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The savvy data strategy fueling Barbie’s digital growth

Lisa McKnight explains how a smart data strategy, combined with flexibility, is helping sales pop for Barbie / Barbie

Barbie has been busy retooling its media plans to meet the increasing online demand for its dolls. At the Digital Transformation Festival, The Drum caught up with its top marketer, Lisa McKnight, who told us how a smart data strategy, combined with flexibility, is helping sales pop.

In February, Barbie owner Mattel posted stronger than expected sales after parents snapped up Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars over the holidays, its revenues rising 10% to $1.6bn.

Physical toy sales have been buoyant these past 12 months as parents look to occupy tiny minds and hands in lockdown. Leading the growth for Mattel has been doll sales, which surged 9% in 2020. With stores closed, e-commerce has of course played a huge role in getting boxed Barbies to kids, with Mattel’s online sales growing more than 40% in 2020.

“We did see a huge migration to e-commerce last year, accelerating a trend that was already happening” explains Lisa McKnight, senior vice-president and global head of dolls at Mattel, speaking as part of The Drum’s ongoing Digital Transformation Festival.

She says her marketing team has had to ensure it has been in “lockstep” with external retail partners such as Amazon throughout the pandemic to ensure they’ve had the right assets and stock to push Barbie. However, a bigger shift has also been at play: a retooling of the doll’s data and demand creation strategy, which has helped boost sales via both third-party and owned channels.

Last summer, Barbie observed an uptick in search for its flagship Dreamhouse product. First launched in 1962, the Dreamhouse (much like Barbie) has evolved over the years but still features high up on Christmas lists. The first iteration was a modest pad built from cardboard, while in the 80s and 90s it got an upgrade with floral wallpaper and a luxurious elevator to take Barbie from floor to floor. Now the Dreamhouse features a home office, a second-storey pool with a slide and a plug-and-play design that allows for interactive online play.

“This is an item that’s typically marketed and has its peak sales during the holiday period because it’s an expensive, premium item and is often bought as a big gift. With summer camp and birthday parties canceled since mid-2020, we have saw parents look to spend a little bit more on presents and gifts that have a lot of play value.”

In response, Barbie’s marketing team initiated the Dreamhouse marketing blitz earlier than it typically would. The result drove “a ton” of sales online, with the product topping best-selling toys lists in the US, ending the year with one selling every minute globally.

“That e-commerce acceleration was tremendous.”

Assessing the media mix

Barbie 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.

As kids have moved online, so too has Barbie. Pre-pandemic, PwC found that globally children were increasingly consuming their media via desktop, mobile and tablet devices instead of TV, pitting the kids digital advertising market to hit $1.7bn by 2021.

Amid Covid-19 lockdowns and stay at home orders, children’s move towards digital has become even more pronounced and, for its part, Barbie has leaned into producing content that’s both educational and fun to cater to young audiences. It has been working closely with partners at the likes of YouTube to reach young girls via vlogging and how-to content, as well as bringing Q&As and events to Instagram and Facebook to connect with parents.

Mattel runs a media mix analysis every year to navigate the complexity of planning and buying in an ever-changing market, says McKnight. This also gives Barbie data on what’s driving short-term sales versus long-term brand affinity.

“There’s so much fragmentation, not just one linear path to engagement, so it’s been really helpful to understand what levers we’re pulling and what they’re delivering for us.”

The next digital frontier for Barbie is test-and-learn virtual events. Pre-lockdown, the brand had plans to host its first-ever ‘You Can Be Anything’ festival in LA. Leaning into the brand’s mission to empower young women through play, the all-day event was set to include speeches from inspiring female role models, interactive workshops, hands-on activities and more.

Of course, this has been sidelined by Covid-19 restrictions, but the brand has moved some of the content online with a YouTube and Facebook series focused on the same themes.

“It’s a good test to see how we can engage our audiences in this virtual space. We all know the digital landscape allows us to have a broader reach than a physical event.”

McKnight spoke as part of The Drum Digital Transformation Festival, a global online event packed with expert insights and ideas designed to help marketers accelerate their digital strategies. You can watch The Drum's full interview with McKnight below.

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