Isabel Ferrer, EMEA Marketing Director Barbie, Mattel

2019 marks the 60th anniversary of Barbie, one of the most iconic dolls in the world. In the midst of a fundamental shift in culture, Isabel Ferrer explores how the doll has evolved to show girls what they can become.

Izzy Ashton

Deputy Editor, BITE


“We want to make girls believe they don’t have limits.” This is the thinking behind Barbie’s Dream Gap Project, introduced in 2018 to lift the lid on the self-limiting feelings that young girls can develop by the age of five. An age where they begin to think they are not as capable or as smart as boys. Tackling this challenge also sits at the heart of the brand’s overall purpose, says Isabel Ferrer, EMEA Marketing Director of Barbie.

To rise to this challenge Barbie is spearheading the Dream Gap Project, a global initiative launched in 2018. The brand identifies the ‘dream gap’ as the moment that girls stop believing that they can do or be anything. Barbie want to close it.

For Barbie, says Ferrer, the brand “needed to step back and understand why,” to understand where these self-limiting beliefs come from. The Dream Gap Project is a long-term commitment and investment towards doing that.

The money raised through the project will go into furthering Barbie’s research, developing more role models, creating content as well as encouraging what Barbie calls “purposeful play.” As Ferrer adds, “We’re trying to deliver on dolls that really inspire girls and play patterns that inspire them.”

We want to make girls believe they don’t have limits.

Isabel Ferrer

Barbie comes of age

Barbie celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, quite a milestone for the doll that was designed by the brand’s founder Ruth Handler when she spotted her daughter playing with dolls that allowed her to imagine her future rather than her present. For Ferrer, what’s essential to the brand’s longevity today is to translate Handler’s vision for the modern age.

This includes the release of a more diverse range of dolls with a greater range of skin tones, body sizes and ability. A move that marks a step-change from the one-size-fits-all model of femininity that Barbie has been ubiquitous with.

In her 60-year life span Barbie has had over 180 careers from a judge to astronaut and news anchor. Earlier this year Barbie partnered with the European Space Agency to develop a doll in the likeness of astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti.

For Ferrer, she sees her role at Barbie as about more than just toys. Instead she views her marketing remit as being central to the holistic development of the brand and its purpose and how that is communicated across every channel. And that includes of course, into the dolls that line toy shop walls, smartphone screens and web pages.

The importance of role models

Ferrer believes that over the years, the brand hasn’t talked enough about the various careers Barbie has had. For her, Barbie dolls are “how little girls can see themselves reflected in the future,” just as Handler envisaged; a positive role model.

When a little girl, or boy, plays with Barbie, Ferrer believes, this “can be a kind of rehearsal for the future. Today I’m a firefighter and tomorrow I’m an astronaut.” It is vital to create play patterns that inspire.

She believes that as Barbie is a young girl’s ultimate role model; she needs to show girls what they can become. So, that when they’re playing make-believe, it’s with one eye on the future and on what they can go on to achieve.

[Playing with Barbie] can be a kind of rehearsal for the future. Today I’m a firefighter and tomorrow I’m an astronaut.

Isabel Ferrer

How Barbie found its purpose

While Barbie have been evolving how they speak to children, almost as importantly they’ve been examining how they talk to parents. As Ferrer says, while children have changed, “Parenting has also evolved.”

The majority of parents with young children today are millennials, and they, says Ferrer, “really value brands that have a purpose.” The world their children are growing up in has shifted dramatically since millennials were young children themselves.

For Ferrer this means the way that they operate as a brand, the tone of voice they use and the purpose they position at the core of their business had to shift to reflect the people they were trying to reach. “We realised for a long time we weren’t talking about the word purpose,” she adds.

Barbie as influencer

To do so, they needed to examine alternative methods of communicating with their audience. One of these was to position Barbie as an influencer in her own right, as a YouTube vlogger. The brand has just shy of 7.8 million followers on the platform as well as 2.1 million on Instagram.

It’s a digital landscape where ‘kidfluencers’ are ever growing. Ryan Kaji, of the YouTube channel Ryan’s World has 22.3 million subscribers and a net worth of £17.7 million according to YouTube is where you can reach both the children who’ll play with your toys and the parents who’ll be the ones to buy them.

Barbie created a series of videos exploring various issues affecting young girls. For example, there is an episode that Ferrer cites as one of her favourites about how girls apologise a lot; Barbie advises viewers to say thank you instead.

The brand is also developing product and content for parents with tips on how to help their daughters. Although she admits the brand isn’t doing enough, Ferrer adds, “We will start delivering tools to parents to see how we can help them,” says Ferrer.

[Barbie is about] showing diversity, showing not just one aspect of a woman, of a girl.

Isabel Ferrer

Support their dreams

What’s vital is that Barbie acknowledges and respects the position it holds in a family’s world. From influencing play to being a voice alongside parents, the brand does not take its responsibility lightly.

Ferrer believes that Barbie in 2019 is about “showing diversity, showing not just one aspect of a woman, of a girl.” She is encouraged by what Gillette is doing, the way they aren’t patronising men, feeling it is parallel to what Barbie is doing with young girls.

With a six-year-old daughter, Ferrer is constantly inspired by the kids around her. As she says, “It helps to have a stronger commitment; you really want to influence the next generation.”

Ferrer firmly believes that “one TV commercial is good but explaining all the story is better.” She wants to look beyond the traditional channels, to communicate with Barbie’s audience in myriad different ways.

Through all this, Barbie exists to support girls’ dreams and instil in them a confidence in their own ability. Imagination is a powerful thing as Barbie’s ‘Imagine the Possibilities’ campaign demonstrated; girls and young people should be emboldened to use it.

Barbie line up.jpg
Q: What were the challenges you faced when you set out to redefine the purpose of Barbie?
A: In the recent past, three to four years ago, the brand had begun to lose relevance and start to decline in sales. Barbie had become less of an icon of empowerment for girls, as it was conceived by Ruth Handler, and more a symbol of stereotypical femininity. We had lost touch and underestimated the values of parents today. But we knew that if we addressed consumers’ concerns and went back to our roots of inspiring girls’ limitless potential, we could turn around the brand. Barbie had more than 200 careers and had always been culturally relevant. We needed to start taking bold moves to regain relevancy. Adding body diversity in our dolls was one, partnering with role models another one, among others. And we launched our ‘You can be anything’ campaign. Slowly, we started to see recovery of our sales and our image.
Q: What do you see as the role for the creative industries in breaking down damaging stereotypes? `
A: I think they have a key role, together with consumers, influencers and the media. In a world with so many brands fighting for attention, standing for something, having a purpose, is more relevant than ever. And consumers appreciate brands who raise their voice to break stereotypes and that are humble enough to recognize that they need to evolve and understand the new generations. For Barbie, we have defined diversity and inclusivity as part of our DNA, and you can see this reflected in our dolls more than ever but also in our communication and in our message.
Q: Can you talk about the Dream Gap Project? Why did you feel it was an important time to launch the initiative? And what is the project’s long-term goal?
A: Research from NYU has shown that starting at the age of five, many girls begin to develop limiting self-beliefs and stop believing that they can be anything. This is what it’s called the “Dream Gap”. We are proud to announce we have launched The Dream Gap Project, an ongoing global initiative that aims to give girls the resources and support they need to continue to believe they can be anything. We are launching not only product but also content for girls, content and resources for parents, and more to come soon.

Consumers appreciate brands who raise their voice to break stereotypes and that are humble enough to recognize that they need to evolve and understand the new generations.

Isabel Ferrer
Q: What do you think makes a successful client/agency relationship?
A: To me, it’s key to create a very fluent relationship, where agencies understand our needs and are flexible enough to embrace some global plans to make them more local and are open to collaborate with other agencies and the different parts of the business to create a bigger impact. In our world, a campaign never has one only owner anymore.
Q: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a marketeer over the past 12 months?
A: The biggest recent challenge is to try to help the teams to stay focused on what drives impact to our brand and business as well as helping teams to be consistent in everything that we deliver to the consumer. A brand like Barbie and specially in a year of the anniversary, foster a lot of engagement, creativity and inspiration and sometimes it’s not easy to be focused.
Q: As Barbie celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, what is your ambition for the brand?
A: Our ambition is to start closing this Dream Gap with all the great initiatives that we are putting in place around the region. We have partnered with more than 20 local role models to show girls that they can be anything they want. By honouring women that break boundaries within their fields we want to inspire girls about their limitless potential. And we have had so many partners from media that have helped to amplify the message. It’s been a crazy but also very inspiring year for all of us.
Q: What piece of advice would you give to marketers starting out in their career today?
A: I think that marketing careers have changed a lot since I started but there is some advice that I have been given. Stay curious and keep learning every day; stay close to your consumer and look for relevant insights for all your initiatives; set KPIs and measure success; stop to understand results before you move on to the next initiative.