What legacy brands can learn from Barbie's revival

If you are a legacy brand, how do you stay relevant at a time "cool" is just a thing of the moment?

That is the challenge many legacy brands face and one, most recently, faced by long-time toy-maker Mattel.

Started up in 1945, the brand’s founders initially thought of the business not as just a toy company, but as the image of the great American dream. The company was started in a humble garage in post war California, the birth place of many of today’s leading  brands such as HP, Apple and even the classic band The Beach Boys. Creativity was in its genes.

“Mattel was design led before anybody ever knew what it even meant. The big idea to come out of the garage in California wasn’t making toys, bur rather, it was about a mind-set and a conviction that taking bold risks on insightful, thoughtful and innovative ideas would delight children and as a result build business,” Richard Dickson,  COO of Mattel said at the 2016 Adobe Digital Marketing Summit.

With this vision in mind, the company launched the beloved Barbie doll in 1959. Not long after, Mattel went ahead to create the ideal car - Hot Wheels. Seeing success of these toys, the company then added many other brands to its portfolio such as Polly Pockets, Bob the Builder and Tomas the Tank.

In its early days, Mattel was leading the pack in out of the box thinking. In marketing as well, Mattel took on a daring stance. At a time where advertising was largely in newspapers, Mattel looked beyond this format and ventured into television. It soon became one of the first consistent national advertisers more than 60 years ago.

Our founders didn’t know if TV would work but they believed in the power of this new medium. Our founders engaged children with brands long before anybody actually talked about a content strategy.

In fact, the founders of Mattel, Harold Matson, Elliot Handler and Ruth Handler were so forward thinking that in 1955 Mattel formed a partnership with Walt Disney, who was a fellow Californian entrepreneur to sponsor the Mickey Mouse Club TV series.

While this mind-set of working with like minded creative entrepreneurs, is still pretty much a part of its DNA, over the course of time, growth for the business plateaud. Dickson said:

At some point we stopped looking to the future as we had before. We became near sighted, failing to recognise how fast our business was changing.

As time passed and the speed of change and competition kept growing, the simple act of playing had evolved from an activity of entertainment to one of education and purpose. The business was changing simply because the term "play" was changing with toys, games, media and content all seamlessly converging in children’s minds.

The company faced competition from not only other toy companies but also media and technology brands.  Companies were essentially competing for the consumers’ time and eyeballs and the new and daring 30 second TV spots Mattel was proud of became “traditional”.

In a world where everyone was looking to omnichannel strategies, Mattel was lost. Its performance was suffering.

Mattel had devolved from an innovative goods company to a packaged goods company, said Dickson

We repeated what worked instead of fearing the status quo. We mistook acting creative as being creating and our ideas lacked purpose.

Everyone from the media to consumers noticed. The company was now cornered into thinking of a new way forwards and finding a way to pull it out of its  gloom and back on its initial path of glory.

“I believe the most valuable form of invention is the reinvention. We needed to question everything we were doing, embrace uncertainty and relentlessly experiment,” said Dickson.

Reinvention of Barbie

With so many toy brands under its belt, Mattel decided that Barbie was in the greatest need for revamp.  For Mattel there was no greater challenge as Barbie has long lost her sparkle despite at one point being one of the most valuable kid brands in the world.

Quarter after quarter the brand saw decline in sales, and it was devastating to see Barbie losing its purpose. This lack of purpose lead to Barbie’s initial empowerment messages being diluted to becoming too broad and unfocused.

Not knowing what Barbie stood for, or didn’t, made brand decision making hard and inconsistent.

“We needed to reboot Barbie without losing what made her great in the first place. The critical challenge was making what Barbie stood for relevant to girls today, 57 years later,” said Dickson. The brand began by listening to consumers –children, mothers and society. It eaves-dropped intently onto what everyone was saying about Barbie because “rapid relevance was the only way out”.

Barbie had to, overnight, engage and reengage everyday consciousness of girls and moms in record speed. For Babie to succeed, girls had to love her again.

Getting some love for Barbie

Mattel developed a very ambitious strategic plan for the Barbie brand.  It began with a big yet meaningful change which was relatively easy to execute. The Barbie brand introduced a diversity revolution with more than 20 different skin tones, hair colours and textures, facial features and styles – a far cry from the dated model. The dolls were made to reflect the complex world girls live in and see today.

Barbie was even given a flexible foot to further contemporise the brand while giving it a whole new fashion sense for girls to play with. She was also given a voice and the ability to talk with the "Hello Barbie" series and was featured on the Time magazine as the new age Artificial Intelligence.

We had created brand content by product innovation.

In a bid to engage moms, and reframe the image of the brand in the eyes of moms, Mattel also launched a campaign which showed girls had the power to dream and create their own futures and it all started at a young age when they played with their Babies.

Here’s what the ad looked like :


The biggest change for Barbie

The impact of the ad gave Mattel the confidence to take on its boldest step yet: change the fundamental appearance of the most iconic product.

Barbie’s figure has long been the centre of attention and dispute by many in the modern era. Mattel on the matter has largely remained silent, which Dickson said was often perceived as resistance.

The reality is that Mattel understood, but the the fear of making a mistake of messing up the most popular toy ever led to silence and inaction.

Now armed with a new found confidence, Mattel was ready to take its new agenda of making the biggest change for Barbie head on and do so thoughtfully. Carefully, the brand delved into more extensive research, data and real life conversation with both children and mothers which led to the creation of a whole new range of Barbies with numerous body shapes and sizes. Barbies were now curvy, petite, tall and many other sizes along with the original doll.

The cultural significance of this warranted a Time Magazine cover story and for the first time, Barbie became a trending topic. Celebrities everywhere showered the brand with praise and support of the move and were conversing on Barbie’s new look.

“This was content money just couldn’t buy,” Dickson said.

Going forward

Learning from Barbie's success,  Mattel was sure that being leader in a fast moving, ever changing industry, required innovation. This led to the creation of “The Toy Box”- an all new innovations engine within Mattel.

The Toy Box was an open to all suggestion box and believed that the greatest idea can come from anyone at any time. With the Toy Box, Mattel hopes to encourage entrepreneurial thinking and structure amongst its employees, all while putting design and creativity at the heart of innovation.

With this new structure in place, Mattel is now also revisiting many of its legacy brands and products and take a creative and innovative approach.

“We are applying with prescription as an individualised formula to accelerate every brand and create a new culture at Mattel,” said Dickson. A culture which strongly emphasises on creative sharing, global ideation and speed. He added for legacy companies such as Mattel, products need to constantly be innovated and re-innovated to stay being relevant.

In order to move your brand forward, you have to find what made you special in the first place. Ask yourself, "what was your secret sauce"?

Adobe paid for the journalist’s trip to Adobe Summit 2016, held in Las Vegas. 

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