Barbie and Mattel go hand in hand. The success of the toy company that created it more than 60 years ago still rests largely on its thin plastic shoulders. While the company performed well and held its own with other brands during some of the doll’s weak moments, Barbie remains fundamental to the toy company’s success. “Of course, Barbie is the queen of our product portfolio and, to some extent, an indicator of Mattel’s performance,” Richard Dickson, the company’s president and chief operating officer (COO), said by call. video.
Dickson did not disclose the Barbie brand’s share of the company’s revenue, which was $5.458 billion (a similar figure in euros) in 2021 (this figure was $6.081 billion before discounts, returns and other adjustments). However, the company’s annual report sheds some light on this. The doll division accounted for nearly $2.3 billion of Mattel’s gross revenue; Barbie alone accounted for $1.679 billion, or 73% of sales in its category, and about 27% of total revenue. “Last year he reached the highest level in his history,” confirms Dickson. Indeed, Mattel recorded profits of $903 million compared to $123 million the previous year, an increase of 19% compared to 2020.
Barbie has returned to the front of the stage. “We live in great [sales] is increasing worldwide. But the blonde doll with unrealistic measurements had to evolve over time to survive, and there were plenty of bumps in the road. “The brand has had a tremendous journey, a very impressive journey, but it has also faced a lot of controversy,” comments Dickson.
More than six decades ago, when toys were even more gendered, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler found that her son, Kenneth, had more options for play than her daughter, Barbara. While he could be an astronaut or a surgeon, Barbara had to be entertained primarily with dolls, which simulated what society later had in store for her. “Ruth was watching her daughter play with paper dolls, and she noticed her daughter and her friends imagining what they would be like in the future while playing.” Thus, Barbie was born in 1959, conceived as a way to unleash the imagination and potential of young girls.
Although Barbie was a gendered representation of women, at this time and in this social context, the doll was presented as a tool for girls to project themselves into environments beyond the home and caregiving. “As time passed, [Barbie] has always been at the forefront of what we can call cultural conversation. In the 1960s, Barbie was a big part of the aspirations of what was happening [at the time]“, notes the president of Mattel. “She started studying and her clothes represented the career that little girls could imagine pursuing. Over time, Barbie and her style progressed.
Over time, criticism of Barbie’s body and its influence on childhood has also increased. In 1965, the same year his astronaut outfit was introduced, Mattel marketed a sleepover set. The set was accompanied by a scale indicating 110 pounds (50 kilos) and a book whose cover read “How to lose weight?” with the response “Don’t eat!” on the back cover. In the early 1990s, a new talking Barbie said four sentences chosen at random from 270 expressions. Among them: “Want to go shopping?” and “Math class is hard!” The latter received a lot of attention and reflected a stereotype that persists today.
By the turn of the 21st century, Barbie was recovering from falling sales, controversy, and competition from other dolls, including the Bratz. In 2014, the brand had its worst period in three decades, and the life of the plastic was no longer fantastic. At the time, Dickson notes that sales volume was down double digits. “A UK newspaper headline asked, ‘Is Barbie Dead?’ “, recalls the president of Mattel.
Debates over the doll’s body were louder than ever and touched on issues of representation and objectification, among other concerns. Dickson says Barbie had lost touch with her purpose and the larger cultural conversation, which was a ticket to failure. As he puts it, “the brand was in a place where it was engaged in a monologue with consumers, and we had to move towards a dialogue [with them].”
It was time to listen and make decisions. “We made what could be called the brand’s biggest gamble: we changed the product. Since 2016, the company has offered Barbie dolls with 4 different body types and 9 skin tones. Mattel has also integrated well-known women from different fields into its product line. For example, the company made a collection of dolls featuring Rosa Parks and Jane Goodall, among others. More recently, Mattel introduced Barbie dolls with prosthetics, vitiligo, and hearing aids.
“People liked what we were doing, but the sales didn’t reflect that until a while later,” says Dickson. Gradually, the product line grew, retailers gave it more shelf space, and it began to sell well. “The year we launched, Barbie in a Wheelchair was the 11th best-selling fashion doll,” he notes. “Today, in the Fashionista line, more than half of the [sales] the volume is non-Caucasian dolls.
Although Barbie re-emerged as a force, the toy company fell on hard times in the years that followed. Beyond the doll crisis, Mattel faces two other major issues. First, Disney gave up the company’s rights to produce Disney princess dolls and gave them to rival Hasbro (Mattel picked up those rights this year). Second, Toys ‘R’ Us, which sold Mattel’s products, was experiencing difficulties that led the toy store to file for bankruptcy in the United States in 2017. As a result, between 2017 and 2019, Mattel’s finances were in the Red.
In 2018, Ynon Kreiz was appointed Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Mattel. In addition to making cuts and reducing staff, the new leader focused on strengthening the company’s intellectual property. Barbie’s world is much bigger than her height; in addition to dolls and accessories, the brand offers games, TV content and digital experiences, among other things. A Barbie movie is also set to hit theaters in 2023. “The brand has gone from a toy to a pop culture icon, and now [it’s] a franchise in its own right,” concludes Dickson.
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