Gutsy Moves: What Mattel’s Barbie Movie Can Teach All Companies About Innovation
Warning: whether you’re an entrepreneur or corporate executive, if you haven’t seen the Barbie Movie, you’re missing out on some invaluable lessons on business self-disruption and innovation.
You see the biggest story to emerge from the summer’s hottest cinema selection isn’t about smashing box office records, though kudos to Greta Gerwig and crew for hitting $1 billion in revenue, presenting a delightfully subversive feminist agenda (in neon-clad clothing to boot), or resurrecting a classic Indigo Girls anthem, sure to go the way of Kate Bush’s Running Up that Hill in Stranger Things.
No, the real shining stars here are the series of gutsy moves Mattel and the Barbie creators made to disrupt from within. Did they “beach anyone off” in the process?
Gutsy Move #1: Moving from the manufacturing business to the intellectual property (IP) business.
Some may argue this wasn’t a particularly risky move for Mattel. Though the model has certainly worked well for Disney over the years, 2023 was a banner year of failure for the “mouse house” Hollywood lineup—and that’s not even counting the “war on woke” initiated by Republican presidential nominee hopeful Ron DeSantis.
Even more challenging than the movie biz? The business of organizational transformation. Getting people to buy in to this change must have been an epic challenge for all those involved. There were definitely naysayers and doubters.
But Mattel chairperson and CEO, Ynon Kreiz, doubled down on this IP focus. “We now think of our toy offering as a foundation for a holistic consumer experience that builds on the high level of emotional connection that fans have with our brands,” he said in a 2023 Mattel investor presentation, “and look to create multiple touchpoints that drive engagement and capture more value for Mattel.” (source)
As someone who appreciates how challenging it is to simplify, I’d say that Mattel’s strategic framework is a thing of spartan beauty.
And the full-value capture of Barbie is still very much in its infancy. Diverse toy line? Check. A merch shop replete with “I am Kenough” rainbow hoodies? Check. Sequel? Not yet on the horizon but don’t count it out. Barbie Broadway musical? How perfect would such an eye-popping film translate into live theater?
Innovation is change and change is innovation. Making such a bold change takes strong leadership and a strong stomach. Kreiz definitely possess both and the mindset shift to an IP-driven toy business was a winning bet.
Gutsy Move #2: Letting Mattel Be the Butt of the Joke
After 14 years, no less than three sets of screen plays, and a multitude of “almost” productions one wonders if the long road to Barbie on the big screen eventually upped Mattel’s corporate courage, allowing writers Greta Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach to run wild with their razor-sharp satire that sliced through patriarchal norms. One of the biggest gambles was the all-male “sheeple” portrayal of Mattel executives, led by the comedic buffoonery of Will Ferrel as CEO.
There HAD to be whisperings about tarnishing the image of Mattel leaders—any company with a decent risk management team would have flagged it. But as the saying goes: no risk, no reward. Whether it was because of Kreiz’s unwavering trust in executive producer of Mattel Films, or an appreciation for artistic license, Mattel’s permission to be the butt of the joke, allowed the film’s genius to shine. Kreiz’s leadership and ability to not take himself too seriously also sends a powerful message to companies everywhere: play is a critical component in the creation of innovation.
Even more vital?
Not being afraid to take a risk in looking foolish.
Gutsy Move #: 3 Addressing the Elephant in the Room-- Barbie’s Sordid Past
Barbie is a complicated character. Growing up, I loved playing with Barbies. But as I combed her bouncy blonde hair and gazed into the static twinkle of her blue eyes, I didn’t see myself. She set an impossible standard 99 percent of us Barbie-loving peeps couldn’t live up to.
Later when my cousin had a daughter, I went out of my way NOT to buy her a Barbie. Why would I set another girl up for that kind of failure? Plus, it was around the time of Teen Talk Barbie. You know the one that got blasted for saying, “math is hard?” As a good feminist I just couldn’t do it.
On the other side are those moon-eyed Barbie collectors. The ones who are obsessed with Barbie because she represents women’s potential and subscribe to the “Barbie can be anything and so can you,” mantra.
Mattel and Brenner could have played it safe. They could have gone the Disney Frozen route, tweaking the model enough to satisfy the majority without ruffling too many status-quo feathers.
Instead, they enlisted writer/director Gerwig who confronted Barbie’s complicated past, sexual stereotyping and how it all plays into the impossible standards women still face today. How many of us went into the Barbie movie expecting to hear so much about the patriarchy?
And that’s the final takeaway from Mattel, Barbie and corporate innovation. You can’t “fix” anything with innovation if you fail to address what’s broken in the first place. In highlighting Barbie’s complicated past as both a female role model, sexist trope, and impossibly idealized woman, Gerwig asks us to dig deeper and question the social constructs that stunt us all as human beings. She may not have resolved the world’s challenges with sexism or patriarchal constructs, but Gerwig just may have broken Barbie (and her diverse group of friends) out of the neat and tidy “box” she had been relegated to for decades.
And that is a masterclass in the art of disruption.