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Try not to get grossed out, but Mattel’s new Bug Racer toy relies on a live cricket to work. That is, children place a live cricket in a compartment of the toy, such that the cricket’s movements cause the car to move about. A small feeding section ensures that the cricket can live out its full lifespan of several weeks, while kids get to watch it pilot (or crash—crickets in plastic cars are not the greatest navigators) their new toy around the room.

Lo-res_160018345-SThe company’s latest Barbie offering is less gross, but it still appears cutting edge in its approach. The Hello Barbie is enabled with a wifi connection and voice recognition technology, such that when kids ask her a question, she can respond in a conversational style, using some of the nearly 8,000 phrases she is programmed to speak.

These moves come as Mattel seeks to regain its footing. Seemingly due to its overreliance on its best known brands, including Barbie and Fisher-Price, Mattel struggled with a lack of innovation and creativity. Furthermore, it suffered losses when various movie studios, including Disney, Universal, and Warner Bros., cut their licensing ties with the toymaker. The disruptions to these relationships might have occurred because Mattel introduced items that competed with the studio’s toys, such as a line of princess dolls that seemed designed to cut in to Disney’s sales.

But with a change in leadership and a new view on how to introduce new products successfully, Mattel is determined to win back these partnerships and gain a reputation as a cutting-edge manufacturer of cool new gadgets and toys. Accordingly, it has slowly earned licenses for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, products from Disney’s Toy Story collection, and several DC Comics superheros.

At the same time, it is working to ensure that even its most well-known toys remain relevant. Perhaps the biggest challenge comes from Barbie—the legacy doll that has sparked nearly equal parts devotion and criticism throughout her history. Parents and critics assert that the doll creates unrealistic body image expectations, is culturally biased, and historically has implied limited roles for girls and women. The latest versions largely address these concerns. For example, a Fashionistas line of Barbies features dolls with various eye colors, facial structures, and skin tones. In advertising, girls playing with Barbie are encouraged to imagine themselves as businesswomen and veterinarians; one spot even features, for the first time, a boy playing with the toys.

Throughout its divisions, Mattel thus is encouraging creativity and innovation. The Bug Racer, for example, emerged from a new Toy Box division within the company that is tasked with coming up with experimental products. But the Barbie innovations stemmed from its existing division, with executives paying close attention to ways in which prior innovations involving Barbie failed or succeeded.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you believe the Bug Racer will be a success?
  2. Why has Mattel attempted to reposition Barbie? How has Mattel sought to do so?
  3. What are the dangers associated with repositioning an iconic brand like Barbie?
  4. Can Mattel maintain this expansively innovative strategy? What are some of the challenges associated with doing so?

Source: Rachel Abrams, “Mattel Takes a Risk, with Barbie and Bugs,” The New York Times, December 27, 2015

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