Barbie and Mattel go hand in hand. The success of the toy company that created her more than 60 years ago is still largely based on her skinny plastic shoulders. While the company performed well and kept the business balanced with other brands during some of the doll’s low points, Barbie remains critical to the toy company’s success. “Of course, Barbie is the queen of our product portfolio and, to some extent, an indicator of how Mattel is doing,” Richard Dickson, the company’s president and COO, said by video call.
Dickson did not disclose the Barbie brand’s share of the company’s revenue, which was $5.458 million (a similar figure in euros) in 2021 (that figure was $6.081 million 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 receipts; Barbie alone accounted for $1.679 billion, or 73% of sales in its category, and about 27% of total revenue. “Last year it reached the highest level in its history,” confirms Dickson. In fact, Mattel posted profit of $903 million versus $123 million a year earlier, a 19% increase from 2020.
Barbie is back in the spotlight. “We are living great [sales] is increasing all over the world.” But the blonde doll with unrealistic measurements has had to change over time to survive, and there have been many bumps along the way. “The brand has had a great run, a very impressive run, but it has also faced a lot of controversy,” says Dickson.
More than six decades ago, when toys were even more gendered, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler saw that her son, Kenneth, had more options for play than her daughter, Barbara. Although he could be an astronaut or a surgeon, Barbara mainly entertained herself with baby dolls, which simulated what society had in store for her later on. “Ruth was watching her daughter play with paper dolls and she realized that her daughter and her friends were imagining what they would be in the future as they played.” Thus Barbie was born in 1959, intended as a way to unleash the imagination and potential of girls.
Although Barbie was a representation of women linked to gender, at that time and in that social context, the doll was presented as a tool for girls to project themselves in environments beyond home and care. “Over time, [Barbie] he was always on the cusp of what we can call the cultural conversation. In the 1960s, Barbie represented many of the aspirations of what was going on [at the time]”, says the president of Mattel. She “she started studying and her clothes represented the career that little girls could imagine following. As time went by, Barbie and her style progressed.”
Over time, criticism of Barbie’s body and its influence on childhood also increased. In 1965, the same year he introduced his astronaut outfit, Mattel marketed a pajama set. The game came with a scale that read 110 pounds (50 kilos) and a book whose cover said “How to lose weight?” with the response “Don’t eat!” on the back cover. In the early 1990s, a new talking Barbie said four phrases chosen at random from 270 expressions. Among them: “Do you want to go shopping?” and “Math class is hard!” The latter received a great deal of scrutiny and reflected a stereotype that persists today.
In the early 21st century, Barbie was recovering from declining sales, controversies, and competition from other dolls, including Bratz. In 2014, the brand experienced its worst moment of the last three decades and the life of plastic was no longer fantastic. At the time, Dickson notes that sales volume was down by double digits. “A newspaper headline in the UK asked: ‘Is Barbie dead?'” recalls the president of Mattel.
Debates about the doll’s body were stronger than ever, touching on issues of representation and objectification, among other concerns. Dickson says that Barbie had lost touch with both her purpose and the larger cultural conversation, which was a ticket to failure. As he says, “The brand was in a place where it was engaged in a monologue with consumers, and we needed to move towards a dialogue [with them].”
It was time to listen and make decisions. “We made what could be called the biggest bet of the brand: we changed the product.” Since 2016, the company has offered Barbie dolls with 4 different body types and 9 skin tones. Mattel also incorporated well-known women from different fields into its product line. For example, the company made a collection of dolls with Rosa Parks and Jane Goodall, among others. More recently, Mattel introduced Barbie dolls with prosthetic limbs, vitiligo, and hearing aids.
“People liked what we were doing, but sales didn’t reflect that until some time later,” says Dickson. Gradually the product line gained momentum, retailers gave it more shelf space, and it began to sell well. “The year we introduced her, Wheelchair Barbie was the 11th best-selling fashion doll,” she says. “Today, in the Fashionista line, more than half of the [sales] volume are non-Caucasian dolls.”
Although Barbie was re-emerging as a force, the toy company fell on hard times in the years that followed. Beyond the doll crisis, Mattel faced two other big problems. First, Disney discontinued the company’s rights to produce Disney princess dolls and gave them to rival Hasbro (Mattel regained those rights this year). Second, Toys ‘R’ Us, which sold Mattel’s products, was experiencing difficulties that resulted in the toy store filing for bankruptcy in the United States in 2017. As a result, between 2017 and 2019, Mattel’s finances Mattel were in the red.
In 2018, Ynon Kreiz was named Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Mattel. In addition to cutting back and reducing staff, the new executive focused on boosting the company’s intellectual property. Barbie’s world is much bigger than her waist; In addition to dolls and accessories, the brand offers games, TV content and digital experiences, among other things. A Barbie movie will also be released in theaters in 2023. “The brand has evolved from a toy to a pop culture icon, and now [it’s] a complete franchise,” concludes Dickson.
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