Transformation and Renewal at Mattel

When thinking of organizational innovation, when does Barbara Millicent Roberts (Barbie) come to mind? You might think of the post-it note or the Apple computer, but Barbie? That’s right; the favorite doll of millions of little girls worldwide represented transformation for generations. At Barbie’s peak in 2002, Mattel, the maker of Barbie, posted sales of $1.52 billion. That same year is when Mattel’s culture stumbled, resulting in a loss of growth, revenue, and profit until 2006, when the Barbie brand began its turnaround (Kapner, 2009).

Since Barbie hit the marketplace she has had 108 separate careers and has been a role model and fashion icon for girls all over the world. In fact, 20 years before Sally Ride traveled to the stars, Barbie was already an astronaut (Springen, 1998). It takes a business culture that can look far into the future to transform a product into what will win the hearts of their customers almost two decades later. As for the brand, Mattel stood poised to transform Barbie in any way that would connect with consumers, and their pocket books (Springen, 1998).

Kids and collectors alike waited for the next Barbie transformation; but Barbie’s makers stumbled, focusing too much on internal workings and status quo, missing a big change in the market. Mattel had become bloated structurally and with the addition of a software company acquisition, the company lost focus on their core brands (like Barbie and Hot Wheels), and operational costs spun out of control (Hobson, 2001). Enter new CEO Robert Eckert.

Eckert apporached the transfromation at Mattel with two goals: boost sales abroad and focus on core brands. The key to this turnaround? Eckert planned new versions of the “blonde chameleon,” Barbie (Hobson, 2001). What happened to the Mattel that could read market intelligence and know what their consumers wanted before they did? Mattel’s external focus had turned inward allowing Management to take their eyes off of innovation and renewal (Ziff Davis Media, 2005). While 12-year-olds might have played with Barbie in the past, she was now a “baby toy,” and not able to compete with popular icons at the time (like Britney Spears). The target market was going through age compression, where tweens (8-12 yrs) were moving on from traditional toys and wanting to identify with an edgier look modeled by their new popular icons (Ziff Davis Media, 2005). What Mattel missed, MGA Entertainment noticed and they launched the popular Bratz dolls.

The year 2001 marked the decline of Barbie sales. Mattel was slow to interpret their market data and act upon it. The company that introduced Barbie to space before Sally Ride blasted off had missed the new frontier. It was time to transform the culture and refocus on their consumers. Eckert’s goals for streamlining the company allowed more energy to be spent on innovation. Barbie needed renewal. After a couple of missteps with My Scene dolls and other line extensions, Mattel gained traction by reconnecting with their core market: young girls. Now Barbie keeps company with the likes of Hillary Duff and has dolls resembling American Idol contestants and Diane Von Furstenberg designed life size Barbie apparel for Fashion Week (Kapner, 2009, Ziff Davis Media, 2005). What’s new about the culture? Mattel is beginning to integrate systems that generate internal renewal. The organization went through a transformation modeled by one of their biggest brands – Barbie.


Hobson, K. (2001). Meet corporate turnaround Barbie. U.S. News and World Report, 130 (9), p. 43.

Kapner, S. (2009). Brand Barbie gets a makeover. Fortune, 160 (2), p. 17.

Springen, K. (1998). Hey there doll face. You look like someone we know. Newsweek, 132 (20), p. 14.

Through the years. (2009). American Salon , 6(132).

Ziff Davis Media. (2005, August). How Barbie lost her groove. Baseline , pp. 36-52.


It’s just a piece of paper–right?

What are we training for anyway? Is a Bachelor’s degree or leadership training part of a checklist – yup, done. What alarms me about the story I read in the Star Tribune today titled “Fines follow 15 hours of work in 59 minutes” (, are the self-proclaimed professionals who still consider the piece of paper more valuable than the education. Leadership and training is my “thing.” I’m passionate about it and love to pursue knowledge for the sake of learning and getting better at what I do. That’s what I believe separates quality leaders from the wannabes.

Even in the new age of consumerism a mind that craves learning for its own sake will be in demand. A mind that explores solutions to problems that have not yet affected the bottom-line will drive business forward. To my students I reinforce over and over again the value of education over the attainment of “the grade” or “the degree.” It looks like someone forgot to reinforce the concept with the insurance agents who earned credit without the work.

Is this how training is viewed in your company? Are your employees after the piece of paper that says they’ve met their burden? If so, what are you going to do about it? They are your employees after all. Let’s take a look at a little checklist of our own shall we?

  1. Have you communicated the value of the training within the scope of their jobs and the strategy of the company?
  2. Are you truly committed to the training or are you expecting your employees to stay connected during the critical instruction time?
  3. Will you discuss key learnings after the training and see if any skills can be integrated into individual development plans?
  4. Have you assigned a coach or mentor if the training involved a change in behavior? Is there someone to hold them accountable for the changes in behavior?
  5. Is there an opportunity to incorporate enhanced goals or objectives in performance evaluations?

I could go on for quite a few more bullet points on ways to bring action and accountability to training. What have you tried and what has worked for you?