Opinion

Is it too late to save Barbie?

Barbie has needed a makeover for a long time, writes Rick Hirst, CEO of Mcgarrybowen.

Mattel: Barbie is looking a little more diverse
Mattel: Barbie is looking a little more diverse

For 57 years Barbie has had the 'perfect' body, the 'perfect' boyfriend and the 'perfect' pink-infused life.

But as Mattel has finally worked out, nothing in life is perfect. A quick look at the toy boxes of my two little girls tells you what you need to know – they are 100% Barbie free.

It is no surprise that in the shadow of Protein World-gate, issues of body image and the condemnation of brands (and the entire fashion industry) for using unnaturally thin models are hot topics

Let’s face it, Barbie needed to change. She has got so out of proportion that should she ever come to life Pinocchio-style, she wouldn't be able to lift her head. She would only have half a liver, and all her top-heavy distribution piled onto her infeasibly small feet would mean she’d have to crawl around on all fours.  It’s like a scene from Geordie Shore.

It is no surprise that in the shadow of Protein World-gate, issues of body image and the condemnation of brands (and the entire fashion industry) for using unnaturally thin models are hot topics. 

Barbie sales have been steadily declining worldwide for the past three years and it’s a sign that modern parents are uncomfortable with the body image message that Barbie sends to their daughters.

Hence Mattel's top-secret 'Project Dawn’.  The revamp of Barbie has taken two years to complete and now Barbie comes in three new body types – curvy, petite, and tall – a range of seven skin tones, and 20 new eye colours.

Making parents more comfortable

But have these new Barbie creations come too late to save what is, essentially, a heritage brand? Maybe, but I hope not.

The new dolls have already split opinion but in the current climate Mattel had to do something. 

Analogue toys like Barbie are all about relevance and imagination.  Making them more representative of real life should make them more accessible for a new generation of little girls but more importantly allow mums to be more comfortable buying them.  They care massively about the beauty standards their kids are exposed to.

It’ll be hugely interesting to see which versions prove to be the most popular. 

From the focus groups Mattel ran to test the new Barbie dolls, the blonde ones maintained their expected popularity but girls showed strong preference for those that most closely represented themselves either because of the skin tone or the dolls' hair texture. Of course the blue haired one was loved and the panels named her ‘Katy Perry’ – whether she likes to kiss girls is another matter.

It would suggest that the Barbie brand is salvageable because the marketers at Mattel have listened to their most important audience: mothers who buy them.

Mattel has put Barbie through the Dove-ometer and she’s come out more realistic and a damn sight more PC.  The next step will be to take a leaf out of the Lego playbook and start future-proofing the brand. Asking girls to choose between a plastic doll and an iPad feels a little David and Goliath doesn’t it?