How Barbie’s Makeover Brought the Brand Into the 21st Century

Thanks to new body types and diversity

When Juliana Chugg joined Mattel as evp and chief brand officer a year and a half ago, Barbie was the brand she was least excited to work on.

"I was a loyal consumer of Fisher-Price and American Girl, but when I found out they were recruiting me to lead the turnaround of Barbie, I had some big concerns," she said at the ANA Masters of Marketing Conference in Orlando today. "I was not a Barbie girl."

For good reason: the brand had been in free fall for several years as parents and girls grew tired of Barbie's stereotypical stick figure, empty-headed reputation. In 2014, its stock was down 40 percent after experiencing 10 quarters of sales declines.

To reverse the slump, Chugg and her team looked to Barbie's past: The doll's original purpose was to give girls an outlet to think about their future aspirations (the doll has had more than 180 careers over its history). "Barbie was an astronaut before Sally Ride and a presidential candidate before Hillary Clinton," Chugg said.

Nonetheless, the brand had lost relevance, so the key to its turnaround was to embrace its original purpose while adding diversity and new technologies. "To change the way the world talked about Barbie, we had to change the way the world thinks of her," Chugg said.

Last year, the brand launched the "You Can Be Anything" campaign with BBDO, which included an adorable video of girls acting as veterinarians, professors, soccer coaches and business executives.

Mattel also launched the Hello Barbie, an interactive artificial intelligence doll that uses voice recognition technology to talk back to kids. It added more multicultural Barbies, creating dolls with the likenesses of stars like Gabby Douglas and Zendaya, and changed Barbie's measurements to reflect real-world body types. Barbie's new size resulted in 5 billion media impressions, including a Time magazine cover.

And yes, Barbie is currently developing a plan to target boys. "We're working on reducing gender stereotypes in the toy industry," Chugg said. "You'll see more new products that do so in the new year."

Meanwhile, Barbie's turnaround effort is working: This year, Barbie's sales were up 23 percent in the second quarter and 16 percent in the third, according to Chugg.

"We changed the conversation by focusing on how we change the perception about Barbie," she said. "The power of Barbie doesn't lie in the shape of her body, but in the imagination of the girl who plays with her—something our primary consumer, girls, had known for years."