Uncategorized Mar 26, 2024

When the Barbie movie first came out, I was hesitant to go see it. Then my friends – from ages 14 – 70 - kept saying “Have you seen Barbie? It’s fantastic! It’s not what you expect!”

The Barbie movie broke 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 100+ brand collaborations to create hype, why did this movie, starring a 64-year-old doll, create 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 to remain contemporary, in demand and relevant.

Barbie launched in 1959, the brainchild of Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler, named 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, toy dolls were often babies, reinforcing the role of mother. Ruth’s insight was that girls wanted to be more than just wives and mothers and Barbie was 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. 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, denormalisation of stereotypes and a world that values diversity.

As the popularity of Barbie grew, so did the criticism. Unrealistic beauty standard. Sexist. Materialistic. Stereotypical. Mattel listened and showed that it was willing to adapt. They introduced dolls with different skin tones, careers, abilities and ethnicity. The first doll in a wheelchair copped criticism because it didn’t fit through the door of Barbie’s mansion – doh!) 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 mistakes. 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.

Non-profits should embrace the powerful role that you play in society. Lead – and change – the conversation. You’re not the weird Barbie (played exquisitely by Kate McKinnon in the movie), that’s been consistently mistreated by corporates. You’re the dazzling, powerful, iconic Barbie, one that corporates need, to deliver on consumer expectation.

Evolve and embrace new ways of generating income. Consumers are changing and so is the way they contribute. The donors of today will not be there in a decade. Consider how corporates can help you reach the younger generation.

Take risks, be innovative and show leadership in corporate partnerships.

Hailey Cavill - Jaspers


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