Photographer: Brent Murray/Bloomberg Business

Mattel Gives Barbie Wider Hips, Shorter Legs to Broaden Appeal

  • World's largest toy brand has been in decline for years
  • Great for public relations, but sales lift remains to be seen

Barbie is getting wider hips and shorter legs as part of Mattel Inc.’s attempt to revive the world’s largest toy brand.

After years of critics saying Barbie portrayed an unrealistic body image to girls, Mattel announced Thursday the biggest makeover ever of Barbie’s shape by introducing three new body types -- curvy, petite and tall. The new Fashionistas line also has seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles.

Barbie comes in a variety of new shapes, including a "curvy" model.
Barbie comes in a variety of new shapes, including a "curvy" model.
Source: Mattel Inc.

The move follows years of decline for Barbie, which accounts for about $1 billion in annual revenue. Facing competition from other brands like “Frozen” and girl-oriented toys such as the Lego Friends line, the product’s sales tumbled 14 percent in the most recently reported quarter. Barbie’s ultrathin physique also has brought a drumbeat of criticism to the nearly 57-year-old doll.

“These new dolls represent a line that is more reflective of the world girls see around them -- the variety in body type, skin tones and style allows girls to find a doll that speaks to them,” said Evelyn Mazzocco, global general manager of the Barbie line.

Sales Lift?

What these changes will do for sales remains to be seen, but they have generated some positive press for a brand that’s been criticized for years, said Jaime Katz, an analyst at Morningstar Inc. Time magazine put the new Barbie on its cover, and it was a trending topic on Twitter on Thursday.

“This is a smart move public-relations-wise,” Katz said. “Given that parents are ultimately the ones making that purchase, it gives an extra incentive to try the brand again.”

Sean McGowan, an analyst for Oppenheimer & Co. in New York, doubts young girls really care if a doll is short, tall or has wide hips. It’s more of a concern for adults.

“I don’t see this as a groundbreaking innovation or capitulation, but why not?” McGowan said. “Why not have multiple representations that expands the brand and gives fewer people a reason to say no?”

Barbie’s Decline

The woes at Barbie were part of a broader decline at Mattel, which has lost ground to Hasbro Inc. Last year, Mattel’s board changed course by replacing Chief Executive Officer Bryan Stockton with Chairman Chris Sinclair. The company also promoted Richard Dickson, who returned to Mattel in 2014, to chief operating officer. In a previous stint at the company that ended in 2010, Dickson oversaw Barbie and led it through a brief resurgence by thrusting the doll into pop culture.

Now Dickson is pushing the company to rethink its brands, taking advantage of consumer research and a shift in attitudes toward the roles of girls and women. The company gave a hint of the direction its taking Barbie last year when it debuted its “You Can Be Anything” ad campaign in a push to convince parents that the brand is about empowering girls. A video showing young girls working as a professor, veterinarian and coach of a men’s soccer team went viral and got more than 20 million hits on YouTube.

Mattel also unveiled a line of dolls and action figures based off female superheros last year. The shape of those dolls strayed from tradition, with more toned bodies and smaller bosoms. 

But a turnaround at Mattel, which has posted two years of declining sales, is going to hinge on Barbie winning in the doll aisle again.

“I don’t know if this will dramatically alter sales of Barbie,” McGowan said. “But I can’t see it hurting.”

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