Mattel’s marketing boss on giving Barbie a timely makeover

Ahead of Barbie’s 60th birthday, Mattel’s chief operating officer Richard Dickson is rejuvenating the iconic doll brand to build a movement empowering the next generation of women.

There are very few toys like Barbie, which is loved and loathed in nearly equal measure. The tiny blonde doll whose famous silhouette has caused much controversy over the years (and was once sold with a diet book featuring advice such as ‘don’t eat’) has evolved to include a wider range of body types and spearhead campaigns to tackle girls’ low self esteem.

The driving force behind this shift is Mattel’s chief operating officer Richard Dickson, who wants to use Barbie to create a ‘movement’ ahead of her 60th anniversary next year.

He explains: “Barbie’s birthday represents a bigger loudspeaker to celebrate who we are and what we’ve achieved and hopefully create a movement where people become even more inspired by the brand.”

Empowering girls has become a key focus and the brand will kick off its celebrations on 9 March 2019 with its largest ever ‘Shero’ campaign, which highlights inspiring women and features dolls of artist Frida Kahlo and fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad.

Dickson says anniversaries provide a catalyst to analyse any brand’s past and prepare for the future: “It’s an opportunity to take a look back and celebrate the history, while ensuring you don’t become history. You have to create the next version of that brand’s history and tell your future story.”

Dickson has spent the majority of his career at Mattel after being head-hunted in 2000 to build the Barbie brand.

Taking the Barbie brand beyond the doll

“It was a really interesting question at the time because you had to ask, ‘isn’t the doll the brand?’ We didn’t have a big consumer product proposition so there wasn’t really anything outside of the toy, not even a website. My job was to take my merchandising, technology and fashion background – which is all about branding – and apply it to this doll.”

Dickson was at Mattel for 10 years in that first spell and was responsible for building ‘brand Barbie’, while also leading Mattel’s media entertainment and packaging divisions. Barbie went from falling profits to growth but in 2010 Dickson left the business to take on more responsibility as CEO of fashion brand The Jones Group.

When we create product, promotions and messaging that are a reflection of what’s happening in the world, the brand maintains its presence and we enjoy growth.

Richard Dickson, Mattel

When I resigned I told the former CEO that I was leaving with my head not my heart because although it was the logical next step for me I knew my heart would always be at Mattel.”

Dickson only managed to stay away for four years, in which time Barbie’s sales plummeted, dropping by 20% between 2012 and 2014. He was asked to return in 2014 as chief brands officer to work across Barbie and other Mattel brands, and became chief operating officer a year later, retaining his responsibility for marketing.

He says: “When I got the call to come back I felt like my heart and head were reunited. It was a call to action.”

So what went wrong in his absence? “You have to make sure that Barbie is on-trend but isn’t trendy. In our 60-year history if you ever see dips in the brand’s performance there was a clear disconnect between our messaging and what was happening at the time. When we create product, promotions and messaging that are a reflection of what’s happening in the world, the brand maintains its presence and we enjoy growth.”

This is why when Dickson returned he immediately ran a global diagnostic study of what girls and their parents thought about Barbie. The team received an exhaustive list of likes and dislikes but the dislikes across the world were the same: body image, ethnicity and the narratives that Barbie tells.

“Previously we would market our brand as a monologue. We basically told our consumer, ‘this is who we are, this is what we are offering you and this is the end of the conversation’. Now we’ve moved into a much more appropriate form of marketing, a dialogue,” he explains.

That dialogue led Dickson to change Barbie’s body in 2016 so that girls had the option of tall, petite and, most controversially, curvy.

He says: “It was a risk but one I had to take as a leader if I wanted to move the brand forward. By changing the body we addressed the single most culturally controversial conversation head on.”

Moving Barbie from ‘what she looks like to what she represents’

Dickson’s goal was to move the discussion “from what she looked like to what she represents”. He also did this by introducing a wider range of ethnicities for Barbie and by ensuring the brand focuses on issues such as confidence, education and body image. 

Barbie experienced a 12% rise in worldwide sales during its second quarter – its third quarter of double-digit growth – with Dickson now turning his attention to the Fisher Price brand, which is not on such good form. Its sales have been in steady decline, with worldwide gross sales down 14% last quarter.

The challenge with Fisher Price is very different to Barbie though. “When I say Barbie you think of a doll, when I say Hot Wheels you think of car, but when I say Fisher Price the conversation changes because there is no set toy. It’s not a boy brand, it’s not a girl brand; it’s truly a child development brand.”

Dickson will be relaunching the Fisher Price brand next year but promises it will be an “evolution not a revolution”.

He explains: “The heritage of the brand [which was founded in 1930] can be both an inspiration and a road block. People get so consumed with what it was they can’t see the future.

“Equally the recognition people have for Fisher Price is not something you want to walk away from. Brands spend millions and millions to get brand impression – whether that’s a logo or a name – and we have both.”

Ultimately, he wants Fisher Price to be seen as a partner to parents rather than a toy company, using digital precision marketing to target families at different child stages, rather than focusing on individual toys.

Why the declining high street is an opportunity

One thing Dickson can’t rebrand is the high street, which has seen stores closing at a rapid rate this year. Mattel told investors in its Q2 results that its net sales decline was directly linked to the the closures of Toys R Us.

However, Dickson remains optimistic: “Retail is the most exciting place to be right now. It’s going to have to become more interesting, more innovative and more experiential. Those that create compelling ‘retail-tainment’ are going to win, and win big.

The heritage of the brand can be both an inspiration and a road block. People get so consumed with what it was they can’t see the future.

Richard Dickson, Mattel

“Consumers are going to be gravitating to physical experiences but it’s about linking digital and physical. There is a reason Amazon is opening up thousands of stores. What we’re going to see is a revitalisation of what retail means and the toy world is going to benefit greatly.”

Ultimately, though, he says it is Mattel’s job to create demand for products, no matter where consumers decide to shop. 

One way Mattel is trying to maintain this demand is by looking beyond toys. In August, Dickson created Mattel’s Global Franchise Management Organisation, which aims to find commercial ties for its brands, with a focus on digital gaming, live events and strategic partnerships.

He says: “Our portfolio has truly iconic brands that have stood the test of time but we need to be where our consumer is and that is not just in store.”

This ambition also extends to movies. “If we just take Barbie we can use films to extend her storytelling and push purpose in a bigger way to larger audiences.

“We’re not just talking about one movie or a sequel; if we get it right [Barbie films] can become like James Bond, a part of culture where the star can change but the premise is the same.”