Five years ago, Barbie was in trouble. Her sales were in free-fall. Mattel’s iconic white-skinned, blonde fashion doll was on her way out. But then came her diversity make-over – eight different skin tones, curves to match a real woman’s, wheelchairs, skin conditions – suddenly she was 2020’s top-selling toy, making Mattel $1.5 billion in revenue, and giving them their best sales growth in two decades.
“Barbie was too big to fail,” explains Lisa McKnight, Global Head of Barbie at Mattel. “The stakes were high.”
Barbie’s problem was that she had not evolved enough from the ideal of white beauty, favoured in 1959, the year that she was launched. Consumer studies in 2015, had her pegged as vapid and shallow. There was also the issue of her body shape. A waist so impossibly tiny that critics said she was encouraging anorexia in little girls, and if she had been expanded to human size, there would have been no room for her internal organs.
“We knew we needed diversity,” says McKnight. So, in 2015, Mattel launched Fashionista Barbie, a range of two dozen dolls with different skin tones and hair. The following year, they introduced curvy Barbie, tall Barbie, petite Barbie.
There was also the issue of Barbie’s personality. “She was viewed as too perfect. Un-relatable. We started to have her become more vulnerable,” says McKnight. To do this, Barbie began making Youtube video blogs from her bedroom. “A lot of the content is entertaining… but she also talks about having a bad day, feeling sad.”
Through her video posts, Barbie has become increasingly more relevant, tackling social issues. During the pandemic, she talked about wearing masks and missing friends, and Mattel won acclaim for having Barbie talk with her black friend Nikki about standing up to racism, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
Last year, a Barbie with the skin condition Vitiligo joined the Fashionista line, also one with no hair, one with a prosthetic leg and another in a wheelchair. There are more than 175 different Barbie dolls now.
Proving that inclusivity, diversity and inspiration pays, the two bestselling Barbie Fashionista dolls in the UK last year were in wheelchairs.