Not Your Mother’s Barbie: How Mattel’s New Dolls Aspire to Inspire

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Mattel's new line of Barbie dolls looks to create role models more than fashionistas. Three experts consider the thinking behind the marketing.

Coinciding with International Women’s Day, Mattel has released the latest Barbie dolls in its Shero line, which the company launched in 2015 to celebrate women who have broken barriers. Dolls in the likeness of acclaimed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, aviator Amelia Earhart and NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson made their debut, followed by dolls that look like female film director Patty Jenkins and Olympian Chloe Kim. The aspirational dolls come after the toymaker surveyed 8,000 mothers worldwide and found that 86% were concerned about role models for their daughters. While the Shero line reflects changing societal beliefs, it also shows how a venerated company is keeping pace with changing consumer preferences at a time when children are abandoning physical toys for digital devices.

The Knowledge@Wharton show on SiriusXM channel 111 gathered three retail experts to analyze Mattel’s new brand strategy for Barbie: Wharton marketing professor Barbara Kahn; Miro Copic, a San Diego State University marketing lecturer and former chief marketing officer at Hasbro; and Emily Aguilo-Perez, an education professor at Penn State University, whose dissertation focused on Barbie’s influence on girls in Puerto Rico. (Listen to the full podcast using the player at the top of this page.)

The following are key points from their talk.

Mattel Is Making a ‘Smart Move’

There’s mounting evidence that the toy industry is taking a hit these days. Toys R Us, which recently announced it would shut down operations, is the latest casualty. Sales are declining in general, although some product lines remain strong. That’s why Mattel’s new strategy for Barbie is so important.

“What Mattel has to do to survive is to make sure their brands are relevant and will pull the consumer in,” Kahn said. “With the announcement of Toys R Us closing, you’re now getting Amazon, Walmart and Target, who are very strong and powerful retailers who can control everything that’s sold in their inventory, how it’s priced, how it’s featured, etc. The stronger the brand, the more power that they have vis-a-vis the retailers. Barbie is Mattel’s strongest brand, so it’s got to be modern, it’s got to be relevant, it’s got to be personal. And they’ve got to figure out what matters to the end-user.”

Mattel has faced unrelenting criticism that Barbie, with her disproportionate body measurements and perfectly straight coif, is not a realistic role model and can even be damaging to the self-esteem of young girls who play with her. The company’s newer Barbies — which include different body shapes, hair textures and ethnicities — fill a need in the market that has persisted for years, Aguilo-Perez said.

“It is Mattel’s biggest brand, so it’s good that they are reinventing themselves,” she said. “Being able to provide this variety, this diversity of powerful women and important role models, is something that I think was really needed. I was happy to see that there were different options, and I think girls are always wanting that. They are always wanting to see themselves or see positive role models in the dolls they are playing with.”

Copic thinks Mattel is making “a smart move,” especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement and push for a new cultural paradigm. But he also pointed out that Barbie has been culturally relevant since she came on the toy scene.

“Being able to provide this variety, this diversity of powerful women and important role models, is something that I think was really needed.” –Emily Aguilo-Perez

“In the 1960s, they had dolls that were doctors and lawyers and businesswomen,” he said. “As they’ve evolved, they’ve kind of gone back to some of those roots. What’s going to be a challenge with the Toys R Us closure is that Target and Walmart have a limited range of SKUs. These different new products may or may not make it to the shelf because they’re really looking at returns. Yes, Barbie is Mattel’s strongest brand, Amazon is an interesting platform, and the question is, will it get the kind of exposure that will present it as an option for parents who are buying things for their daughters, or at least girls who are seeing this stuff online?”

Barbie Versus American Girl

Kahn contrasted Barbie with American Girl, a direct-line product introduced in 1986 by a startup that was later acquired by Mattel. American Girl dolls represent different ethnicities, and each doll comes with her own story in book form.

“People are talking about the retail environment now, a retail apocalypse, a retail disruption and you really need to think about the strategies that are going to make these brands survive,” Kahn said. “First of all, you have to have a brand narrative that really talks, and it’s got to talk both to the girl and to the mom.”

American Girl has been wildly successful, with a legion of devotees. Kahn thinks Barbie is also a strong enough brand to be sold directly to consumers, but Mattel hasn’t indicated it will go that route.

“It seems to me this Barbie brand is going down a different track with this recent introduction of new product in that it’s looking at the doll as aspirational, whereas a lot of what American Girl did was, ‘play with a doll that’s like you,'” she said. “It was astonishing how successful American Girl is. If Barbie’s going after a different track, is that a strong enough brand track to give them the changing power in the retail world?”

Copic said Mattel has dolls to cover the spectrum, from Bratz to Monster High to traditional Barbies and the new ones.

“Mattel is really playing the portfolio game of dolls,” he said. “They’ve got American Girl as a brand, Ever After High, Monster High, and they were woken up a number of years ago with the Bratz dolls, which really took the market by storm. Girls identified with them a little bit more intensely, and Barbie’s been in this kind of reinvention stage ever since. But what Barbie has done, which is quite interesting, is that they’ve gone down the digital app side. For the young girls, you can go to your app store and download all these apps that enhance the game play.” That digital aspect is an important part of building an ecosystem around the doll.

A PR Power Play

Don’t mistake Barbie as beautifully vapid creature — she’s making a serious business move in the marketing game. Each time an aspirational doll has launched, it’s received a significant amount of attention in the mainstream press.

“This is really a major PR play,” Copic said. “It really plays to the moms, it really plays to the notion of role models — and they couldn’t have picked a better time.”

Copic said he recently scrolled through Mattel’s website by recommendations and found the first two or three pages were “all Barbie and Ken in the more typical poses where the girls, from a game play perspective, go first. Whereas Barbie as a tennis instructor or a chef or a vet or a doctor or a builder are deep in the pages, which is fascinating.”

The aspirational line likely accounts for a small percentage of sales for Mattel, he said, but the PR from it is priceless.

In her research, Aguilo-Perez found that women who played with thematic Barbies as children weren’t necessarily following the narrative of that specific doll; they were simply playing. That begs the question of whether the aspirational dolls will serve as role models for girls or whether they make moms feel better about buying them.

“Barbie is Mattel’s strongest brand, so it’s got to be modern, it’s got to be relevant, it’s got to be personal.” –Barbara Kahn

“I think of the ads that Mattel was distributing just recently about girls dreaming through Barbie, and ‘with Barbie you can do or be anything,’ and using the doll as a vehicle for becoming something, which is not what American Girl or Bratz or all these other lines do,” she said. “Also, the adults in the Barbie market are so important and something you don’t see in the other dolls. Barbie has a lot of collector’s editions that market towards adults, so I also wonder if this line is trying to use that group as a market, a target audience as well.”

A Lesson from Dove

To explore the new cultural paradigm further, Copic talked about Dove’s recent Campaign for Real Beauty. The series of successful commercials and print ads for the Dove products show women of different shapes, sizes, colors and skin conditions celebrating their natural beauty.

“Barbie is kind of following what Dove did in the campaign for real beauty, where they democratized beauty and focused on self-esteem, especially among young girls,” he said. “Dove talked to moms and dads and said, ‘don’t let the beauty industry talk to your daughter first before you do.’ It was a really fundamental shift in part of the dialogue about beauty, self-image, self-esteem, and this is a complementary play on the toy side to what Dove did in the broader beauty landscape.”

Aguilo-Perez agreed, saying the marketing behind the aspirational dolls helps address some of the longtime criticism of Barbie.

“In a way, this is appeasing that aspect and those concerns about what messages are daughters receiving from Barbie,” she said. “The line can appease that and provide mothers with a sense that these are positive role models and educational materials that you can provide the player with.”

Shaking Off Gender Stereotypes

A generation ago, the dolls marketed to boys were sold as heroes. G.I. Joe and Stretch Armstrong were labeled action figures designed for violent play. Mattel is branding their line for a new generation as “shero.” Even though the word is trendy, the idea could backfire.

“As marketers, we have to be on the forefront of all culture,” Copic said. “I was watching ‘The Daily Show’ and they torpedoed the whole shero concept as very hokey. There’s always going to be people who are going to take stabs here and there, but that helps the dialogue overall.”

Aguilo-Perez said she’s talked to men who said when they played with dolls as kids, it was violent. “They just took their heads off, or something like that.” But she also heard from boys who treat dolls the same way they would their own toys. “The gender part of it might come more from marketing the idea that we shouldn’t call something like this a doll even though it looks like a doll,” she said. “It has to be a hero or an action figure.”

Copic finds irony in that notion, because Mattel has an entire line of DC Comics dolls, including Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Batgirl, that they market aggressively.

“I think as society evolves, some of that stereotyping will start to converge,” he said. “Look at how women have embraced the NFL. Twenty years ago, if you looked at an average game, attendance and TV viewership were heavily skewed male. Now, you’re at the 55%-45% range and the NFL has worked really hard in the last four or five years promoting towards women. There’s an alignment in society where girls are looking at their profile a little bit differently, and whether they’re going to play with Monster High dolls or Barbie dolls or superhero dolls, they’re all going to blend.”

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