In the history of toys — and possibly the history of products — there are not too many that can rival the Barbie doll for iconic status. Until recently, Barbie may not have been marketed to everyone, but there are almost no people in the U.S. or around the world who could not instantly identify Barbie wherever they saw her, whether she was in her doctor, rock star, teacher, fashion model, astronaut, meteorologist, president or person from Malibu persona.
Barbie was designed by her creator, Ruth Handler (the wife of Elliot Handler, cofounder of the Mattel toy company), to be a template for the aspirations of every little girl who played with her. Barbie was “perfect” and could do everything so that the children who played with her would believe that they too could do anything.
Handler was famously, though probably apocryphally, quoted as saying of Barbie before her release in the 60s that she was a “ working girl who knew what she wanted and was not above using men to get it.”
But Barbies have been controversial over time as the marketplace modernized and decided that Barbie was less a template for the idea and more an unreasonable standard — particularly of beauty — for little girls to live up to. There are women in the world who are 5’9″, weigh 110 pounds, with 18-inch waistlines, but it is neither the norm or a realistic goal for every woman to aspire to.
So, in the 90s, Barbie got something of a makeover. Her waistline increased slightly; she was given the ability to speak for the first time — to mixed results. The talking Barbie was programmed to say four out of 270 possible phrases (to make sure no two dolls were the same), which some customers liked.
And some really didn’t.
What Barbie had to say was kind of dumb. “I love shopping!” “Does anyone want to have a pizza party?” “Fashion is my passion!” These quotes turned some heads for being a little light on depth for the woman who was supposed to inspire young girls to do anything.
However, it was the 1.5 percent of dolls that got pre-Internet virally famous for saying “Math is hard” that really ended up being a problem.
“There was never a Barbie that said ‘Math is hard’ actually. It’s a popular meme. However, what Barbie did say wasn’t a whole lot better. But a doll was never actually programmed to say ‘Math is hard,'” a spokewoman told PYMNTS.
She is correct on both counts: The doll actually said, “Math class is tough” (and that party dresses are fun — so, she’s not all wrong), and that it isn’t much better. It was and remains, however, an important learning lesson for the company.
“The challenge in making Barbie — and in being a toy manufacturer in general — is making toys that are fun but don’t make the idea of fun hostile to learning. We don’t want to be a ‘math is hard’ company,” Mattel noted.
So, what kind of company does Mattel want to be?
“Mattel is about making toys, so our first question is always: Will kids want to play with this? That is true of Barbies, and Hot Wheels and our apps. But the hard question we also have to answer is: Will kids want to keep playing with it passed the minute that it is new. And that, in the twenty-first century, is a hard question to answer.”
The world Mattel plays in now is very different than the one the company was founded in, i.e., post-WWII America in 1945. Toys were, well, toys; they were always physical objects generally built for children to play with vigorously. The environment now is much more diverse and complex.
There are two distinct and very important factors at play when it comes to kids’ toys. The first is the rise of the screen-based entertainment. That is both in console gaming but also in the explosion of small-screen app game products that are built explicitly for children.
On a related but separate track, there is also the rise of edutainment toys for children that are designed around imparting knowledge or a skill set in a way that is engaging to children.
Layered over that is a persistant challenge that while those factors are rising and changing, there are the “tried-and-true” parts of kids and toys that have remained consistent over 70 years of being in the toy game, so to speak.
“Kids love digital toys; kids love learning. They also love driving cars all over their furniture and talking to their dolls and imaging stories for them instead of watching them. And speaking from experience, kids like to have toys they can break or, at least, take apart. That is better news if it is a Barbie than a $500 PlayStation.”
But the good news for Mattel is that change is the norm in kids’ toys.
“I think the challenges that some brands have been running into with ‘short attention span’ consumers over the last decade has actually been our norm forever. And so, as the market changes, we have changed with it.”
Which means the firm’s focus has changed some, as evident in its new partnership with educational technology provider Tynker to expand access to coding and computer science to children in the U.S. and beyond. Going forward, Mattel will embed Tynker’s proprietary coding education platform into some Mattel brands.
“Today, technology touches every aspect of life, so it is crucial that children develop the fundamental technology skills to become the makers of tomorrow,” said Krishna Vedati, Tynker’s cofounder and CEO. “Our mission is to help every child develop the programming and critical thinking skills necessary to become architects of their future world.”
Mattel’s focus on more future-looking toys even has led Barbie to her first big technological upgrade of the new millennium: the “Hello Barbie.” This chatty doll uses smart AI in order to “listen” to children and provide appropriate responses.
The doll ruffled some feathers with privacy advocates, with concerns about children’s conversations being transmitted to cloud servers and analyzed by ToyTalk, a technology partner that Mattel relies on to analyze the data. The new toy really ruffled feathers when security researchers found that Hello Barbie was full of exploitable bugs that would make it relatively easy for hackers to access the doll and listen to customer conversations.
Martin Reddy, chief technology officer and cofounder of ToyTalk, did note in a statement emailed to Fortune that the firm is working to patch vulnerabilities and make sure all issues with Hello Barbie are fully disclosed to consumers.
Whatever bumps in the road come, Mattel remains committed to moving forward.
“There have been a billion Barbies sold in a 150 nations worldwide, and that is both a great success and a big challenge, because now we have to sell the next billion.”
But, ultimately, the company will sell that next billion and a lot of other toys on the way, because as the current season is a reminder of: The world will always need toys.