Barbie sales were plummeting. A new leader had a vision: The doll needed to be “a reflection of our times.” But how do you make something more modern? In this episode, we learn how Barbie took some big risks — and then take a trip through toy history, to discover just how much our toys say about ourselves.
Richard Dickson, former Mattel executive
Jonathan Alexandratos, Toy Historian, Instructor at Queensborough Community College
Gary Foreman, producer and director for high-end documentaries and films
Jason Feifer: This is Build for Tomorrow, a podcast about the smartest solutions to our most misunderstood problems. I'm Jason Feifer, and in each episode, I take something that seems concerning or confusing today and figure out where it came from, what important things we're missing, and how we can create more opportunity tomorrow.
Jason Feifer: What do you think when I say the name, "Barbie"? Maybe you think something neutral, like "classic toy for girls," or you're nostalgic because you played with Barbie as a kid, or you think any number of negative things, like harmful body image, outdated gender stereotypes.
Jason Feifer: Well, in the year 2014, if you were an executive at Mattel, the massive toy company that owns Barbie here is what you would've thought about Barbie. You would've thought this is a holy hell five-alarm fire because, although Mattel had plenty of other classic toys in its toy chest, like Hot Wheels, Fisher Price, American Girl, and UNO, Barbie is by far its biggest moneymaker.
Jason Feifer: And yet, back in 2014, Barbie was slipping. Sales had declined 20% in the last two years alone. Consumers said Barbie was "behind the times." Parents weren't comfortable giving one to their girls. So again, if you're an executive at Mattel, this is not just about one toy falling out of favor. This is an existential crisis. So what do you do? Well, you call someone who can fix it. And for Mattel, that meant calling a former Mattel executive named Richard Dixon who had left to run a fashion company.
Richard Dickson: And then got a call back, almost five years later, from Mattel, inviting me to come back to play. Yeah.
Jason Feifer: Is that how they say it Mattel? Or is that just your own?
Richard Dickson: Well, that's-
Jason Feifer: I feel like Mattel should be full of "play" talk.
Richard Dickson: Yeah, yeah. Well, it wasn't quite that playful.
Jason Feifer: Of course it wasn't. This was no time for play. This was time for work. So, why were they calling Richard specifically? Well, he first joined Mattel in the year 2000 where he served in a bunch of roles and eventually became general manager and senior vice president for Barbie, where he introduced a lot of innovation and grew the brand.
Jason Feifer: Then he left for that other job, which is when Barbie's Dream House became full of nightmares. So, Mattel wanted Richard back. They wanted him to bring Barbie back. And Richard felt like, well, yeah, the problem with Barbie was clear.
Richard Dickson: I think toys, good toys in particular, and toys that become brands, they are a reflection of our times.
Jason Feifer: And Barbie had become a reflection of an old time.
Richard Dickson: In order for these products that become brands, that become larger than the product itself, to stay relevant, it has to continue to evolve and move with the times.
Jason Feifer: Which means making some big changes to Barbie, no matter how difficult or maybe even controversial that was going to be. Later in the episode, I will tell you exactly how Richard changed the Barbie brand and the very drastic impact that it's had. But first, I want to stay on that idea of Richard's for a moment, that toys are a reflection of our time.
Jason Feifer: If that's true, then what can we learn from our changing toys? And how can we learn to change ourselves? To more fully answer that, I'm going to make this episode a tale of two toys. One is Barbie and the other is, well, much more obscure. But before we get there, I want to introduce you to someone else who thinks deeply about toys, but in a different way, and whose focus is on a very different time.
Jonathan Alexandratos: My name is Jonathan Alexandratos. They/them pronouns. I teach at Queensborough Community College, and I am a toy historian.
Jason Feifer: Jonathan is especially interested in the gender dynamics of toys. And there's a lot to say there, given how gendered toys are. Barbie, of course, represents one side of this equation. It basically defined the idea of a girl's toy for generations. And on the other side, you had action figures: toy soldiers and wrestlers and superheroes and monsters, all very explicitly made for boys.
Jason Feifer: But the thing is, those borders didn't always hold. Sometimes, often by accident, a toy would cross over. Something made for one audience would become something else for someone else. And that's how Jonathan recently stumbled upon a wonderful little mystery while reading an old copy of a toy industry magazine.
Jonathan Alexandratos: And they had one singular line in there about a 1950s Dave Crockett figure that looked like a woman. And I just read that and went, "Say what? That's interesting."
Jason Feifer: The 1950s was a defining era in toys. It's when Barbie first debuted. And Davy Crockett was the exact opposite of Barbie. He was a manly man, a frontiersman who fought his whole life and died at the Alamo. A Davy Crockett doll was very clearly a toy for boys, at a time in which girls and boys definitely did not play with the same toys. It seems to have sold well; it was licensed by Disney. And yet, this toy for boys looked like a woman? Again, in the 1950s? Jonathan tracked down one of these toys. And as we spoke over Zoom a few months ago, they held it up so I could see. It was still in its original packaging.
Jonathan Alexandratos: Inside the box, you can see this through a plastic window, there is a doll that looks distinctly like a girl.
Jason Feifer: It's true. Round, feminine face, button nose, red lips.
Jonathan Alexandratos: She's got a rifle strapped around her waist and is wearing these leather suede garments that are meant to mimic Crockett, but are not quite there.
Jason Feifer: And not to make it weird or anything, but in the interests of fully investigating this, is it a female body?
Jonathan Alexandratos: Well, it has breasts.
Jason Feifer: What was going on here? Before I go any further, let me zoom out for a second and tell you how I came to all this. A few months ago, Jonathan reached out to me because they'd heard an old episode I did about how teddy bears kicked off a great moral panic in 1907. I just re-ran that episode, so if you missed it, just look at the episode I posted before this one.
Jason Feifer: I told Jonathan that I love unexpected stories from history. And in turn, Jonathan told me this whole thing with the Davy Crockett doll. Then, by total coincidence, I met Richard a few weeks later and talked about the big Barbie turnaround that he's orchestrated at Mattel. So, when Richard said to me that toys...
Richard Dickson: ... are a reflection of our times.
Jason Feifer: These two toy stories snap together for me, because I started to think, people talk a lot about "our times." They say things like, "It's a sign of the times," or, "That's what happens these days," or, "In today's world..." We are constantly trying to define our times, for good or for ill, by little moments or experiences.
Jason Feifer: And we are constantly struggling to update ourselves and our understanding of the world, to not feel stuck in the past. And I became intrigued by the idea that toys could do that too. Because a toy isn't just a thing that happens in the moment. A toy is the product of many people sitting around and thinking about the standards and values and identities that the masses want to pass along to their children. Toys are a kind of cultural forecasting, in plastic form. And here we have two toys, both from the 1950s.
Jason Feifer: One was traditional, in need of an update; the other, strangely progressive from a traditional time. Together, can they tell us about what it means to be a reflection of our times and what it means to update that?
Jason Feifer: To explore this, I'm going to tell you some crazy toy history, including how your favorite toys came to be. I'll explain the surprisingly ham-handed origin of the action figure and why this weird Davy Crockett doll has more significance than you think. And then, we'll also learn how Richard is reinventing Barbie and what that says about how to make something relevant today.
Jason Feifer: It is a story of our toys and ourselves. It's a reflection of our times, you might say. And it's all coming up after the break. All right, we're back. We're on a quest to see toys as a reflection of our time. But first, we should back up to understand the time that they came from.
Jason Feifer: Before the 1920s, dolls were generally made of porcelain, leather, cloth, and other materials. And they were almost always baby dolls. That's because, well, these dolls were for young girls, and young girls were supposed to grow up and be mothers. Got to jumpstart that mothering instinct. But then, in the 1920s, a new kind of doll arrived: the paper fashion doll.
Jonathan Alexandratos: Paper dolls are basically exactly what they sound like.
Jason Feifer: This again is toy historian, Jonathan Alexandratos.
Jonathan Alexandratos: You would get just a sheet of cardboard. You would have, in the center, a punch-out doll that looked basically like a nude sort of form.
Jason Feifer: And to be clear, these wouldn't be baby dolls. These would be paper dolls of grown women, sometimes celebrities from the time. And they'd also come with these flat cardboard dresses that girls could layer on top. They were popular for a long time, alongside all those baby dolls. Then we hit the 1950s, and the toy industry really started to build steam.
Jonathan Alexandratos: There was this thought that I think was spurred on a lot by post-war baby boom. "We have a lot more kids. What are they going to play with? There's a huge market that we could sell to now. So what are our options?"
Jason Feifer: And as it happened, a new substance was on the rise. It was cheap, easy to manufacture, and perfect to make toys of.
Voice Clip (Plastics): I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Voice Clip (Plastics): Yes, sir?
Voice Clip (Plastics): Are you listening?
Voice Clip (Plastics): Yes, I am.
Voice Clip (Plastics): Plastics.
Jason Feifer: But what did kids want in a plastic doll? Nobody knew., So toy companies just started flooding the market with plastic dolls, usually in the form of babies or little girls. For example, something called the Ginny doll became popular for a while. It looks like a little round-faced, four year old girl that you could dress up. And then, in 1959, this hit the market and changed everything.
Voice Clip (Barbie 1959): (singing)
Jason Feifer: That's from an original Barbie commercial. And here was the real innovation of Barbie. It took the idea of a fashion doll, which had been introduced through paper dolls, and made it three dimensional. Barbie is not a baby doll. It is an adult or a teenager or however old Barbie is supposed to be. And you can dress her up and be her best friend. And once Barbie took off, the rest of the industry wanted its own Barbie success.
Jason Feifer: Dolls for girls dominated the market for a few years. And then toymakers started thinking, huh? Is there a way to create a Barbie for boys? Some way that a boy would want to play with a plastic doll? So, they started to try. But this was tricky because people in the 1950s were absolutely terrified of homosexuality. And the average person did not want their boys engaging with anything that could, well, you know...
Jonathan Alexandratos: So, there was this interest in making sure that boys knew what boys toys were and girls knew what girls toys were.
Jason Feifer: In 1963, the toy company Hasbro came up with a solution to this. It created a plastic toy soldier that it called G.I. Joe. And then, to make sure there was absolutely no confusion, and that G.I. Joe was very definitely, without question, absolutely 1000% a toy for boys, it made a few key decisions. First, it made G.I. Joe a half inch taller than Barbie. Barbie stands at 11 and a half inches. So, G.I. Joe became a full foot. And then, to really hammer the point home, Hasbro came up with a word; a word meant for boys; a word whose sole purpose was to say, "Keep your tea parties to yourself, Barbie, because this toy has other things to do." And that magic word was, "Action."
Jonathan Alexandratos: They came up with this term "action figure" and really just branded that on G.I. Joe, pretty much at every turn. So, if you were getting a Marine, you weren't getting a Marine; you were getting an "action Marine." You weren't getting a figure. You were getting an "action figure."
Jason Feifer: "Action" meant boys. "Action figure" meant a figurine for boys. And once G.I. Joe took off, the rest of the industry quickly followed, making more plastic figurines for boys and always labeling them with the word, "Action," like an action figure called Action Jackson.
Voice Clip (Action Jackson): (singing )
Jason Feifer: And there was Bonanza, whose horse definitely is not for girls because it is not just wearing any old regular hooves.
Voice Clip (Bonanza doll): Each horse has action hooves.
Jason Feifer: And there were other signifiers, like when this commercial for a Superman doll made it very clear that his plastic wasn't any old plastic. It's not Barbie plastic, for example. No...
Voice Clip (Superman): He's made of tough blue plastic and has a bright red cape that fits on his shoulders.
Jason Feifer: And as a reminder, so you can picture these things, these toys are still all roughly the size of a Barbie. So, a big, foot-tall toy. Smaller action figures only started entering the market in the seventies and then were really fully popularized by the 1977 Star Wars figures, which were 3.75 inches tall. And those smaller action figures really opened up the toy universe, especially for boys.
Jonathan Alexandratos: The 3.75 inch scale makes it a lot easier to do things like make vehicles for these figures. So, that's where we get with the X-wings and Star Wars, the G.I. Joe tanks and all that stuff.
Jason Feifer: Okay, that is the context for how boy dolls split off from girl dolls. It was very clear and very deliberate. And now you have more of an appreciation for the mystery of the Davy Crockett doll. It was made in 1955, eight years before G.I. Joe, which means this was a time when the toy industry was still trying to find its hit toy for boys.
Jason Feifer: The term "action figure" hadn't even been created yet, but the gender dynamics of the 1950s remained the same. People would've still been very alert to whether a toy was explicitly for girls or boys. So, how could anyone have made and sold this Davy Crockett doll with lipstick and breasts? Well, Jonathan has spent a lot of time researching and thinking about this.
Jonathan Alexandratos: I think that there are a couple of things about the Davy Crockett action figure that we really have to understand.
Jason Feifer: Let's start with where it came from. In the 1950s, America was fascinated by stories of its 18th and 19th century frontiersmen; manly men like Daniel Boone and Buffalo Bill, who represented an American self-reliance. Davy Crockett was in that group. And who exactly was he?
Gary Foreman: Let's talk about the physical man. Very impressive, very strong; about... this is under six feet and approximately 180 and 190 pounds.
Jason Feifer: This is Gary.
Gary Foreman: I'm Gary Foreman. I'm mostly known for being a producer and director for high-end documentaries and films. I helped start the History Channel programming, in 1994, with a series on the American Revolution.
Jason Feifer: Gary became fascinated by Dave Crockett because, well, Dave Crockett just lived an extraordinary life. It began in 1786, when Davy was born in what was then considered the "frontier of America," though it's now just called Tennessee. And Gary says it's worth considering how wild it was for people to move out there at that time.
Gary Foreman: When you think about the fact that people were motivated to move from point A to point B and there was no photograph, there was no technology, there was nothing to show them to prove where they're going. It was by word of mouth.
Jason Feifer: Davy would have many adventures. He drove cattle. He bailed his father out of debt. He joined the military, hunted wild game to feed the soldiers, fought in the War of 1812, got into politics, joined the House of Representatives in 1827, and became known as a major opponent of President Andrew Jackson because of Davies's opposition to the Indian Removal Act. But perhaps just as importantly, he was a celebrity of his time, in part because he was also really good as a showman. When he gave speeches in Congress, he'd do dead-on impersonations of his opponents, down to their body language and speaking styles.
Gary Foreman: And people could not get enough of this. So he became a tourist attraction for a number of years.
Jason Feifer: And when Davy Crockett died, fighting at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, at the age of 49, he went from being a famous politician to a folk hero. More than a century later, in 1954, Disney launched a five-part television mini series about Davy Crockett, with a theme song that would become familiar to people for generations.
Voice Clip (Davy Crockett): (Singing)
Jason Feifer: Then in 1955, Disney stitched together the first three episodes of that series into a movie, and all of this kicked off a new wave of Davy Crockett mania. Here was this man; this manly man who represented what men of America should be. And he was portrayed on the screen by the manly actor Fess Parker. Truly, could there be a better inspiration for a toy for boys?
Jason Feifer: But here's the thing. Today, when Disney develops a movie, they do it with a big merchandising plan. When the movie is ready to go, so is an absolute deluge of toys. But back then, nobody thought that way. Instead, Disney just put out the movie. So when it became popular, toy companies would call Disney up and basically say, "Hey, we could do something with this."
Jonathan Alexandratos: Getting a Disney license back then, it's not quite like getting a Disney license now.
Jason Feifer: Back then, apparently all you needed was a half-baked idea, which was exactly what the Fortune Toy Corporation of New York City had, because the Fortune Toy Corporation was the company behind this Davy Crockett doll.
Jonathan Alexandratos: Very little is actually known about the Fortune Toy Corporation today. What we know is that they created a doll that actually had a beating heart; that was its selling point.
Jason Feifer: What was in there?
Jonathan Alexandratos: There was basically a ball inside of a bigger ball that just rattled around and simulated a heartbeat.
Jason Feifer: So, it would beat if you shook it?
Jonathan Alexandratos: Yeah, that kind of thing. Yeah, yeah.
Jason Feifer: Okay. So, it's a doll with shaken baby syndrome?
Jonathan Alexandratos: Essentially.
Jason Feifer: Here's the best sense that Jonathan can make of this. The Fortune Toy Corporation was making a lot of dolls for girls, which meant that it had a lot of girl doll parts lying around. And then, it had an idea to make this Davy Crockett doll and quickly got a license from Disney. But the thing is, by this point, Davy Crockett mania was already happening, and nobody expected it to last long, which meant the Fortune Toy Corporation did not have a lot of time to make a whole bunch of new dolls. They needed to create something immediately.
Jonathan Alexandratos: So, they had these bodies, new doll bodies lying around. And they're, "Look, all we need to do is put Fess Parker's picture on the box, get a license, have it say "Walt Disney," and just load that doll up with the typical Davy Crockett outfit. And... good enough. Right?
Jason Feifer: Now, this is all just educated speculation. Is Jonathan right? Well, the crack research team here at Build For Tomorrow dug around and discovered just how complicated the 1950s toy industry was. For example, remember earlier I mentioned a doll called the Ginny doll? It was a predecessor to Barbie. A toy company called Beehler Arts, started making a knockoff of Jenny that it called "Pam." And it made that knockoff under a bunch of different toy company names: Virga Doll Company, Fortune Doll Corporation, Fortune Toys, Inc., and yes, Fortune Toy Corporation, the same company that made the Davy Crockett doll.
Jason Feifer: And intriguingly, the dolls were also associated with a company called Ontario Plastics, which is actually still in operation today. We called them, but unfortunately they don't have any records going back that far. But that's not a totally dead end because...
Voice Clip (Space Cadet): Space Academy USA and the world beyond tomorrow: 2350 AD. Here, the space cadets-
Jason Feifer: That is from a 1950 show called Space Cadet whose main character was named Tom Corbett. And there was a secondary character named Joan Dale. And the reason I'm telling you that is because we found dolls of both Tom and Joan, that, I am telling you, look exactly the same. Tom is wearing a jumpsuit and a hat, and Joan is wearing a dress and has long hair. But their faces are identical. Same, big eyes, long eyelashes, bright red lips.
Jason Feifer: We also found male and female cowboy dolls that were also exactly the same doll, just dressed up a little different. And in fact, the Davy Crockett doll also had a female counterpart. It was Polly Crockett, Davy's first wife. And yes, if you look closely, Davy and Polly's faces are identical. Same doll, just with one dressed up as a man.
Jason Feifer: So, this feels like a good time to check in with our original idea, that toys are a reflection of our time. If that's the case, then what is this a reflection of? At first, knowing nothing except the existence of the Davy Crockett doll, you might think this is a reflection of an open-minded time. But nah, that's not really right. Now the doll seems to say less about what people of the 1950s were tolerant of and more about what they simply had not yet grown accustomed to.
Jason Feifer: Look at their toy industry. Companies were just throwing plastic spaghetti at the wall to see what stuck. In the 1950s, most dolls were made around New York City, and most toy companies used the same plastic manufacturers. Boy dolls didn't sell as well as girl dolls, so there was probably no point in manufacturing a boy doll. And therefore, as far as consumers of the day were concerned, dolls always looked feminine, no matter who they were for.
Jason Feifer: But here's how Jonathan sees it. To him, the Davy Crockett doll isn't just something that existed in that one time and space. It's a thing that represents something now, too. Because of course, even if a toy is a reflection of our time, an object's meaning can change over time too. It can mean different things to different people at different times. Because, as anyone who has ever created something and put it out into the world knows, the creator's intention may be very different from how people receive it. And that happens in toys all the time. For example...
Jonathan Alexandratos: Fisto from He-Man.
Jason Feifer: Fisto is a large, muscular warrior with a tidy beard and a metal fist, hence the name Fisto.
Jonathan Alexandratos: A good friend of mine, who's gay, says that was his first introduction to bear culture.
Jason Feifer: In fact, a lot of people see the whole He-Man line that way. Men's Health even once ran a piece titled Why He-Man Is a Gay Icon. And that's probably not what the creators of He-Man intended. But for a lot of people who didn't see themselves in traditional toys, this has brought them joy. And here's another classic.
Jonathan Alexandratos: In the Barbie toy line, there's a toy called Earring Magic Ken.
Jason Feifer: Earring Magic Ken came out in 1993. He had blonde hair highlights, a lavender mesh shirt, and a purple pleather vest.
Jonathan Alexandratos: It was stereotypically exemplifying a gay club kid.
Jason Feifer: And to top it all off, he wore a necklace with an earring on it. But...
Jonathan Alexandratos: The necklace that Ken wears, however, without an earring attached to it, looks a little bit like a cock ring.
Jason Feifer: The community embraced Earring Magic Ken. But maybe not a surprise here, the culture at large had a full-blown moral panic over it. And Mattel ultimately pulled the toy from shelves. But the origin of Earring Magic Ken is pretty interesting and also, a nice setup for the changes you'll hear about Barbie later. So, I'll tell it to you briefly. Back in 1993, the hot buzzwords in the toy industry were "gender blending," which was basically an attempt to sell boy toys to girls, by pink-washing them, and to sell girl toys to boys by blue-washing them.
Jason Feifer: Companies at the time claimed that this was progressive. But in practice, it was pretty clunky and condescending. For example, a couple of companies launched dinosaur toys for girls called things like Darling Dino and Little Miss Dino. And that's the era that Earring Magic Ken came out of too. Mattel didn't set out to make a gay doll, but that's basically what they did. It was an accident. And for many, a very useful accident.
Jonathan Alexandratos: That actually gives me a lot of hope for the future, if we can find these moments, even in history, even when we perceive things to be very much black and white, this or that, where we can say, "Well, it's actually a little more complicated than that." Let's seize those moments. Let's do that.
Jason Feifer: There's really interesting scholarship around this idea, by the way. You can start with the book Glitch Feminism by curator and writer Legacy Russell who argues that errors or glitches, and here I am quoting from the book: "Offers an opportunity for us to perform and transform ourselves in an infinite variety of identities." That's one of the reasons why Jonathan loves looking back at the history of toys.
Jason Feifer: It isn't just a question of the time they reflect. It's a question of what else was in that time and who else was in that time and therefore, who else was reflected, even if they went overlooked. Which brings us nicely back to this moment we're in now when Barbie, arguably the most iconic toy for girls in the world, came to accept that it no longer reflected the times we live in. And Richard Dixon, who came back to save the brand, had to ask the most important question of all.
Richard Dickson: If we were building the brand today to inspire girls around the world for their limitless potential, what would we do? What would the brand look like?
Jason Feifer: The answer to that question coming up after the break. All right, we're back. Let's talk about how to bring Barbie into the modern world. And to do that, it's worth a reminder of just how powerful Barbie is. Because Barbie is not just an iconic toy for girls.
Jonathan Alexandratos: Barbie was the first massive toy hit that shifted that play pattern from paper to plastic.
Jason Feifer: Barbie has a full name. Did you know that? I didn't. It is Barbara Millicent Roberts. She was created by Ruth Handler, the co-founder and first president of Mattel, and debuted at a toy fair in 1959. And Barbie's world, as we know it, started to take shape pretty early. Her boyfriend, Ken, appeared two years after launch, in 1961. And her best friend, Midge, appeared in 1963.
Jason Feifer: From the very beginning, Barbie was a reflection of complex cultural times. There was, well, some not so forward-looking stuff. In 1963, Barbie came out with a diet book that apparently literally said, "Don't eat." And in the nineties, a talking Barbie, called Teen Talk Barbie, was causing an uproar for one of the things it said. Here is an actual Teen Talk Barbie with the famous words.
Voice Clip (Teen Talk Barbie): Math class is tough.
Jason Feifer: "Math class is tough," she's saying. Then there's Barbie's career, which, as you probably know, is a core Barbie thing. Mattel is always releasing new Barbies in different outfits, representing different jobs. And this wasn't exactly progressive at first. She was a fashion designer in 1960, a ballerina in 1961, a babysitter and a cheerleader in 1963. But to Mattel's credit, she expanded pretty quickly. She was also a business executive in 1963 and an astronaut in 1965.
Jason Feifer: And by now, she's held hundreds of careers. And of course, there's diversity and body image. Barbie lived in a primarily white world for a long time. She got her first Black friend, named Christie, in 1968, though an official Black Barbie didn't hit stores until 1980. And although Barbie did slowly diversify, it did so sparingly. Even by the time Barbie sales were tanking in 2014, Barbie was still only being sold in a handful of skin tones and not many body types. So, this is what Richard Dixon walked into when he returned to Mattel to try saving Barbie.
Richard Dickson: Our brand reputation and relationship with consumers had eroded. Simply put, Barbie was not as relevant as she had been. She wasn't reflecting what girls saw as aspirational.
Jason Feifer: And now, remember, Richard has this philosophy; this really interesting philosophy, which is that a successful toy is a reflection of its time. But it goes a level deeper than that, he says.
Richard Dickson: Barbie in particular is a brand that, if you aren't on trend, you're dead in the water. If you are too trendy, you might also be too far, to where the perception of a brand like ours can be embraced. You have to be right on trend; timeless and timely.
Jason Feifer: Timeless and timely. Everything all at once, but not too much. It's a tall order. So, how do you strike that?
Richard Dickson: We needed to move from what had been, I call, a "brand monologue," where we presented Barbie to consumers and said, "This is who she is, this is what she does;" there's rules associated with it, to a brand dialogue. And start to really listen to our consumer; take what our consumer is saying to heart and in mind.
Jason Feifer: So that's where they started. And as a result, they built what Richard calls "The Mattel Playbook." There are four parts to it. And I understand that you, listening right now, might not be in a position to need a playbook to reinvent a decades-old, iconic brand. But I want to take you into it anyway, because I think it also offers a good insight into how we can think about updating or evolving anything.
Jason Feifer: How do you look at something and say, "That is old, and I could be doing better"? And then, how do you actually do better? Well, maybe the Mattel playbook has some answers. Step one of the playbook: identify your purpose. Strip Barbie down to the bone, and what is this brand? What is the point of it? Why does it exist?
Richard Dickson: In the case of Barbie, it's inspiring girls' limitless potential.
Jason Feifer: And look, regardless of how you feel about the idea that Barbie inspires girls' limitless potential, I'd say this is an idea worth taking note of. Try it on yourself. How could you describe your work and the core value of your work in a way that's separate from the actual output of your work? What is the difference between what you do and why you do it?
Jason Feifer: Because I will tell you something: if you identify solely with what you do, then you will never want the thing to change. Because if it changes, then you change. And that is scary and disorienting. But if you can understand why you do something, and you can articulate that in a single sentence, then you realize that there are endless different ways to fulfill your mission. Change doesn't seem so scary anymore. I used to think of myself as a magazine editor, but that meant I needed to cling tightly to magazines, or else I'd lose my identity. But now I have this other phrase for myself. I say, "I tell stories in my own voice." I can do that in endless ways. Makes me so much more flexible. And that is what Mattel was doing with Barbie.
Jason Feifer: From there, the Mattel playbook gets deep into the weeds on product development. Step two is Design: understanding consumers' behavior and what they like and don't like and how to craft a product that meets it. Step three is Cultural Relevance, where you ask really hard and important questions, like...
Richard Dickson: How do we make this relevant to today?
Jason Feifer: And then, that leads to wondering, are there collaborations with other people or brands who feel relevant but also connected to the brand's purpose? And how do you build marketing that feels relevant? And... anyway. You get it? And then, step four, finally, the most important: Execution, building the operations to bring all your new ideas to life, because...
Richard Dickson: If you can't execute against a great idea or a great product, then it's nothing but a great idea and a great product that never got out there.
Jason Feifer: And again, like I said, I don't think that you need to be reinventing old toys to use this way of thinking. Okay, take a look around. The world is changing. Maybe your job is changing. What do people need from you now, and what do you need to learn to do it better? And who can you work with to become more relevant? And then, how can you take your new idea and really bring it into the world? Because truly, there is no point of carrying around an idea unless you plan to do something with it. Anyway, that is the Mattel playbook. And here is the very short version of what Richard and his team learned when they ran it. They learned that people experienced Barbie as if it was a message, like a toy saying, "Ah, this is how the world is, kids." But nobody wants to hear that.
Richard Dickson: So, we introduced choice. We kept the original body, of course, of Barbie. But we expanded it with tall and curvy and various other form factors that really reflected how girls see and how women see the world which we live in.
Jason Feifer: They also introduced over 24 different skin tones and colors. They released Barbies who wear hijabs or who are described as hearing impaired or who have a prosthetic limb or a skin condition. And they did this in consultation with experts from those communities, to make sure Barbie was on point.
Jason Feifer: Mattel also created a line of gender-neutral dolls and ran interesting and groundbreaking partnerships like a Barbie of the actress Laverne Cox, which was introduced as the first transgender Barbie. Basically, Richard executed the exact opposite of Earring Magic Ken. Remember, that doll came out of a sloppy effort to just sell more toys to more kids, without a lot of thought about what those toys said or who they were for.
Jason Feifer: Richard's new Barbie line is intentional. It knows exactly what it's doing, which meant that it was also more prepared for the good and the bad. Because yeah, some of this got pushback. Here, for example, is British broadcaster and former politician, Nigel Farage, who like all former politicians, who got into broadcasting, must find something every night to be outraged about.
Voice Clip (Nigel Farage): Maybe some of you, here in the audience, maybe at home, thinking about getting presents for your children, your grandchildren, well, I may have just the thing for you. Because Barbie doll have announced their first transgender doll.
Jason Feifer: I have to say, putting culture war stuff aside, I just don't understand people's reactions to new things that are not for them. Okay, I do not own a house with a lawn. But every time I hear about a new lawn mower, I'm not, "Pff. Look at this company over here, selling lawnmowers. Hey, anybody need lawnmower?" You don't like the doll? Then it's not for you. Don't buy the doll.
Jason Feifer: And this, by the way, was Richard's general attitude towards people who didn't like the brand in general. I asked him how Mattel dealt with all the negative perceptions of Barbie, in the beginning when sales were plummeting. And he said it was intentionally head-on. Go listen to people. Understand where they're coming from. Be responsive, particularly to people who felt disappointed by the brand they once loved. But also, don't get caught up fighting every fight.
Richard Dickson: We said, "We want the like to turn to love; neutral to turn to like." And there are Barbie haters. And we're not going to get too distracted with them. Haters may always be haters. If we can move them to neutral or like, good for us. But we need to be strong in our own conviction around who we are and what our purpose is. And hopefully, there'll be more people who like and love us than people who want to criticize us.
Jason Feifer: And the results speak for themselves. In 2021, Barbie had a record-breaking sales year, the biggest sales growth in Barbie's life. Richard told me they were on track to do the same thing again in 2022. And he said, Barbie is the number one toy property in the world. At the end of my conversation with Richard, I thought back to what he'd said in the beginning, about how toys are a reflection of our time, but that particularly for something as big and iconic as Barbie, finding that reflection is a real balancing act. If you're too far behind culture, you're dead in the water. If you're too far ahead, you turn too many people off. And I wondered, how did they actually measure that? Is there a way to scientifically walk that line?
Richard Dickson: I wish I could tell you there was a silver bullet to that. There is a degree of... Look, you could have all the extraordinary insights and data in the world. But it's what you do with it.
Jason Feifer: "It's an art and a science," he says. It's about having challenging conversations, making big decisions, and thinking really, really hard, not just about today, but tomorrow too.
Richard Dickson: If we're doing our job right, 10 years from now, we'll look back at what Barbie looked like today and what our narrative was today and say, "Oh my goodness, that was so 2022."
Jason Feifer: After I talked with Richard, I checked back in with Jonathan by email. I wanted to know what they thought about Richard's work with Barbie, given how alert Jonathan is to representation in toys. And they basically said, "It is a good start and something the rest of the toy industry would be wise to follow." Because, if we think back to the idea of glitches, the idea that little accidents like Earring Magic Ken create moments where excluded communities can recognize themselves, well, that's all well and good. "But nobody should settle for glitches," Jonathan says. People want to be recognized. So, progress, but still a ways to go.
Jason Feifer: Which makes me think about that question from the beginning of this episode: what does it mean to be a reflection of our times? How do you update something? How do you change to be as relevant as possible right now?
Jason Feifer: The answer is in recognizing that you're part of a continuum. You're in a moment in time, among many moments in time. And the greatest thing that you can do is take that time seriously. To not value the past over the present, simply because it's more familiar. To keep an eye on the future, even as it's not fully knowable. This is not perfect work, and it will not satisfy everyone. But that's not a realistic way to measure progress anyway, which is why I really love what Richard said a moment ago. That in the future, people should look back at the Barbie of 2022 and say, "What is so 2022." Because while Mattel could, in theory, build a time-traveling Barbie, if it wants, the rest of us are stuck here, in our time. And the best we can do is have fun with that.
Jason Feifer: And that's our episode. But hey, remember the uproar over Barbie saying that "Math class is hard"? I found the greatest news report about it, which just brightened my day. So, I want to play it for you in a minute.
Jason Feifer: But first, if you love Build For Tomorrow The Podcast, then you will totally Love Build For Tomorrow The Book. It is an action plan for how to embrace change, adapt fast, and future-proof your life and career. And it combines lessons from this podcast, with what I've learned from the smartest entrepreneurs of today. You can get your copy now. Just think of a place that sells books and go there. And if for some reason you're drawing a blank, then go to jasonfeifer.com/book. And if you want even more advice and encouragement on how to adapt fast, then sign up for my newsletter. You can find it by going to jasonfeifer.com/newsletter.
Jason Feifer: You can also get in touch with me directly at my website, jasonfeifer.com, or follow me on Twitter or Instagram. I am @heyfeifer. This episode was reported by me, Jason Feifer, with additional reporting by Emily Holmes, sound editing by Alec Balas. Our theme music is by Casper Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. Thanks to Adam Soccolich for production help. This show is supported in part by the Stand Together Trust. The Stand Together Trust believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts, and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation, and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea.
Jason Feifer: If that's you, then get in touch with them. Proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science, and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit standtogethertrust.org. All right, now, as promised let's talk, Talkin' Barbie. In addition to that line about math being hard, Barbie Teen Talks said all sorts of perfectly inoffensive things. And Mattel quickly pulled the offending Barbies from the shelf. But as it turns out, those Barbies were hard to find to begin with because, well, here is a report by John Croman of KETV News in Omaha, where he's standing... Just picture it. He's standing in the toy aisle, holding two Teen Talk Barbies up to his head.
Voice Clip (John Croman): There are 270 possible Teen Talk Barbie messages, but only four are randomly selected for each doll, which means your chances of getting that math message are pretty slim.
Voice Clip (Teen Talk Barbie): I love barbecues.
Voice Clip (John Croman): I love Barbie dolls.
Voice Clip (Teen Talk Barbie): Which outfit is your favorite?
Voice Clip (John Croman): The one you're wearing.
Voice Clip (Teen Talk Barbie): I'm going to be a veterinarian.
Voice Clip (John Croman): I'm going to be a journalist.
Voice Clip (Teen Talk Barbie): Let's make some new friends.
Voice Clip (John Croman): I just made one.
Jason Feifer: I wonder what Journalist Barbie would've thought of that reporting. I'm Jason Feifer. Thanks for listening, and let's keep building for tomorrow.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.