• Barbie sales have soared in the pandemic, its worldwide gross billings up 19% in the fourth quarter.
  • The results reversed a years-long slump in sales.
  • They also followed the brand’s efforts to diversify its product and marketing.
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When the world went into lockdown in March 2020, Roshni Mahtani Cheung worried about the psychological toll on her 4-year-old daughter, who was feeling isolated with no one to play with. So she incorporated Barbie into her daughter’s homeschool curriculum.

“The dolls became her new friends and playmates — she would wake up and reenact circle time with all of her dolls,” said Cheung, the Singapore-based founder of parenting website theAsianparent.com. “It also added creative and dramatic play to our usual routine, as she created backstories for each of the dolls.” 

The Mattel doll has been a big winner of the pandemic along with essentials like toilet paper and detergent. The company reported sales in the latter half of 2020 hit their highest in two decades and fourth-quarter sales surged 19% year-over-year, owing to the holidays and parents looking for new ways to cut down their kids’ screen time. Mattel’s shares gained over 32% in the past year, driven by Barbie sales.

The financials mark a broader comeback for the iconic doll — shunned in recent years for its unrealistic portrayal of beauty and body standards and lack of inclusivity and gender equality — on the back of a revamped, modernized identity.

In other signs of the doll’s growing popularity: 

  • The Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures app became the No. 1 downloaded kids’ app in the US for 6- to 8-year-olds in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to the company.
  • In January, market research company NPD named Barbie the top global toy property of 2020. 

“Charting a comeback and revamping a 60-year-old brand is not a small undertaking,” said Bianca Guimaraes, executive creative director at independent ad agency Mischief. “Barbie was able to pull it off because they started by recognizing the problem — that they’re partly responsible for how kids feel about themselves — and taking concrete steps to ensure that they take that responsibility seriously.”

Barbie has been overhauling its brand by tying itself to social issues

Mattel’s effort to evolve Barbie from a leggy starlet consumed mostly with shopping and vying for Ken’s attention into a woke, 21st century role model who addresses issues like racism did not happen overnight.

Barbie’s sales had tanked 20% between 2010 and 2014, with stiff competition from newer toys and franchises like Monster High dolls and Disney’s “Frozen.” It regularly landed in controversies like the 2014 “Unapologetic” campaign that had Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated in a swimsuit. 

Barbie had brand awareness, but people had stopped buying into her, said Lisa McKnight, SVP and global head of Barbie and Mattel’s doll portfolio.

“Barbie was seen as too perfect and aspirational. We needed to show her vulnerability,” said McKnight.

The turnaround started with a 2015 ad that recast the doll as a role model for girls in the age of female empowerment.   

The campaign by Omnicom’s BBDO San Francisco “Imagine the possibilities” was inspired by Barbie founder Ruth Handler’s philosophy that a girl could be anything she wanted to be. The 2-minute spot juxtaposed scenes of young girls being working professionals with them playing with Barbies at home to make the point that the doll helps girls imagine their futures. The ad got positive press and accolades and 16 million views on YouTube.  

“Our pitch was that you talk way too much about plastic and not enough about purpose,” said Matt Miller, chief creative officer at BBDO San Francisco. “They [Mattel] had forgotten the brand’s core DNA, and once we dug through their history and identified it, it became easy to articulate that purpose.”

Barbie has been adding diverse and inclusive versions

In the past five years, Mattel expanded the once-identical, primarily white dolls with waif-like waists and high-heel poised feet to as many as 175 different skin tones, ethnicities, eye and hair colors, body types, and disabilities (including a doll with a prosthetic limb).

Barbie’s career-focused line was also broadened to include fields where women are particularly underrepresented, like astrophysics and game development. It has released dolls embodying role models including civil rights activist Rosa Parks, US fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad (who’s also the first hijab-wearing Barbie), and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

These changes made the doll palatable to millennial parents like Matt Wolk, a high-school history teacher from Wisconsin whose 8-year-old daughter has gravitated toward Barbies in recent months.

“Barbie has been available in other skin tones for years, but there’s never been a real story behind them,” he said. “Dolls like the one inspired by Rosa Parks have allowed us to discuss the Civil Rights movement and make heroes in the classroom a focal point in the playroom as well.”

Barbie also tried to tie itself to female empowerment by creating the Dream Gap Project in 2018 that funds research and organizations like Black Girls Code, She Should Run and the NAACP and pilots new school curriculums.

Along with other brands, Barbie has also taken a stand on current issues and events, with election-themed Barbies last year (including a candidate and campaign manager) and online videos about girls navigating topics like racism.

“Consumers today want a genuine and tangible expression of values from brands, and actually see those values at work,” said Jacinta Gauda, principal and chief strategy officer at The Gauda Group. “I’m definitely surprised and pleased with the direction Barbie has taken in terms of inclusion and turning topics like racism on its head.”

Barbie’s digital presence has soared

Mattel’s digital presence has also helped Barbie’s revival. Barbie has 27 million followers on social media and claims to be the most talked about toy brand online. On YouTube, she’s is a relatable figure who helps kids make sense of the pandemic and question behaviors like reflexive apologies, said McKnight.

The brand claims that its Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures app was the No. 1 downloaded kids’ app for 6- to 8-year-olds in the fourth quarter. Barbie apps have collectively been downloaded more than 98 million times and average 3.5 million monthly visits, according to the company.

Not everyone is convinced that Barbie’s comeback is assured. 

Marketing author and professor Kai D. Wright, who teaches a case study on Barbie, said that the brand has benefited more from being tangentially associated with societal trends than its own efforts. It found a new audience, for example, when Target did away with gender-based labeling in its stores a few years ago, and when #GirlDad took off as an tribute to fathers that empower their daughters after the deaths of Kobe and Gianna Bryant last year.

While it had a 2015 ad showing a little boy playing with a Barbie, the brand has to broaden its appeal beyond girls to stay relevant, especially with Gen Z, which is a far more gender-fluid than its predecessors. It should also follow the example of rival toy companies like Lego and Hasbro that have turned their intellectual property into multi-billion dollar, live-action entertainment franchises like Transformers, Wright said.

“Barbie has a lot of latitude, but it hasn’t done nearly enough,” he said. “They’re literally sitting on a gold mine, which has the potential to be much bigger than their physical toy business.”

Expanding into entertainment seems to be a focus for the brand under Ynon Kreiz, a Hollywood veteran who was appointed Mattel’s CEO in 2018 and founded the company’s Films Unit the same year. After some false starts (a film with comedian Amy Schumer was scrapped in 2017), a live-action Barbie film with Hollywood actress Margot Robbie is in production. Barbie has also been prioritizing e-commerce in the pandemic.

But Alain Sylvain, founder and CEO of strategy and design firm Sylvain Labs, thinks Barbie will continue to have momentum, at least during the pandemic, due to the nostalgia the brand evokes. Nostalgia marketing has taken off in recent years and climbed in the pandemic.

“There is no escaping the profound nostalgia Barbie provides,” he said. “Kids need toys to develop, and Barbie has been the de facto toy for children everywhere. You can’t cancel Barbie, as much as so many might want to.”

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