The brand boss behind Barbie’s comeback opens up the Mattel Playbook
How did a brand in terminal decline go on to rack up record sales and make the most anticipated movie of the year? Mattel’s chief operating officer talks us through how he pulled off the brand turnaround of the century.
Warner Bros Barbie movie drops July 21 / Warner Bros
In 2015, Barbie, having long been criticized for promoting unrealistic body ideals and perpetuating gender stereotypes, saw its lowest volume of sales in more than 25 years, bringing in $900m. Since then, it has been on a mission to reverse its fortunes and by 2021 had achieved a record $1.7bn in annual sales.
Mattel’s president and chief operating officer, Richard Dickson, sits down with The Drum to explain how he has helped orchestrate this turnaround, telling us why the upcoming Barbie movie – which stars Margot Robbie, features music by Dua Lipa and includes major brand collaborations that have inspired the hot pink trend of summer 2023 – is the pinnacle of this transformation plan.
“If you look back to 2015, CNN had headlines along the lines of ‘Barbie is dead’ and people were writing her off as irrelevant, while the business was showing that consumers weren’t voting for her either,“ he says.
A whole generation of millennial parents had been told that Barbie was bad for their kids, with studies analyzing the negative effects of Barbie and hundreds of news articles highlighting various controversies, from a doll with a ‘don’t eat’ book to a puberty doll with growing breasts. Getting this cohort of parents to completely reappraise their attitudes towards the toy was going to be a tall ask.
Barbie’s impressive reputation makeover has been achieved squarely through marketing and product innovation. “Every year from 2014 on we have created important segments product-wise and by marketing these we have generated, in the last three years, the biggest record years for Barbie ever.”
Dickson, a former marketeer, joined toymaker Mattel over 20 years ago and has since played a pivotal role in revitalizing some of the company’s biggest brands, with his Mattel Playbook reversing the fortunes of Hotwheels, Fischer-Price and more.
He has a particular interest in Barbie, though (he is even wearing a pink logoed T-shirt during our interview), and tells us it is so much more than a toy: “Barbie manifests itself through product interpretations, but the idea is bigger than any one product.” And with his oversight of brand marketing, innovation and design, as well as licensing, merchandising, live events and gaming, he knows what he is talking about when he says: “The evolution of Barbie can be seen as a case study of how brands with legacy reinvent themselves.”
The Mattel Playbook
The Mattel Playbook that Dickson authored has four parts: Purpose, Design-led Innovation, Cultural Relevance and Executional Excellence. “The most important element of any brand is its purpose. Why does the brand exist to begin with? In a world of consumption, where everything is everything and everything is more, why do people respond to our brand?”
Dickson has previously defined Barbie’s purpose as to “inspire the limitless opportunities of girls”. Taking this purpose, Mattel has tried to bring Barbie up-to-date with culture, both in its marketing and products and in shaking the toy’s anti-feminist reputation.
Design-led innovation, meanwhile, is defined as being obsessed with the consumer when designing products. “That means really understanding people’s likes, dislikes, trends and the world we live in. Then, ultimately, it is about how we filter that through our purpose.”
For the cultural relevance part, Mattel has been working to fix many of the long-held criticisms of Barbie. “We really made a concerted effort to really become the most inclusive and diverse doll in the world.” For example, the company has introduced 24 different skin tones, nine different body types and added to Barbie’s list of careers. “Not only is our brand culturally relevant and brand equity scores up, but those who love Barbie love her more, while those who didn’t like her now think that she’s OK.”
The last piece of the Playbook, executional excellence, is about realizing that anyone can have great ideas, says Dickson. “If you can’t execute them and bring them to the market in a meaningful way, however, they’re really nothing but ideas.”
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The Barbie movie
The Barbie feature film, which is directed by Greta Gerwig and stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, is easily the most anticipated movie of the year and ties up the Mattel Playbook perfectly, explains Dickson. “The movie is a product in itself. It is extraordinarily purposeful in the content of the story and it couldn’t get more culturally relevant.”
Opening on July 21, the film has brought in brand partners from sectors far beyond the usual toy category, with collaborations in fashion (Gap and Forever 21), beauty (Truly Beauty and Revlon), lifestyle (Mumu) and homeware (Ruggable) all helping Mattel expand the “validity of the brand generationally,” according to Dickson.
“At the core of the brand we are for girls and for kids, but the Barbie movie has also created a nostalgia. We’ve now had a kind of elastic outcome where we’re seeing all different ages want to play Barbie.”
Dickson says Mattel had been mulling over a Barbie movie for decades, but never had the right creatives or the right interpretation attached. Its chairman and chief executive officer, Ynon Kreiz, previously headed up the Endemol Group, the world’s largest owner of independent TV production companies, and Dickson credits him for having a “good innate sense of the business of movie-making”. Under his tenure, the company now has 14 feature films in development, with Dickson saying Kreiz has “allowed and lent a lot of credibility” to Mattel’s ability to curate and execute a quality film. ”The objective of our films is to create quality content. They aren’t commercials for selling toys.”
That distinction, he says, helped attract talent to work on Mattel films who appreciated the value of the IP and who look at its films as “canvases for cultural conversations”.
Warner Bros and Mattel’s marketing teams have been working “hand in hand” to develop assets and create a marketing campaign, with official drops of marketing activity so far including a still from set, a teaser video, movie posters, a selfie filter and then the trailer. “We haven’t done a lot of marketing at all. In fact, it has all been very precision-curated pieces that can go viral. Everybody knows the Barbie movie is coming, people are talking about it, so we’re part of the cultural conversation, which objectively is any brand’s goal.”
Outside of its feature films, Mattel has tapped into its adult fandom audiences, launching Mattel Creations in 2020. The site is an e-commerce community aimed at toy collectors and is one of Mattel’s fastest-growing brands. The company has also pushed into the NFT space with Barbie and Hotwheels, with Mattel Creations allowing for trading in crypto. “These are all like extraordinarily modern capabilities, particularly for a toy company, that we are moving directly in because it's the right place for us to be and where consumers are,” says Dickson.
After he completes the transformation of the Barbie brand, Hotwheels is next for Dickson’s attention, with its own feature film in the works.