Branding Lessons Learned From Barbie’s Evolution

Branding Lessons Learned From Barbie's Evolution
Emma Cox, Marketing Manager at Irvine Partners.

Emma Cox, Marketing Manager at Irvine Partners, writes that Barbie®’s ‘innovation’ was initiated after Mattel, Inc. conducted an in-depth consumer research piece in 2014, focusing closely on the Barbie brand and how aspirational and relevant the doll was to young children in the 21st century. Turns out Barbie wasn’t the admirable icon she once was.

Fascinated by my child’s imaginative play, I Googled ‘When did Barbie® become inclusive?’ I learned that a diverse range of Barbie® dolls only entered the market seven years ago, and the whole thing was sparked by a significant decline in sales.

Mattel introduced four new Barbie® body types in early 2015, and today the ‘Barbie® Fashionistas’ range includes over 170 dolls, each advocating representation, inclusion and diversity.

There are some really interesting learnings we can take from Barbie®’s evolution, some that a marketing team can very easily and quite simply implement when looking at their brand strategy. I’ve listed my top four below:

Understanding your target market is crucial. In Mattel’s case they were looking at both the millennial parent (who cares deeply about the brands they allow in their home) and the impact it may have on their child. The other is the Gen Alpha child (born between 2010 and 2024) who, because of their parents, is more self-aware, inclusive and receptive to embracing individuality than generations before. Mattel’s continual analysis of the market and being open to facing the cold hard facts in a non-biased way propelled their brand forward and allowed them to hold onto a strong 62-year reputation.

Brand evolution is crucial (and inevitable). In this instance, Barbie®’s evolution took place over a short period of time. However, this isn’t the case for all brands. The Oxford dictionary states the word: ‘evolve’ means: to develop gradually. Being able to regularly question your brand’s relevance and being agile (brave) enough to evolve is key to remaining relevant, ultimately boosting sales and retaining/acquiring customers.

Pioneer change. Because if you don’t, someone else will. I sat there wondering what would’ve happened to Barbie® if Mattel hadn’t conducted an in-depth consumer research piece or listened to their target audience. Would a competitor have won over the market? Would Barbie® have become a fond and distant memory in your and my mind? We’ll never know.

Insights can be found everywhere. I am sure many fellow marketers will agree that it is almost impossible to switch off your ‘marketing brain’. Although this can sometimes feel like a never-ending hamster wheel, there are learnings around every corner.