generator.

The trailer of the movie itself is reassuringly silly, although expectations are high from acclaimed feminist director, Greta Gerwig.

This Time, It’s Not Barbie

Why is the movie so important for Mattel?

Because this time, it is the company being repositioned, not the toy. Instead of being seen as a maker of toys, Mattel wants to position itself as a company that holds the IP to valuable franchises. In addition to Barbie, Mattel has also announced a ‘Hot Wheels’ film, to be directed by JJ Abrams.

Disney are of course, masters of this game, but companies like Lego have also seen substantial success with cinema.

M.G. Lord, a Barbie biographer, once said she was designed “to teach women what—for better or worse—is expected of them in society.” It remains to be seen how the Barbie movie addresses this truism, but once again, the stakes are sky-high for Mattel.

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