In the ever-changing landscape of retail, few toys have the name recognition and star appeal of Barbie. Since its introduction at the New York Toy Fair in 1959, Barbie has evolved into a cultural phenomenon, influencing not only toy design and manufacturing but also fashion, popular culture and marketing. The hype has reached a crescendo in recent months, building up to the recent release of the live-action Barbie film, produced by and starring Australian actor Margot Robbie. The toy
e toy brand’s reputation also appears to be at a point of transition – with much discussion around its cultural, social and economic legacy – as Mattel, Barbie’s parent company, seeks to reach new audiences and introduce new lines of products. Looking ahead, the challenge for Barbie seems clear: how to evolve and move with the times, while still retaining that classic appeal that has resonated with so many, and for so many years. Barbie hits the scene Barbie’s arrival in Australia marked a pivotal moment in the country’s toy and retail history. Jennifer Burnett is a longtime member of the ABC Doll Club – a national group for fashion doll collectors. She said Barbie made its debut at the Melbourne Toy Fair in the mid-1960s, courtesy of the Australian division of British toy company Kiddicraft. Initially, Burnett said, Australia was something of a “dumping ground” for Barbie, due to its relatively small market size. The country received overruns and discounted products. “You’d often find the wrong doll in the wrong outfit, sold cheaply here. There were a lot of variations and strange fashion combinations that turned up in Australia,” she explained. Over time, Barbie eclipsed the popularity of other dolls, as Mattel – which more firmly established its presence in Australia in the late 1960s – continued to release new Barbie products. It reached such heights that Mattel had to air freight inventory into the country. In recent years, Burnett said, Barbie’s popularity has declined, as new toy lines and products, including Bratz dolls and Mattel-owned Monster High, have been introduced. Now, however, the brand is back in the spotlight. Barbie-core has taken off, with people embracing hot pink and the overall Barbie aesthetic. While it was once ‘cringe’ to be older and still into Barbie, Burnett thinks attitudes are changing. “Barbie is now a pop-culture icon,” she said. “It has a big influence on a lot of things, with Barbie-core seeping into interior design, clothing and fashion. She has a really broad reach at the moment.” Barbie on the runway In fact, Barbie has long been associated with fashion. While Barbie’s early wardrobe reflected existing styles of the times, the brand came to influence new trends and inspire some of the industry’s biggest names. Fashion historian and honorary research fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, Emily Brayshaw, described the list of people who have designed clothes for Barbie as a “who’s who of fashion”, including Bob Mackie, Diane Von Furstenberg and Vera Wang. The relationship between Barbie and fashion came full circle in 2014, when “Jeremy Scott for Moschino did a Barbie collection and sent his models down the runway in Barbie pink with huge blonde hair,” Brayshaw said. “Barbie herself is the ultimate fashion model.” Karan Feder, author of a forthcoming book on the doll’s sartorial impact, Barbie Takes the Catwalk, underscored just how deeply rooted Barbie is in the world of fashion. “[Mattel’s design team was] paid to attend European couture runway shows, study fashion magazines and analyse street-level trends, with the goal of creating up-to-the-minute clothing for Barbie,” Feder said. “The collective genius of the design team is found in their ability to translate lifesize styles and silhouettes into ensembles that are, at once, practical to manufacture yet still recognisable when adapted into Barbie-scale.” Rollie Nation was one of more than 100 brands to collaborate with Mattel. Source: Rollie Nation. Barbie backlash While Mattel was a cultural pioneer in some ways, introducing professions that young girls hadn’t typically seen women represented as – such as astronaut Barbie in 1965 and Doctor Barbie in 1973 – it was also heavily criticised for Barbie’s unrealistic body shape and lack of diversity. Early models were almost always white and blonde. On top of this, in the 2000s, the company started to face increased competition from other toys and dolls that were emerging and challenging Barbie’s dominance in the market. Jacqueline Burgess, a lecturer in international business who specialises in narrative brands, pointed out that Bratz pushed the boundaries of unrealistic fashionista dolls to new extremes, while other dolls rejected the grown-up aesthetic entirely, in favour of a more kid-friendly look and feel. Lian Yu, chief operating officer of Toys ‘R’ Us in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, told Inside Retail that Mattel experienced “sinking sales” in 2014, with worldwide Barbie sales dropping by over 20 per cent in Q3 that year. In 2016, the brand introduced over 100 new versions of Barbie, with different skin tones, hair styles, and body shapes. For the first time, curvy, petite and tall bodies and a variety of different hair choices were available for purchase, with the brand endeavouring to better represent different ethnicities and cultures. In 2018, the company introduced its ‘role models’ range, which celebrates diverse, high-achieving women. It has since expanded this range to include space scientist and science educator Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock and US tennis champion Naomi Osaka. Earlier this year, it released a Barbie doll representing a person with Down syndrome, in partnership with the National Down Syndrome Society. Despite these initiatives, Burgess noted that Barbie hasn’t been able to fully shed this reputation. “People have an image in their head of what Barbie looks like – which [dates] back to 1959 – and it’s difficult to change 50 years of that perception. Barbie has innovated so much, but it’s in a quite difficult spot,” she said. “It’s carrying around the original Barbie idea and identity, [which can be] a negative.” Strong brand recognition has its downsides, although Sameer Hosany, professor of marketing in the school of business and management at Royal Holloway University of London, thinks many accusations levied at Barbie – including the promotion of unrealistic body standards, stereotyping and objectification of women – have helped keep the brand at the forefront of cultural and political discourse. Airbnb teamed up with Mattel to recreate Barbie’s DreamHouse ahead of the film. Source: Mattel. Barbie banks on the big screen All of this has set the stage for Mattel to reintroduce the Barbie brand to audiences, with the recent release of the film reportedly bringing in over $500 million worldwide at the box office on opening weekend and expected to deliver a much-needed sales bump. Although Barbie continues to maintain a significant market share in the toy industry, reportedly comprising about one-third of Mattel’s over US$5 billion in revenue, the company’s financial performance has been challenged in recent years. Net sales of US$815 million in Q1 FY23 were down by over 20 per cent on the previous year. Mattel also recorded a net loss of US$106 million in Q1, falling from a positive net income of US$21 million in the previous year. The brand partly attributed this to elevated retail inventory. For Mattel, there is clearly a lot riding on the success of the Barbie movie, and it reportedly poured nearly $150 million into the marketing campaign, forming over 100 licensing agreements with high-profile brands in the lead-up to the premiere. These include clothing lines by Zara, Crocs, Gap, Rollie Nation and Cotton On, and a pink console and controller by Xbox, which also integrated Barbie and Ken’s electric cars into the Forza Horizon 5 racing game. Meanwhile, Myer transformed the sixth floor of its Melbourne flagship into a vibrant ‘Barbie World’, complete with a pink Corvette and disco corner, while Grill’d released a special pink Barbie ‘dreamburger’. Kirsten Ward, vice-president of integrated marketing at Xbox, told Inside Retail that the brand was “thrilled” to team up with Warner Bros. ahead of the new movie, as it was an opportunity to inspire the next generation of women to innovate and pursue their biggest passions like Barbie has done throughout the years. While many observers have applauded the film’s marketing campaign, if only for the sheer scale of it, Nathan Birch, CEO of global brand consultancy Interbrand in Australia and New Zealand, feels that its focus on Millennials and their obsession with nostalgia risks creating a disconnect with new audiences. “I worry the next generation of girls, like my 7-year-old daughter, will miss out on the whimsy of such an icon, because Barbie is too focused on Millennial nostalgia,” Birch said. As Interbrand senior strategist Lauren Kelly pointed out, however, adults, not children, are ultimately the ones who make the purchasing decisions, so the focus on older generations could still pay off. “If you’d asked me 10 years ago if I’d want my daughter playing with Barbies, I would’ve said no, but now I have a 3-yearold and the way the brand is now, I’m actually happy with it,” Kelly said. Source: Mattel. Beyond reigniting Barbie fans’ love for the brand, the film is also acting as a launchpad for Mattel to build a direct to-consumer presence for the first time in its history. The company, which has long sold products through major retailers, has quietly launched an e-commerce site in Australia, where customers can purchase Barbie-branded toys and apparel for kids and adults, as well as products from other brands in its portfolio, including Hot Wheels, Fisher-Price, and Thomas & Friends. Mattel worked with Retail Prodigy Group (RPG) on the launch. “As a leading global toy company, we recognise that our mission to create innovative products and experiences that inspire, entertain and develop children through play extends beyond creating amazing toy products,” Paul Faulkner, managing director of Mattel Asia Pacific, said in a statement. “Our consumers are fans, looking to enjoy our brands in categories like apparel and homewares. Our new partnership with RPG lets us do just that.” It should come as no surprise that Mattel is strengthening its retail arm right now. The company is reportedly looking to develop as many as 45 more movies based on its toys and products, including Hot Wheels, Uno and Polly Pocket, with all the revenue-generating opportunities that entails. Barbie’s future Attitudes towards Barbie have shifted over the years, with the doll taking on a complicated legacy. It achieved enormous heights following its launch in the US and other markets in the mid-20th century, capturing the imagination of kids and parents, and driving innovation in fashion, marketing, retail and other industries. Following years of criticism about its impact on young people’s body image, Mattel has made sweeping changes to reinvent Barbie and bring it more in line with modern societal values around gender roles, beauty standards and diversity. The Barbie movie has come at the perfect time, just as Barbie is being reclaimed by many as a symbol of empowerment and expression. Interbrand’s Kelly says people are seizing and subverting traditionally harmful stereotypes that Barbie has embodied. “There’s been a whole movement of women reclaiming ‘Bimbo-core’ to show how ridiculous it was to undermine women just because of their appearance,” she said. “It’s the right time to revisit Barbie’s narrative and show who she is in 2023.” It remains to be seen whether this revival will be short-lived or long lasting, but – for the time being – Barbie is cool. This story first appeared in the August 2023 issue of the Inside Retail Australia Magazine.