It may sound like an unlikely comparison, but the boss of toy company Mattel would like to see Barbie become the next Iron Man.
That’s because Ynon Kreiz aims to create a “Mattel universe,” he tells the BBC — following on from the success of the Marvel Universe, which spawned dozens of hit films for Disney from a cast of comic book characters such as Thor, Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy.
Here’s the strategy behind the Barbie movie, which comes out on July 21. Kreiz started working on it when he became CEO of Mattel in 2018 and remains an executive producer.
Barbie and Ken are played by Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, with Greta Gerwig directing.
Kreiz recognizes that there is a risk in giving Barbie the Hollywood treatment, working with directors and writers who have their own creative ideas.
There’s “humor and self-deprecating humor” in the movie, he says (not least on his part, as he’s played by Will Ferrell, a controlling and somewhat stuffy CEO).
It’s clear even from the trailer that Barbie is the butt of jokes.
If you are generous, she will be portrayed as naive and innocent. If you’re not, she’s superficial and superficial, obsessed with looks and unable to understand the meaning of sex, death or life without high heels.
Barbie’s “Dreamland” is a pink utopia, divorced from reality.
“This movie is 64 years in the making (Barbie launched in 1959),” says Kreiz, “but it reflects how the culture sees Barbie today.”
Barbie remains Mattel’s best-selling brand, earning the company more than £1 billion ($1.5 billion) annually. Other brands include Hot Wheels, Masters of the Universe, Monster High, Bob the Builder and Thomas the Tank Engine.
Kreiz argues that Mattel’s other brands also have the potential to be turned into successful spin-offs, such as video games.
“The devil works hard, but Barbie’s marketing team works harder,” said marketing expert Mike Buonaiuto, author of Founder Therapy, who admires the inventive advertising the team behind the film created, including the Airbnb listing of a Barbie Dreamhouse .
“But let’s face it,” Buonaiuto points out, “the opportunity for the Mattel universe is vastly different from Marvel’s, and while Barbie is driven by millennial nostalgia collaborations, try to do the same for Thomas the Tank Engine or Hot Wheels and you probably won’t get the same result.
“The depth of world-building that Mattel can draw from is no competition to Marvel’s.”
But the recent collapse of Toys R Us shows why toy makers like Mattel need to diversify beyond selling physical products, Buonaiuto added.
Barbie was first introduced to America in 1959, developed by Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler.
Before Barbie, dolls were usually shaped like babies so kids could pretend to be a nurturing parent. Barbies, however, encouraged children to play as if they were adolescents and imagine their future selves through the dolls.
As the original TV ads during the Mickey Mouse Club said to kids, “One day I’ll be just like you.”
This turned out to be attractive and good business. By the early 1990s, more than a billion Barbie dolls had been sold.
But there have also been questions about exactly what Barbie dolls teach kids, especially around body image.
The original Barbie design was extremely thin and the messages reinforced unhealthy ideas. A notorious slumber party made in the mid-1960s featured a 100 lb (50 kg) bathroom scale and a diet book that advised, “Don’t eat.”
Another talking Barbie made in the early 1990s had the doll saying, “Math class is hard.” Mattel later apologized.
These issues continued to affect people’s perception of the brand and were arguably behind a dip in popularity about a decade ago.
Mattel has learned lessons and is now moving with the times, says Kreiz.
“Barbie is a flagship for diversity and inclusion,” he says, “with more than 170 different Barbie types in terms of body shape and skin color, and Barbie has more than 200 careers, so girls can explore their potential in different ways.”
Barbie has recently released dolls with disabilities, prosthetics and one with Down syndrome.
The “classic, traditional Barbie” is now less than half of sales, says Kreiz.
That new commitment to diversity is reflected in the film’s cast, while the classic Barbie, who is the central character, is gently mocked.
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Kreiz also points out that Mattel is restructuring the company to keep up with the times.
Now it just divides its products into categories (such as dolls, vehicles, and kindergartens), rather than having teams dedicated to separating boy and girl products. This is despite the fact that many stores still divide toys by gender, with pink aisles for girls who want to be princesses, and blue aisles for boys who love dinosaurs and building sets.
The Barbie movie is part of Kreiz’s master plan to position Mattel as a “talent magnet,” teaming up with the likes of movie directors to try different things with its well-known creations.
“People who buy our products aren’t just consumers,” says Kreiz. “They are fans, who have an emotional connection with the products. Children touch our toys, cuddle and go to bed with them.
“We believe in the long-term opportunity for Barbie. But we need to develop her, keep her relevant and keep her at the center of cultural conversation.”
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