Feature

Blonde ambition: vlogging and a virtual Dream House help Barbie realize a digital future

Barbie’s brand makeover – which has seen the doll evolve from blonde bombshell to 21st-century role model – has been well documented in recent years. Now, its top marketer Lisa McKnight is hoping smarter content, and even smarter tech, will propel the toy to new heights for a locked-down generation.

Netflix, Amazon, Spotify and Barbie – just some of the brands that witnessed a Covid-19 boost in 2020.

Though the 62-year-old doll might appear out of place on a list dominated by tech giants, sales of the figure surged 29% in the most recent quarter according to parent firm Mattel, notching up the best performance Barbara Millicent Roberts has seen in at least two decades.

Yes, Barbie has been a lockdown favorite, but its most recent success has been a long time in the making. The brand has spent the past four years reconfiguring itself for girls and boys alike, carving out a more purposeful place in kids’ lives through its marketing and by making its doll ranges more inclusive in terms of race, disability and gender.

It has also been fortunate that the past 12 months have seen demand for toys surge, with the market pitted to jump a further $30bn by 2025. However, the brand has also been employing a clever digital strategy which its top marketer tells The Drum is having a “halo effect” on the wider business.

A savvy content strategy

For Lisa McKnight, senior vice-president and global head of Barbie and dolls for Mattel, the last year has been a real journey. “At the outset of the pandemic, from a marketing standpoint, we had to immediately hit the pause button and reappraise all of our plans,” she admits. “Our supply chain was shut down in China and in other parts of the world, then marketplaces started to follow along with retail.”

Then there was a global debate around whether toys were an ‘essential’ product (which, of course, Barbie lobbied they were). But soon enough things settled down and media consumption shifted as kids were confined to four walls. That’s when the brand spotted an opportunity to carve out a deeper role in children’s day-to-day lives through digital means.

McKnight, who has been nominated for this year’s Global Marketer of the Year award by the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), explains how early in the Covid-19 crisis Barbie invested in its already growing YouTube channels and online streams to ensure it was reaching the right audiences.

“We saw kids starting to rapidly consume this content, so we had to rethink everything.” Mattel worked closely with its partners at YouTube (where Barbie is a ‘vlogger’ who hosts everything from dance battles with Ken to makeup tutorials) and Netflix (home to various animated adventure movies starring the doll) to ensure it was creating enough content to sate the growing appetites of bored kids.

Mattel has struggled previously with weak sales of big brands such as American Girl and Fisher-Price. In recent years, more children have gravitated toward video games and electronics instead of traditional toys, but Barbie has sought to overcome this as lockdowns have ravaged various markets globally.

“We also created a playroom hub on our own site and Barbie created tons of content around that to provide tips for parents as well as teachable moments and entertainment for little ones.”

Barbie, but make it digital

2020 was also the year Barbie’s gaming app, Dream House Adventures, which is based on its flagship dollhouse, exploded virtually. The product lets kids design and play in their own virtual space and surpassed 71m downloads.

“The digital space is a huge priority for us. We’re trying to broaden the audience, so in the next year we’ll be looking at more general gaming experiences and working with high profile fashion partnerships to drive these.”

With toy stores closed, digital sales have surged, with Mattel’s e-commerce sales jumping 50% in Q3.

“We’ve ramped up our marketing efforts to make sure we’re driving traffic to our own site and those of our partners. We’re investing in a lot of up-the-funnel marketing and listening to the trends to make sure we’re serving up the right products to customers.”

The doll maker has also been working on an integration with Alexa that lets kids ‘speak’ to Barbie and explore her many careers on the Echo device. These range from helping animals as a vet to going on outer space missions as an astronaut to scoring goals as a soccer player.

“This year we’ve seen an increase in active users by 20%,” says McKnight, adding that a million users have interacted with the skill.

A greater sense of purpose

Barbie’s brand overhaul kicked off in 2016 when Mattel literally changed the face of the doll for the first time in its 59-year-history, adding new body shapes and skin tones to its range to make the toy “more reflective of the world girls see around them“.

The new look aligned more closely with the brand’s ongoing ’Imagine the Possibilities’ positioning, which encourages young girls to push beyond traditional gender stereotypes and imagine themselves in non-traditional roles, be it football coach or vet.

In 2020, we saw Barbie unpack racism on her YouTube vlog following the Black Lives Matter protests in the US, the launch of more inclusive versions of the toy including a figurine with a prosthetic limb, and a series of Barbie 2020 campaign dolls featuring four diverse characters designed to expose girls to public leadership roles.

Going forward, McKnight wants to focus on making young Black girls feel empowered through the doll. “We've always, as a brand, been committed to inclusivity, to diversity, but we saw last year with the Black Lives Matter movement that we weren't doing enough.”

She cites a phenomenon Barbie calls ‘The Dream Gap’, where, from the age of five, girls start doubting themselves and believing that they’re less capable than boys.

“That’s even more pronounced with Black girls, who have to deal with the additional barrier of systemic racism, and all of that was brought to a heightened focus for us last year. So we’re doubling down on our commitment to Black girls.

“We are not only ensuring that we’ve got more diversity in our product line, but that we’ve got Black lead characters in our content, so we’re working on more Black role models in the dolls we create and having our dolls bear a likeness to real inspiring women.”

Barbie will also commit funds from its Dream Gap charity to support organisations that support Black girls.

“It’s still not enough and there’s still so much more to be done, but I feel really proud about our authentic purpose in inspiring all girls to reach their limitless potential. And I think that’s paying off with consumers. They see the authenticity and they want to buy into this brand.”

You can vote for McKnight, or any of the other finalists for the WFA Marketer of the Year Award, here.