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Barbie’s shape shifts with the times, but will it help sales?

Is Barbie’s curvier and multicultural makeover a meaningless PR gimmick or clever ploy to reframe the brand for a new generation? The Drum’s Jennifer Faull and Jessica Goodfellow investigate.

Barbie blasted into the 21st century this week with the debut of the ‘Fashionistas' range, featuring curvier and darker versions of the once popular toy.

It’s an unabashed attempt to properly recalibrate the brand to modern attitudes but is arguably a last resort for owner Mattel, which has until now resisted calls from some fans that the iconic doll is a remnant of a bygone time. Barbie sales dipped four years in a row going into 2015, and the decision to launch tall, curvy and petite versions is the latest in a string of gambles to save the brand that could have a wider impact on how its marketed in the future.

Executives want to recapture Barbie’s affinity to pop culture that led to a section of Times Square being renamed ‘Barbie Boulevard’ for a week in the 80s. But are these renewed efforts a case of trying to close the stable door after the horse has bolted? According to some fans yes; the general consensus from the detractors of Barbie’s latest makeover is that it smacks of a “marketing shift” rather than Mattel wanting to champion diversity for the greater good.

Altruistic or not, moving the brand past traditional general stereotypes is vital to securing the future of a toy that makes two-thirds of its money from international markets. By creating three new body types and seven different skin types, Barbie wants fans to know its serious about encouraging girls to imagine themselves in non-traditional roles such as a football coach, vet and museum curator.

The bigger question Mattel has to contend with is whether this is enough to keep the girls wanting more. How will dolls contend with digital?

“Mattel has been suffering from the sort of reputation crisis that is rarely talked about. It’s the sort of crisis that isn’t triggered by an event or action but one where the core essence of the brand or product falls victim to a change in public opinion,” explains Scott McLean, co-founder of consultancy The Intelligent Marketing Institute.

“As this crisis is predominantly about adult perceptions of what is right for their daughters to be playing with, Mattel is therefore quite rightly aiming this product shift at the parents. After all, it is the parent or another adult who is most likely to buy the first doll for their daughter and if they don’t wish to do so because of their misgivings about stereotypes, the manufacturer has a problem.”

It's why the advert and marketing campaign are clearly aimed at adults as well as their kids. Mattel is promoting the idea that the doll not only represents modern life bus is also tugging on parental aspirations about their child’s future.

According to Anna Stratigakis from Brand Union, Mattel has to ensure that it doesn’t attach any labels to the body types (original vs curvy etc).

“This should not be about body types and looks, but should be closely aligned to Barbie’s new positioning: Imagine the possibilities and the focus on what girls can achieve and what they want to do in their lives rather than what they look like,” she said.

On that front, it has fallen at the first hurdle by calling the range ‘Fashionistas’, suggesting a focus on looks and style rather than a broader idea of what stories can be imagined with Barbie. 

A Barbie makeover was a long time coming and now that the dolls look more realistic time will tell whether it was the right move. 

Featured by The Drum