How Mattel's comms team prepared for the worst when it launched 'curvy Barbie'

Learning lessons from Hello Barbie, Mattel's communications team was ready for the launch of Barbies of different shapes and colors to go off-track.

It was a moment of celebration for iconic brand Barbie in January when it revealed an expanded Fashonistas line featuring three new body types – tall, curvy, and petite – and seven skin tones.

However, in the seven months before the launch, Barbie’s comms team was busily preparing for a "worst case scenario" response from the public.

The "guts" of the comms strategy included celebrating Barbie’s evolution over 57 years and her impact on girls and culture, explained Michelle Chidoni, senior director of brand comms for North America at Mattel. Weber Shandwick and HL Group worked with the brand to unveil the expanded Fashionistas line.  

"This is a story about the positive impact inclusivity can have on girls down the line," Chidoni said.

Yet for a "celebrity, cultural, and fashion icon" such as Barbie, nothing receives 100% approval. Chidoni likened handling comms for Barbie to managing a celebrity’s reputation.

"We are protective [of Barbie] and sometimes need to spend a day realizing how a message you think is really positive can be misconstrued," she said. "We play a daily game called ‘What is the worst thing that can happen?’ If something will do more harm than good, we won’t do it."

Chidoni said the comms strategists worked on what they thought were positive projects that ultimately were "torn to shreds" by the public. One example was Hello Barbie, which launched last year. The doll, called the most advanced AI toy to date, has the ability to talk, empathize, and listen.

Mattel created Hello Barbie based on fundamental insights into how girls want to play with the toy. Chidoni said girls have been asking for the ability to talk to Barbie for years.

However, many media outlets covered the launch with the angle of Internet privacy and children’s safety, focusing on the dangers a doll like this could invite.

"When we launched Hello Barbie, we wanted to hide nothing, so we created a huge website with an education tool about how the doll works, what she does and doesn’t do, [and outlined] safety requirements and safety policies," said Chidoni. "All of that being said, Hello Barbie is still a headline because [Internet safety] is a bigger issue beyond Barbie."

With that in mind, Chidoni and her team were aware the new Barbie body types would be scrutinized by the public, so they started pre-planning seven months ahead of the launch with a series of crisis-simulation exercises.

The practice forced Barbie’s comms team to acknowledge any internal holes, if it could respond quickly enough to a situation, and whether the unit had the correct Twitter strategy and the right team monitoring responses, as well as when it should and should not respond.

The comms team also prepared a response plan for potential headlines about advocacy groups criticizing Barbie for promoting an unhealthy body image, as well as children going to school and being called "fat Barbie" by their peers in reference to the new "curvy" doll.

"The simulation made us think through the materials and partners we needed to make sure if this did go south, we were prepared," said Chidoni.

As part of its defensive strategy, the Barbie team made sure it had the right influencers to back its positive messaging about the new body types.

"[We targeted] select doctors and child psychologists to talk about the purpose of Barbie and why we were changing the body from more of a scientific child developmental lens," Chidoni said. "We also wanted to make sure we had the right influencers within the mom community to champion this product."

Mattel also partnered with Jess Weiner, CEO of Talk to Jess, a consulting and strategy firm that works with companies that want to change their messaging to women and girls. The brand also reached out to celebrities such as Lena Dunham, Ellen DeGeneres, Gwen Stefani, and Queen Latifah.

As the day of the announcement approached, Weber staffers moved into Mattel’s headquarters for the entire month of January to keep up with the breakneck pace.

"We didn’t have time to update anybody – you were either on this bus and getting updates with us, or you weren’t," said Chidoni. "Weber was in meetings with us, they knew what we needed, and we acted as one seamless team."

On the launch day, Chidoni and her team were at Mattel’s El Segundo, California, headquarters at 3 am local time. The "war room" was filled to the max with staffers from both the PR and social teams and the .com unit because Barbie.com was relaunched that day to sell the new line. Representatives from legal, marketing, and customer service were also in the room.

"Everyone was watching the larger conversation unfold, as well as working on their specific areas," said Chidoni. "It was great because we were able to see things unfold in real-time as a team. If there were decisions we needed to make as far as what we wanted to support and dial up, we were able to do that."

Barbie gave an exclusive about the new dolls to Time magazine. Chidoni recalled that, had Mattel only launched the doll line with a photo, it would have lost control of the message.

"A big piece of our comms strategy was making sure we had the right stories placed at launch that answered all the questions we knew consumers would have," said Chidoni. "The Time reporter came in here to find out everything and anything a consumer wanted to know about this line. The story reflected that, as well as Barbie’s overall impact on culture, beauty, and body [image]."  

As the dolls launched globally, another challenge for Chidoni’s team was making sure the message was "locked up" in markets around the world. The brand held two global press days.

Chidoni said the conversation mostly went the way her team wanted it to go, adding that it never used some assets it prepared in case the launch went awry.

She said the new Barbie body times have garnered 5.2 billion earned media impressions globally with 97% positive sentiment. The news has prompted more than 1.3 million engagements for the brand on social media.

"The new dolls are being positively received, though it is too early to give specific numbers as they only just hit brick and mortar last week," Chidoni said. "The curvy dolls in particular are doing exceptionally well."

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