Remodelling Barbie: how Mattel revived an ailing global brand

Barbie was a brand in trouble, falling out of step with social norms and unable to re-engage with its target market. BBDO San Francisco boss Jim Lesser explains how the brand was able to model a new approach and return to the hearts of young girls (and their mothers) globally.

Barbie icon“This is a story of a fall from grace,” Jim Lesser, CEO of BBDO San Francisco tells a room full of marketers. “Our lead character had it all, she was on top.

“She had fame, she had fortune, she had a pink convertible and a house in Malibu. People adored her but then Barbie started to slip and soon she had one or two ‘oops’ moments and as a result fell pretty hard.”

For decades Barbie has been one of the world’s most iconic kid’s brands, but missteps by maker Mattel and changing social attitudes meant the beloved doll had become very far from the most popular toy in the playground.

The fall: what happens when you have a couple of ‘oops’ moments 

Lesser notes it wasn’t one thing but rather a series of things that saw her fall out of favour with girls and, more importantly, their mothers.

“There were a few incidences that triggered a reaction in media that focused, frankly, on the wrong thing,” says Lesser.

“Girls have always talked to Barbies but when they created a talking Barbie one of the many things she said was ‘maths class is tough‘. Now that may be true but it’s not what mums wanted their daughters to hear from Barbie.

“There was another incident where Barbie was moving from Malibu to New York. She sold the dream house  – except that when she moved their was a giant box of lip gloss, shoes and mascara – and of course you can’t go anywhere without glitter.”

Barbie movie

Mattel did not consider what statement the boxes made

“There were a few of these incidents where Barbie began to lose touch.

“She became less and less relevant and somewhere along that line, went from being less relevant to being a negative influence.”

Iconic brands have a place in culture

Lesser argues one of the problems is that Mattel failed to recognise that its brand had become part of the culture in many of the countries they were in.  

“You have to take a second to look at what Mattel accomplished with Barbie over a 50-year history,” he says. “Building the brand into an icon and you certainly don’t get that without the backing of culture.

“Barbie has had more than 160 careers, including being a fashion editor, an astronaut – the first woman in space; she’s been a doctor and 24 years before Hillary she was the first female president.”

Barbie has had over 160 careers.

Culturally significant: Barbie has had more than 160 careers

“The important thing here is for the brand to adapt and reflect culture that was critical to become the icon she was. It’s why she was so beloved.

“What happened though is that Barbie began to lose touch with culture.”

Hitting rock bottom: an intense spotlight 

For an iconic brand like Barbie the press is always watching for a slip up, and the media spotlight can become very hot.

There were headlines like: ‘Is Barbie is dead?‘, Mattel sales suffer again thanks to Barbie and finally: Barbie crusher of aspirations in the Boston Globe.

“‘Crusher of aspirations’ – imagine if it was your brand they were saying that about. It’s not what you want to see,” says Lesser.

Lesser notes that the media coverage impacted sales and with Barbie a major product line for Mattel its stock price halved.

Mattel shareprice 2014-15

Mattel’s share price: Jan 2014 to Oct 2015

Mattel looks for help: a different type of approach

In the wake of the fall, Mattel began to ask various agency partners for help. But it was not a normal agency pitch, the client did not demand spec work, rather help to understand where its approach had gone wrong.

The BBDO San Francisco CEO says: “I don’t know of a campaign for any brand where the spec work ever got made. It’s a waste of our time, your time, and so let’s use that time differently.”

BBDO won the account with the remit of revitalising the brand.

Lesser noted that key to the success of the campaign and strategy was that they were transparent on the budget and provided access to the senior leadership of Mattel, including the president of the company, Richard Dickson.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 9.34.31 am

BBDO got a large amount of time not just with marketing but with Mattel’s senior leadership team including the CEO.

“How often do you have a creative briefing where you have the creatives and strategists sitting there and the president of the company is doing the briefing?,” he says.

“This pulled us all in and made sure we were all on the same side trying to solve this thing.”

Lesser argued that much of Barbie’s previous campaign work was targeting the wrong audience.

“This is one many, many commercials, from probably over five to 10 years of work, that was very product-focused,” he said referencing an ad for Barbie Eye Doctor.


“The target audience is girls and it was done just before we started working on the account and the commercial is all about the ‘what’ and not about the ‘why’.

“It is for little girls and our problem is mums. None of it was solving the barrier problem of them not wanting to have Barbie in their daughter’s life.”

Reinventing Barbie: back to the origins of the brand 

For Lesser’s team the solution was a simple one: they had to reinvent the iconic 57-year-old brand.

“We had to find a way to reinvent,” he says. “What the brand had been doing was emphasising plastic over purpose and it was getting kids excited but not parents, and we had to reverse this.”

The insight they found for that reinvent came from Barbie’s original founder, Ruth Handler, who Lesser noted had wanted Barbie to teach girls that they could be anything they wanted to be.

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One of the slides from Lesser’s presentation.

“Gosh how did this get lost along the way?,” he asks. “Ruth Handler created Barbie 57 year ago and she did because she wanted her to represent that women have choices. Today this is exactly relevant.

“It answered the question of why must this brand exist. Not why does it exist but why must it exist and would the world miss if it wasn’t around?”

Lesser’s team had to change the entire global narrative around Barbie and to do this they decided to create content around Barbie that was designed to send a positive message and one that mothers of girls would share with their friends.

“We had to make the shift from mass marketing to mass mattering,” says Lesser. “We had to reconnect to culture.

“Barbie had to do something to demonstrate the shift and show there was something behind this change.”

Mattel and BBDO created a video ad built around the idea of “what happens when girls are free to imagine they can be anything?”

“The key thing here is that Barbie haters praised this new Mattel ad,” said Lesser, noting that it quickly went viral and since October last year has had more than 21m views.

The video also had more than half a million shares and was voted YouTube ad of the year.

“Not only did the media love the ad but mums love the ad,” he says.

“I have never seen a reaction like this to a brand. It was so great to see, especially given how knocked down it had been.”

“The sales results also followed suit with a 30% increase in sales in the following quarter compared with a year before and we regained our top spot as the number one toy across the marketplace.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 10.11.16 am

Mattel’s share price rebounded following the launch of the campaign

“I don’t want for a second to pretend that one video is the reason it reacted the way it did, but the correlation is pretty good,” he quips, before noting the video was just step one in a broader plan to reinvent Barbie for the modern world.

The body issue: not every girl is tall, slim, blonde and blue-eyed 

The next stage was to move to broaden Barbie’s appeal.

“There was one nagging issue – mums would say to us: ‘I love it but what does it say to every girl who isn’t tall, slim, blonde and blue-eyed.

“There was still that same issue around the body.”

The team had prepared to launch a range of new body shapes that would broaden Barbie away from the traditional “blonde bimbo” perception.


The new Barbies: diverse in race, height, build and appeal

“The key thing here is that this was the behavioural change,” Lesser says. “This was Barbie as brand reconnecting with culture and recognising the change where Barbie had to change to.

“Now there is curvy Barbie, tall/short Barbie and a range of hair and skin colours – this beautiful canvas of dolls that girls can play with. This was the ‘don’t just tell me show me’.”

The role of public relations in revitalising the Barbie brand 

“Here is a behind-the-scene moment,” says Lesser. “This is a scene from the night before Time Magazine was going to launch a cover story announcing the change.

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The war room the night before the announcement of the new Barbie

“We gave Time Magazine a look into the process of how the dolls had evolved. They were given unprecedented access but of course it was only a few months ago that people were writing ‘is Barbie dead?’, so the levels of access created tremendous levels of uncertainty.”

The war room consisted of both agency and Mattel staff with a number of social media specialists, each focused on their channel, monitoring reaction from the moment the Time cover went live.

“We had to be ready for the worst because of what had happened in the very recent past and it could have gone sideways, but it didn’t.”

At 4:00am, Time Magazine went live with the cover story: “Now can we stop talking about my body?”


The Time Magazine cover story.

“Everyone read it. The SWAT team was ready to respond but the reaction was just fabulous,” says Lesser.

Turning the white-hot media spotlight

Lesser says there was a power in the Time headline and framing of the story.

“That headline put the conversation in a place were it was like, ‘Okay, we are ready to move on’,” he says.

Reflecting on the campaign and lessons, Lesser notes that media attention can be good and bad and the challenge for agencies and marketer is really to understand how consumers see them and use that for good.

“A brand like Barbie is so a part of culture,” he explains.

“Remember this is same brand that when it stood in the white-hot (media) spotlight it got burned. That can be very damaging but there are ways to make it work to your advantage.

“If there is a one thing we all love, it’s a comeback story, and this is certainly that.”


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