Mattel (MAT -1.24%) announced on the Barbie.com website it would be making a radical change to the iconic doll, creating not only a more diverse population of dolls, but also ones that feature three new body types: petite, tall, and curvy.
Does it matter?
For more than five decades, Barbie has largely represented just one archetype: a tall, buxom blonde. Although Mattel has introduced variations on the theme, the dolls have still reflected in one way or another those familiar features.
That formula may have grown Barbie into an iconic brand that still accounts for more than $1 billion in annual sales for the toymaker, but sales have faltered in recent periods, and were down 14% in the third quarter as Barbie's relevance to young girls seems to be on the decline. Yet it's also worth asking, what took this change so long?
It wasn't that long ago that Barbie and Mattel were locked in a battle with Bratz, the hip, big-eyed, pouty-lipped dolls from MGA Entertainment that quickly caught fire because of their multicultural appearance, and at one point captured as much as 40% share of the market. Yet that brand, too, had its own set of problems as the dolls were criticized for their makeup and risque clothing.
Whether Barbie's unattainable proportions ever really contributed to a child's loss of self-esteem as critics contended remains debatable, but the success of a rival offering dolls with a more inclusive lineup should have clued in Mattel that change was needed. Though it beat MGA in court and eventually witnessed the dolls' departure from the toy aisle, Bratz are making a comeback, and other competitive pressures on Barbie remain.
Launched with a hashtag campaign #TheDollEvolves, Mattel's marketing program for the new Barbie wants to make sure that everyone knows she looks a lot more like you. Not every toy has to reflect the world around it; some can be allowed to stand on their own. But for a doll with the prominence of Barbie, it probably is important that she change with the times to better reflect the kids who will play with her.