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Learn From Mattel’s Iconic Barbie About Future Myopia

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Barbie has something to tell you. Her 2015 edition, hello barbie, is the first doll enriched with artificial intelligence. She can actually have a two-way conversation with her owner. She can choose from 8,000 lines of dialogue and twenty games. Barbie will base her talking on previous play time and learns progressively. So there.

You’d say Mattel has everything covered. But that hasn’t always been the case. Barbie faced some hard times too.

Something’s changed in the 1990s. Cable television and the world wide web started to conquer the world, while communism slowly disappeared and neoliberalism thrived. The 1990s saw the end of the Cold War, the rise of Ebola, gene therapy and the dot-com bubble all at the same time. Generation X came of age: the first generation that grew up with daycare, tv dinners, and divorce. But also the best-educated generation, up till then. Not surprisingly, this generation is known for its individualism and pragmatism. In the 1990s, gen-x got kids. The new generation Y was born into technology and this has made them flexible, style conscious, and marketing savvy.

But Mattel missed all these changes.

The company lost 20% of its share of the global doll market. Smaller rivals ate up the market with dolls that looked like the teenagers of the 1990s and their idols. Stylized proportions and fashion-forward clothing defeated Barbie to the max.

Barbie’s market consisted traditionally of girls between the ages of three to eleven. But in the 1990s, Barbie was only loved by girls between three and five years old. The reigning queen of dolls of over 40 years lost the throne almost overnight. Something needed to be done, and finally, Mattel launched separate lines of dolls for older girls. And now, Barbie is the first AI doll on the market.

How can it be that Barbie did not see change (coming)?

The changes in demographics, competition, new technologies, regulations and other environmental sectors are often difficult to see. These changes begin as weak signals at the periphery of the company’s environment. Mostly, weak signals are ambiguous and buried in the noise of lots of other information.

Mattel found out the hard way and has made major changes to become more receptive and creative. It moved from a tall to a flat organizational structure. The middle management was reduced in numbers, and lower level managers were encouraged to take the initiative.

The year 2014 came and went, and Mattel was in trouble once more: an 18% drop in the first nine months of Barbie sales. Mattel and the toy industry have changed dramatically again, Apple introduced the iPad, to name but one. Mattel research shows younger children still spend about the same amount of time playing with traditional toys, but there has been a sharp drop among 8 to 10-year-olds.

Another change was made: dramatically fewer meetings.

The company now has new rules:
 

  • No meeting is held without a specific purpose
  • No more than 10 people can attend unless it’s a training
  • No more than three meetings to make any decision
     

There were many big ideas for Barbie, too many, Richard Dickson, said in 2014 as chief brand manager. Imagine the surprise when Mattel later revealed the comeback plan for Barbie: 23 new looks with different skin tones and hair colors. That way, Barbie can become relevant for an increasingly diverse population. And to top it all off, Barbie can now talk.


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As a talking doll has been a top request by girls, Mattel had explored the idea of a talking Barbie for years. It partnered with San Francisco startup ToyTalk to make the doll, which through a cloud-based app can improve conversation over time. For example, on Christmas Day Barbie could ask a child what they received from Santa. Supposedly, the AI-enhanced Barbie is Mattel’s answer to the iPad and robotics, but it was received with heavy critiques.

What do you think of Hello Barbie as the answer to change?

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