“Embrace your inner Barbie”

If you don’t move with time, you will be removed by time – this is especially true in branding. We are all familiar with examples of brands that have desperately defended their brand values even though they have long since lost their relevance. Mattel’s Barbie is proof that it can be done differently. Decades ago, the plastic dress-up doll was already completely outdated and at the mercy of much criticism: Unrealistic beauty ideal, lack of diversity, harmful perfectionism, false body image, sexualised doll, reproduced gender inequalities, old-fashioned toy. To be taken seriously, women had to reject everything Barbie stood for. It was time for Barbie to go.

Mattel tried for many years to bring Barbie back, but to no avail. They introduced the first dark-skinned Barbie back in 1980, followed by a whole range of Barbies with different skin tones and body shapes in 2015, as well as typically male professions. But after the launch of “curvy” Barbies, sales fell by another 15%. Mattel did try something in the direction of the zeitgeist, but the public perception was that it was always too little, too late, and not authentic. As late as 2018, Time magazine wrote: “The new Barbie may reflect a feminist cultural shift, but don’t be fooled into thinking Mattel has your daughter’s best interests at heart with more diversity.”

So Mattel went back to the drawing board. “Why do we even exist? What made us great in the first place?” They realised that Barbie was originally feminist: when Barbie was launched in 1959, she was the first doll to encourage girls to aspire to something other than motherhood. She represented ambition and career – Ken, launched in 1961, was just a prop next to her. They returned to the original brand essence of “inspiring the limitless potential of girls” – the vision Ruth Handler, Barbie’s founder, had when she created the 4.5-inch doll. With this in mind, in 2018, for example, Mattel launched the Barbie Dream Gap Project, an ongoing initiative to provide girls with the resources and support they need to believe in themselves – research has shown that from the age of five, many girls begin to believe less in themselves and think they are not as smart or capable as boys.

Then, in 2019, Barbie was finally awoken from her slumber, rebranded as a symbol of self-determination and self-acceptance for men, women and children. The strategy behind it: “Embrace your inner Barbie” – everyone has hopes and dreams. And no matter how unrealistic they may sound, they are worth having. And because that still sounds a bit plastic, Mattel decided to take an almost ingenious step: they planned a Barbie film that no one would expect.

Mattel put Barbie in the hands of screenwriter and director Greta Gerwig, who brought a few feminist references to the table (Lady Bird, Little Women), and gave the director carte blanche to make the film, which the clever filmmaker made good use of. She works with star power, but was also able to cast lesbian icon Kate McKinnon and transgender model and actress Hari Nef to bring the LGBTQ+ community into the story. Her approach: to make a film that people will enjoy, whether they love or hate Barbie. Others have seen the potential and jumped on the pink Barbie convertible bandwagon. More than 100 brands like Xbox, Airbnb, Progressive, Forever 21 and Beis Travel are using partnerships with Barbie to capitalise on the pink zeitgeist.

Barbie becomes the cinematic event of the summer of 2023 and online comments are pouring in. Online-Newspaper Watson: “Barbie is a declaration of love for a product and all the fantasies you can live out with it. But it is also a vehement declaration of solidarity with the criticism it has provoked. There is a lot of fun to be had on all sides. Sometimes it’s simple, sometimes it’s intellectual, mega-kitsch meets metatext”.

Mattel’s ironic “dismantling of perfection” is an absolute masterpiece of brand revitalisation.

— Ralph Hermann / 20.7.2023