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Being Barbie: Mattel’s tumultuous history with the world’s most famous doll

You can be anything.

That’s the latest message behind Mattel is trying to send with its advertisement for Barbie, which was released last month in an aim to speak to a society in the midst of progression. A society where little girls can grow up to be anything, from engineers to doctors to soccer coaches.

The commercial went viral partially for the positive and inspiring messaging and no doubt on account of the ridiculously cute scenarios like a little girl conducting a class on the brain while hidden cameras capture her students’ reactions.

But the strategy behind the commercial is clear. It attempts to make amends with the nearly 55-year history of a doll that has played both sides, from inspiring young girls to setting unrealistic expectations around body image.

“There’s really two Barbies,” says Richard Gottlieb, principal and founder of Global Toy Group, a consultancy and resource for the industry. “There’s the one that’s on the shelf and there’s the one that lives in every women’s head and that doll is iconic and powerful what it means to women.”

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We take a look at the past five decades of Barbie as a brand from what drove early to success to challenges along the way and finally, Mattel’s attempt to breathe new life into the relationship between a new generation of mothers and the doll that used to mean so much to them.

Birth of Barbie the Icon

Ruth and Elliot Handler, the co-founders of Mattel, first introduced Barbie to the world in 1959 at the American International Toy Fair in New York.

“That was post-war world in which American culture was dominant as was the American economy and the best place to be in the United States was Southern California – the land of sun and health and prosperity and glamour,” explains Gottlieb. “And I think girls wanted to emulate her.”

Shortly thereafter, the first commercial for the doll aired during an episode of “The Mickey Mouse Club,” which the company had inked a partnership with.

Tthe toy expert says girls were fascinated by the fact that she was a fashion doll. At the time dolls were typically babies and certainly had no figures or sex appeal like Barbie. At first, parents were a bit put off by the fact that the doll had such a figure and were worried it would be a bad influence on their children.

But between the television ads and marketing techniques geared towards children, the brand was able to sell 351,000 Barbie’s in the first year, a sales record. To put it in perspective, a gallon of gas was 25 cents, the average annual salary was US$5,000 and Barbie sold for US$3.

“It was just a very dynamic product,” says Gottlieb.

Barbie starts to adapt in the 1960s and 1970s

In the 1960s Mattel updated Barbie and introduced new characters into the mythology from Ken to African American character Francie capitalizing on the civil rights movements. There was a “British Invasion” Barbie in time for Beatlemania and a space exploration Barbie to tap into the space race unfurling between the U.S. and Russia.

Mattel went public in 1960, and its sales scrambled from US$25 million to US$75 million over the next two years, predominantly buoyed by the success of Barbie.

But the first decade also brought with it more controversy.

In 1965, Mattel released a “Slumber Party” Barbie which came with a scale permanently set to 110 pounds and a diet book with the advice “How to lose weight: Don’t Eat!”


Slumber Party Barbie’s scale, permanently set at 110 lbs. (Photo: eBay)

The following year the brand dropped the scale but kept the “Don’t Eat!” advice.

The company also found an innovative way to get their newest Barbies into the hands of girls, launching a “trade-in” program in 1967. As part of the deal, they could trade in old Barbie dolls plus US$1.50 and get the newest Barbie.

By the end of the 1960s Barbie’s fan club had reached 600,000.

Internally at Mattel, turmoil was brewing.

In 1974, the Handlers were ousted from the company after pleading no contest to a 10-count indictment that Ruth influenced the price of Mattel stock by falsifying company sales and earning reports between 1971 and 1973.

In 1975 the brand forked over US$2 million to cash in on the 1975 Winter Olympics and launched Barbie as a swimmer, skater, and skier.

Barbie was further interwoven into society in 1976 when she was placed in America’s official bicentennial time capsule.

Bad moves and rebounds in the 1980s and 1990s

The 1980s saw the brand attempt to broaden its cross-culture appeal, introducing Hispanic and Black Barbies. The first Asian doll was introduced in 1981 and a Japanese Barbie was introduced in 1985.

In the background, Mattel was struggling. The company reported a US$394 million loss after a ill-fated attempt to build out the electronic games side of the business.

In 1987 it reported a US$113 million deficit, lingering on the threshold of bankruptcy.

But then, things started looking up.

Mattel’s new chairman John Amerman closed ten of the company’s plants cutting 500 jobs in the process and refocused the business on profit rather than sales.

It paid off.

Between 1987 and 1996, Barbie sales in 140 countries swelled from $400 million to $1.7 billion, rising on the back of in vogue Barbies including an MTV-generation rocker Barber and a business executive Barbie. It also helped the company had set up a wide-reaching network of advertising promotions, merchandising and sales teams in 35 countries.

In 1991, the company estimated 95 per cent of U.S. girls aged 3- to 11-years-old owned several Barbie dolls.

But the brand also found itself once again under fire for creating body image issues and in response to consumer demands, Barbie’s body measurements were changed in 1998 with her breasts and hips being reduced and waist widened.

However, there was one area where Mattel won over women, with the announcement that Jill Barad would take over as chairman of in 1997. At the time of her appointment, she was only one of two women running a Fortune 500 company. Net sales in Canada that year reached $1.2 billion and stateside grew by 14 per cent to $1.9 billion. The brand also busted into the CD-ROM market, growing their interactive Barbie-brand games to US$20 million.

A new millennium, a new generation and a new threat

While the hangover of financial ups and downs of the past four decades read like a roller-coaster for the Barbie brand, it was 2001 that will stand as the first major contestation to the iconic empire. It was the year former Mattel employee Carter Bryant launched Bratz – the first real threat to Barbie. By 2005, Bratz had reached US$2 billion in sales and the following year the brand held a 40 per cent share of the fashion-doll market compared to Barbie’s 60 per cent share.

“That turned into a lawsuit,” says Gottlieb pointing out that eventually Barbie, which alleged Bryant was still at the company when he came up with the idea, lost the lawsuit.

But the success wasn’t because Bratz had somehow found a way to steal some of Barbie’s trade secrets; it was that the dolls were “racially ambiguous” says Gottlieb pointing out that they combined features from Hispanic complexion to Western eyes.

“So you had a doll that looked like everybody and nobody,” says the toy expert.

Once again, Barbie – which was retailing between $7 and $14 at this point – diversified to compete. In 2001, it launched the first feature-length CGI film “Barbie in the Nutcracker” and in 2003, Mattel launched Barbie Couture, a full fashion line geared towards both women and girls.

The recession hammered the brand even more with global sales falling 21 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2008.

The end of an icon?

The past five years have seen no shortage of people calling Mattel’s declining sales of Barbie “an end of an era” says Michelle Liem, director of toy business in Canada for market researchers The NPD Group.

“Barbie has kind of had a rough couple of years,” she laments.

The brand’s sales slipped three per cent in 2012, six per cent in 2013.

Last year was also tough on the brand, with it marking another milestone, though not a positive one. For the first time in the National Retail Federation’s 11-year history, Barbie slipped from first place top girls toy to second place.

Barbie sales fell 16 per cent in 2014.

“Disney’s Frozen came in and it was this huge phenomenon everyone wanted,” she says. “And this year we’re seeing a decline because of Shopkins.”

She’s referring to the indescribably bizarre fad of collecting pen toppers shaped like everyday items including shoes and bananas. And the hook, she explains, mostly comes from the fact that the Shopkins brand has gone to great lengths to build an individual story for each character. But Liem says not to discount Barbie yet.

“I do feel like Shopkins is more a fad that will come and go whereas Barbie is an evergreen brand, it’s a classic play pattern for girls to play with dolls,” she says. “To maintain success like Mattel has for these years with Barbie is incredible, especially in the toy industry which is kind of fickle in a way.”

Gottlieb agrees.

“She will always be the preeminent doll, but its not a question of that, it’s a question of how great she’ll be and how can they get those numbers back where they were,” he says.

The key for Mattel’s success with Barbie will lie in storytelling, much like its latest lessons in positivity seem to illustrate. In a sense, it’s a movable message, one that any successful brand seems to heed today – winning over the consumer lies in authentic, progressive storytelling.

“The good news and, well, bad news for Mattel is they’ve created an iconic part of our culture that is heavily freighted with meaning,” says Gottlieb. “I think she’s the most important toy ever – not because she’s classic but because the messaging from Barbie, good or bad, is so powerful to women.”

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