This Global Brand Chief Made an Iconic Doll Relevant Again for a New Generation of Girls

Adweek’s 2016 Brand Genius winner for toys

Barbie made her first public appearance at the Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. She was tall, blonde and slender, and soon became one of most successful toys Mattel ever produced.

But that was a long time ago. By 2012, Barbie, for years the best-selling doll in America, was in trouble. Search any parenting blog and you're likely to come across reasons why the doll had fallen out of favor, but the main issues were body image and race. The fact was that Barbie didn't look like many of the girls she was presumed to appeal to.

This past January, Barbie—the doll and the marketing behind it—finally got serious attention. Leading that effort was svp and global brand manager Lisa McKnight.

McKnight's team brought Barbie from the Eisenhower era into 2016 seemingly overnight, introducing three new body types (curvy, petite and tall) and seven new skin tones, as well as 22 eye colors, 24 hairstyles and more diversity in the doll's fashion choices, including career wear.

McKnight, who moved over from the girls' brands division in February, took over an effort that started two years ago, when Mattel executives began taking a hard look at marketing Barbie—what was being said and how. For much of its history, Barbie herself has spoken to young girls in ads, with the aim of persuading them to get their parents to open their pocketbooks. But since parents were the consumers now wary of buying a Barbie for their children, that strategy had to change.

Enter BBDO. The agency's first work for the brand, "Imagine the Possibilities," launched in October 2015, marked a turning point for Barbie that McKnight has been key in shepherding. For years, TV spots had shown Barbie playing house or going to the beach. The new campaign, however, featured young girls stepping forward as doctors, professors and businesswomen—to the surprise of adults around them. The ad, which to date has notched over 50 million view across social media, began Barbie's mission of revamping the way adults perceived the brand.

"Barbie is a bit of a lightning rod," points out Matt Miller, ecd at BBDO, San Francisco. "Not by design. But she's become basically the poster child for a lot of female issues, because she's so iconic. As a result, we realized there was all this crap that was around the brand but wasn't really the truth of the brand. Our focus has been trying to get to why she was created and what does she really do. That's where the breakthrough [in the new messaging] came from."

Robert Ascroft

However, McKnight knew that messaging alone wouldn't do it. By "starting with a shift in our communication strategy, focusing on the true benefits of playing with Barbie and the purpose of Barbie, we knew we then needed to back that up in product evolution," McKnight says. "We knew that the messaging alone wouldn't be enough and we had to evolve the product to be a better reflection of the world around us."

By acknowledging that Barbie, as Miller says, "wasn't truly reflecting the culture she's in and that [Mattel] had the obligation to change," McKnight's team kick-started a cultural conversation. The redesigned dolls got lots of attention (5.6 billion media impressions, per Mattel), and even landing on the cover of Time magazine.

The work is starting to pay off. The release of the new, more diverse Barbie had an 81 percent positive impact on the brand's perception, according to the company.

"We've seen a real nice uptick in moms that have daughters and their purchase intent in the brand, their affinity toward the brand and then of course we've seen an uptick with girls," says McKnight.

As for sales, the picture is also positive. Barbie sales were up 23 percent in the second quarter.

"We've been on a journey for the past year and a half to really change the way the world is talking about Barbie," says McKnight. "It has really helped demonstrate that this is a brand that listens, is in touch with the times, is inclusive and reflective of the diverse world that we live in—and is a brand that's truly a platform for limitless possibilities for girls and imagination."

Check out all of Adweek's 2016 Brand Genius winners.

This story first appeared in the October 24, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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