What we can learn from Barbie

Oct 08, 2023

How did an outdated brand transform itself into a hip cultural icon? And what lessons can business leaders learn from Barbie’s metamorphosis?

The Barbie movie has broken 17 box office records. The biggest opening by a female director, highest grossing film by a female a director and the highest grossing movie of 2023 to name just three. 

Aside from the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in pink-saturated marketing and over 100 brand collaborations to create hype, why has this movie starring a 64 year old doll created such a buzz?

I believe it’s got a lot to do with the brand’s willingness to listen to its customers, adapt its product to reflect consumer attitudes and evolve the brand to remain contemporary, in demand and relevant.

When Barbie first launched in 1959, she was a girl with an unattainable figure and lifestyle. She was the brainchild of Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler, who named the toy after her daughter, Barbara.  ‘Ponytail Barbie’ was influenced by 1950s movie stars, with red lips and eyeliner. Her hair came in just two colours – blonde or brunette.

Back then, dolls were often babies, reinforcing the role of mother. Ruth’s insight was that girls wanted to be more than just wives and mothers. Whilst Barbie has been consistently criticised from day 1 for being stereotypical and unrealistic, Ruth’s intent was to create an aspirational toy that reflected a woman’s ability - and desire - to work. 

“Through the doll, little girls could be anything they wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices” Ruth Handler, 1994

Ruth got push back from the mainly male Mattel executives when she first introduced her idea. And the head of an advertising agency said “You’re joking. It has no chance of succeeding”. 

But Ruth knew there was a gap in the market and she pushed her idea through, by convincing the R&D department to make a doll that would be sold at cost, with profits coming from the sale of accessories. This was a revolutionary idea at the time. Ruth also sold her doll directly to consumers when the big buyers at the New York International Toy Fair refused to buy any.

Had it not been for her vision, leadership and persistence, Barbie may have disappeared.

Instead Barbie has survived through an ever-changing world, with culture shifts, denormalization of stereotypes and a world that values diversity. 

As the popularity of Barbie grew, so did the criticism of what she represented. Unrealistic beauty standard. Sexist. Materialistic. Stereotypical. 

Mattel listened and showed that it was willing to adapt.  They introduced dolls with different skin tones, careers, weight, abilities and ethnicity. The first doll in a wheelchair copped criticism for being inaccessible (it didn’t fit through the door of Barbie’s mansion) but again Mattel listened, withdrew the doll and later launched a new accessible version. Barbie has an impressive career – she’s been an astronaut, a doctor, a CEO and a firefighter amongst other things.

These changes reflect a conscious effort to ensure that every child can find a Barbie that they can relate to.

The Barbie movie encapsulates Mattel’s evolution, featuring a diverse cast of characters, delivering a strong message of female empowerment. Mattel even pokes fun at its own past mistakes. The movie references some of the more controversial aspects of the past, turning them into self-effacing humour. This shows the company is not afraid to confront its history and take accountability, something that resonates with today’s conscious consumer.

Mattel’s journey from perpetuating a narrow standard of beauty to becoming a beacon of empowerment and leading conversations about important societal issues, demonstrates the power of embracing change.

Corporates and brands could benefit from taking a page from Mattel's playbook. Listen to customers, adapt and evolve, take risks and innovate, show leadership and form relevant alliances.  Get involved in discussing - and acting on - the issues that are important to today’s consumer. 


Hailey Cavill-Jaspers