How Mattel Continues to Move Barbie into the Future

By David Ryan Polgar, Contributor

At the New York Toy Fair in February, visitors were greeted by Hologram Barbie who danced (and dabbed) inside her box. While a source of entertainment, Hologram Barbie could also offer useful facts, like event information or details about the weather.

Similar to the Amazon Echo, the hologram Barbie is activated when a child says, “Hello Barbie” followed by a command. The idea behind Mattel’s newest creation is that Barbie is no longer just a stagnant doll with whom children can spark their imagination.

In 2018, she is also an active, vocal companion from whom children can learn.

In the past few years, Mattel, the maker of Barbie since her release in 1959, has worked hard to make the iconic toy relevant to today’s tech-savvy children.

In 2015, Mattel released the internet-enabled Hello Barbie that uses cloud-based speech recognition software to have a back-and-forth dialogue with a child. Recognized as the first smart doll, Hello Barbie taps into a database that regularly updates with appropriate replies.

With the anticipated release of Hello Barbie Hologram for the 2018 holiday season, Mattel aims to deepen that technological engagement and, some suspect, find a way to stay relevant among millennial parents.

The Pressure to Innovate

The toy industry is notoriously fickle. In the standard toy cycle, this year’s must-have gift becomes tomorrow’s forgotten discount item. Even iconic brands like Mattel are not immune to the whimsical nature of the toy market. As such, the brand has embraced the innovate-or-die philosophy.

For its first iteration in 1960, Mattel invented the pull-string talking doll category with the release of Chatty Cathy. The influential doll was so successful, it would go on to inspire the 1963 Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll,” which featured a similar-looking doll—Talky Tina—that becomes sentient.

In 1965, Mattel released its first See ‘N Say line of toys that that let children choose which phrases the doll would speak, but adjusting a pointer on the doll before pulling its string. In 1992, Mattel released the Teen Talk Barbie, that could speak four phrases out of 270 possibilities. (Part of the hook was that you wouldn’t know what phrases your Barbie—or your friend’s Barbie—would say until you bought it.)

And in 2015, Hello Barbie became the world’s first interactive doll, designed to not only speak, but also listen to a child through voice-activated smart technology. (While interactive for children, many parents expressed concern over the way the doll collected and stored information. Mattel has since tried to alleviate privacy concerns by pointing to the limited use of voice recordings and agreeing to not save recordings to its servers.)

The Barbie Dreamhouse, too, has received a major makeover. By 2016, the Barbie Hello Dreamhouse, a smart home, offered custom sound effects, voice-controlled elevator and door, and stairs that could turn into a slide upon command. A child simply activates the features by saying, “Hello, Dreamhouse.”

While iterations may bring more value to families looking to provide their children with tech-savvy toys, they may also be the result of a sink-or-swim mentality.

In the past year, Mattel stock prices have decreased by 50 percent, giving rise to rumors about a Hasbro takeover. Hasbro, the world’s largest toy manufacturer, is responsible for Star Wars toys and the My Little Pony revamp. And, as of 2016, the toy powerhouse took over Disney princesses from Mattel, forcing the Barbie manufacturer to endure major losses. In addition to losing over half a billion dollars in annual revenue, two-thirds of Mattel executives left the company when the Disney license went to Hasbro.

The loss of Disney’s princess license drew a surprising blow to Mattel, who was the first sponsor of the Mickey Mouse Club in 1956.

“The pressure is on [Mattel’s CEO] to quickly prove to kids, parents, and investors that Mattel will be able to revitalize some of its classic brands like Barbie,” Paul R. La Monica, CNN Money’s digital correspondent wrote this past April.

In February 2016, Mattel brought on Margo Georgiadis, a former Google executive, as Mattel’s CEO, signaling a commitment to Barbie’s tech-forward future.

Georgiadi herself spoke about the need to innovate for the newest generation at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech in July 2017. “This generation has grown up expecting the world to be immersive, adaptable, and increasingly customized,” Georgiadis said. “We have to find a way to embed that into our toy experiences.”

This brings us to the Hello Barbie Hologram at the New York Toy Fair.

“Hello Hologram Barbie brings to life Barbie in a way we’ve never done before,” Michelle Chidoni, Mattel’s VP of Global Communications, said at the fair. “[The toy] takes a really popular technology and makes it playable and entertaining for a girl.”

Barbie Takes a Stand

Mattel’s eagerness to shed Barbie’s stereotypical origin has been a reform that’s come from the outside, in.

In early 2016, Barbie added additional body types—tall, curvy, and petite—into its line. The hologram preview at the New York Toy Fair showcased a Barbie that is customizable by body type and ethnicity and, in 2017, the brand released its first hijab-wearing Barbie inspired by American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.

“Barbie has always given girls choices, from her 180 careers, to inspirational roles, to her countless fashions and accessories,” Evelyn Mazzocco, SVP and Global General Manager, said in a press release announcing the body type expansion. “We are excited to literally be changing the face of the brand.”

The official BarbieStyle Instagram channel has also been a place for Mattel to take a stand. Several posts showcase two female Barbies (presumably a couple) wearing shirts that read, “Love wins.” And, after the Trump administration’s immigration ban, the channel modeled Barbie in a Christian Siriano-designed T-shirt with the block letters: “People Are People.”

Yet, one issue that has been particularly challenging for Mattel to confront is how it will use the diverse face of Barbie as a tool to combat troubling gender stereotypes and statistics.

For example, while 60 percent of college graduates are female, only 35 percent of STEM degrees are awarded to women. One possible culprit of this pipeline problem is the way women and girls receive societal signals that they don’t belong in science or math fields. (This can be as subtle as the roster of all-male STEM teachers or math and science posters geared towards boys.)

As an iconic figure central in the formative years of many girls throughout the country and world, Barbie’s image can play a crucial role in shaping the career expectations of future women. But Mattel hasn’t always gotten it right. In an effort to encourage girls’ interest in STEM, Mattel released a children’s book—”Barbie: I Can Be an Engineer”—in 2013. While the book aimed to show support for girls in the realms of science and math, it drew a great deal of backlash around the storyline whereby Barbie relied on the help of two boys.

Here is some sample dialogue :

“Your robot puppy is so sweet,” Skipper said. “Can I play your game?”

“I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie said, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help in turning it into a real game!”

The reviews for this first attempt of Barbie promoting STEM were not kind. “As a computer engineer and the father of two daughters who are both in STEM fields, my only recommendation for this book would be to set it on fire,” one review stated on Amazon.

In 2016, the company rethought its STEM strategy.

The Barbie STEM Kit—designed for girls to explore engineering, physics, biology, chemistry, art, and design—offered girls the tools and instructions to build items such as a greenhouse with a fan, hammock, and a spinning closet rack. This time hitting the mark, Mattel received a Toy Insider STEM 10 Award in 2016.

For Mattel, the key to staying relevant may just be the subtle balance between remaining true to its brand identity, while addressing one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time. Whether Barbie takes the form of a plastic figure or an AI-enabled hologram, it has the opportunity to be a female icon worth emulating. By outfitting Barbie with advanced technology and marketing to millennial parents who expect equality, it appears Mattel is committed to moving its most iconic toy into the future.