Is Barbie’s makeover working?

When Lisa McKnight was growing up in California in the 1970s, her favourite Barbie toy was Malibu, the 1971 doll that cemented Barbie as a leggy blonde bombshell.

Now, as a senior executive at Barbie, Ms McKnight is leading a charge to explode that image.

First to go were the heels: a flat-footed Barbie arrived in 2015. Since then Mattel, which owns the brand, has flooded the market with new dolls, adding more than 100 body types, skin tones, hair textures, facial shapes and eye colours.

The firm has expanded its careers line – adding a judge and astrophysicist, among others – and released Barbies in the image of famous women such as civil rights activist Rosa Parks, UK boxer Nicola Adams and fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. Ken also got a update.

This year has seen a blitz of 60th birthday events aimed at showcasing Barbie’s evolution from big-busted babe who complained, infamously, that her “math class is tough” into a woke, 21st century role model who speaks out in support of issues like gay marriage.

“Barbie’s always been at her best when she is a reflection of culture and when she’s connecting to culture,” says Ms McKnight, senior vice president of Barbie and Mattel’s global head of dolls. “We’ve made a real concerted effort over the past few years to ensure that Barbie is keeping pace.”

After falling 25% between 2012 and 2017, sales have started to bounce back. Turnover increased by 14% last year, to more than $1bn. This year, sales are up about 10%, and the hope is that this will continue with Barbie finding a place under the Christmas tree next week.

Taking risks

The gains represent a rare bright spot for Mattel, which has seen group sales fall every year since 2013. The company has taken note: This autumn, the toymaker released a line of gender neutral dolls, with mix and match outfits and features.

“One of the things they’ve been doing for a while that’s really smart is taking advantage of trends that they’re seeing in the real world,” says Juli Lennett, toys industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group.

Of the Barbie “fashionista” dolls in curvy, tall and petite, she adds: “They took a little bit of a risk in doing that and they continue to take some risks in that space.”

Ms McKnight says the company has been paying more attention to parents. Many of the recent changes are aimed at addressing potential concerns about negative self image and the dolls’ effect on girls’ confidence.

Barbie has also updated its outreach to girls – the brand’s core consumer is girls aged five and eight. She has a television show on Netflix and more than 8 million subscribers to her YouTube channel, which has episodes ranging from makeup tutorials to analysis of girls’ reflexive apologies.

But challenges remain.

Sales have yet to surpass the $1.2bn Mattel reported in 2012 and the doll continues to be polarising: a recent YouGov survey in the UK, for example, found 29% of opinions were positive, while 33% were negative.

New mum Suzanna Campbell says she enjoyed her own Barbies and appreciates the way Mattel has tried to refresh the toy’s image. But she still doesn’t plan to buy the doll for her daughter.

“As much as Barbie is trying to adapt, they’ve created a strong stamp of that perceived-perfect,” says the 32-year-old, who lives in New York. “There are so many other, better brands out there now. And I don’t want her to ever grow up thinking she has to look a certain way.”

Changing views will take time, says Richard Haigh, managing director of UK consultancy Brand Finance, which found that Barbie’s brand value fell between 2015 and 2019 on its annual ranking, although it is poised for an uptick in 2020.

“Broadening her careers or ethnicities does not distract from the fact that the primary criticism of Barbie is that she is an overtly sexual doll aimed at young children whose perfection has been suggested to cause issues with body confidence,” he says.

‘Same old stuff’

Barbie’s core business still revolves around the blonde original, with many of the more specialised career and role-model dolls less widely available, says Oregon State University psychology professor Aurora Sherman, co-author of 2014 study that found girls’ sense of career possibilities shrank after playing with Barbie – even if the doll was dressed as a doctor.

Much of the Barbie material that Mattel promotes via YouTube and other outlets also remains problematic, Prof Sherman says.

“It’s the same-old, same-old,” she says. “It’s got a new wrapper, but it’s got a lot of the same old stuff.”

Taking ‘risks’

The Barbies that made the 2019 lists of top-selling toys look a lot like the traditional doll, featuring pink planes, holiday gowns and sparkle hair.

But Ms McKnight says the sales uptick is a sign Barbie’s makeover is working.

About 55% of Barbies sold globally are diverse in skin tone, hair colour or body type, she says. And in the UK, for example, wheelchair Barbie – which Mattel released this year in response to customer demands – is the best-selling doll among the top-selling fashionista line.

“The diverse product line is really resonating,” she says. “With any legacy brand with years of history, you’re going to have peaks and you’re going to have some valleys. We’re incredibly proud of the progress that we’re making.”

Parents – and children – may still need convincing.

Thirteen-year-old Kailin Zhang says people her age make fun of Barbie for her plastic surgery-like look. As for her little sister, she “doesn’t play with dolls. She plays with her phone”.

Nine-year-old Claire Stansberry says she’s fine playing with her mum’s old Barbie dolls, but Legos are the must-have item on her Christmas list.

“I like her,” she says. “But I don’t usually play with her.”

Whirlpool: MPs call on washing machine firm to offer swift refunds

MPs have called on Whirlpool to offer refunds or “swift compensation” as it recalls 519,000 washing machines.

A cross-party group on consumer protection said customers had been “severely let down” owing to the delay until machines are fixed or replaced.

The former head of the Commons Business Committee has also demanded the company give refunds to those who want them.

But the company said its priority was to ensure potentially dangerous appliances were removed from homes.

About 20% of the Hotpoint and Indesit washing machines sold since 2014 are affected by a safety fault. Up to 519,000 washing machines sold in the UK need to be recalled, a process that will start in early January.

Seventy-nine fires are thought to have been caused by an overheating door locking system, a fault which develops over time, according to Whirlpool, which owns the brands.

Yvonne Fovargue MP, who chaired the Consumer Protection All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) in the last Parliament and Carolyn Harris MP, who chaired the Electrical Safety APPG in the last Parliament, said that Whirlpool appeared to have learned little from its handling of a safety problem regarding tumble dryers,

“Whirlpool’s advice to affected customers simply not to use the machines until repaired or replaced is wholly inadequate, particularly in the busy holiday period when families are at home,” said Ms Fovargue.

“It appears that once again customer trust is being abused and eroded. Whirlpool should swiftly compensate customers who have been severely let down.”

Advice for owners

Whirlpool has set up a model checker online. Owners of Hotpoint and Indesit washing machines bought since October 2014 will need to enter the model and serial number of their appliance – found inside the door or on the back – to see if it is one of those affected.

There is also a free helpline, open every day, available on 0800 316 1442.

Meanwhile, Rachel Reeves, who chaired the Business Committee in the last Parliament, which investigated the Whirlpool saga, called for those affected by the washing machine recall to be offered a refund, rather than just a repair or replacement.

“I understand Whirlpool is refusing to offer refunds to consumers hit by this latest safety problem in what seems to be a never-ending saga,” she said.

“That refusal will further damage consumer confidence and shows a lack of respect for the people on whom Whirlpool’s profits depend.”

The company said that a refund would not ensure the fire-prone machines were withdrawn from people’s homes, which was its priority. It has put in a range of plans, including hiring engineers and building up call centre staffing.

The company said it was in contact with various second-hand sales platforms to alert them to recall and ensure the affected products were not sold, as it had for the tumble dryer recall. It said very few of these appliances would still be in stock with regular retailers and should not be sold.

UK approves £4bn US takeover of defence company Cobham

The government has approved a US private equity firm’s takeover of UK defence and aerospace company Cobham.

Advent International made a £4bn offer to buy Cobham in July, but it was delayed when the government intervened over national security concerns.

The government announced its approval of the deal late on Friday night – which the firm’s founding family said was “timed to avoid scrutiny”.

PM Boris Johnson said the UK remained a “dynamic” part of the defence industry.

Cobham, which employs 10,000 people, has extensive contracts with the British military and is seen as a world leader in air-to-air refuelling technology.

The firm, based in Wimborne, Dorset, also makes electronic warfare systems and communications for military vehicles.

Its expertise played a significant role in the Falklands War, allowing the Royal Air Force to attack the remote Port Stanley airfield.

Defence experts said its role in air-to-air refuelling was essential for modern warfare and could raise national security issues if the company was sold.

Shareholders approved Advent’s offer in August, but a month later the government intervened in the takeover, citing national security concerns.

In a statement on Friday, Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom said she was satisfied the risks that had been identified had been mitigated “to an acceptable level” – and allowed the deal to go ahead.

Mrs Leadsom said the decision had been “meticulously thought over” and came after she took advice from the defence secretary and the deputy national security adviser.

The business secretary added sensitive government information would continued to be protected under the new owner and existing contracts would be honoured.

The company is also obliged to give the government prior notice of any plans to sell the whole, or elements of, Cobham’s business.

‘Deeply concerning’

Lady Nadine Cobham – part of the family which set up the UK firm – called the decision “deeply disappointing” and criticised the timing of the decision.

She said it was “cynically timed to avoid scrutiny on the weekend before Christmas”, adding: “In one of its first major economic decisions, the government is not taking back control so much as handing it away.

“In Cobham we stand to lose yet another great British defence manufacturer to foreign ownership.”

Just before 10pm on a Friday is an odd time for this kind of thing to be announced.

One defence analyst remarked that it was as if the government rather wanted no-one to notice what had happened.

The curious timing may actually draw more attention than if it had been done at a more normal hour – few doubted the government would block the deal, and shareholders in Cobham have already voted overwhelmingly in favour.

It says something of the sensitive nature of Cobham’s business that much of the published version of the competition regulator’s report on the takeover was simply blacked out.

In one unedited passage of the report, the Ministry of Defence said if the deal went ahead there was “a risk that the institutional framework and safeguards required by the government’s security framework may be undermined”.

Sir Ed Davey, acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, said the announcement was “deeply concerning” and said “we have yet to see evidence” that concerns over national security had been mitigated.

“If Boris Johnson’s government are happy to sell off a leading UK defence and aerospace company to Trump’s America, how can we expect his government to protect our defence and manufacturing sectors, not to mention every other sector of our economy, as they negotiate trade deals after Brexit?” he added.

When asked if he was comfortable with the takeover, the prime minister said: “I think it’s very important that we should have an open and dynamic market economy.”

Mr Johnson added: “A lot of checks have been gone through to make sure that in that particular case, all the security issues that might be raised can be satisfied and the UK will continue to be a very, very creative and dynamic contributor to that section of industry and all others.”

Shonnel Malani, a partner at Advent, said the company took the takeover “seriously”.

“We are confident the transaction and undertakings being given on national security, jobs and future investment, provide important long-term assurances for both Cobham’s employees and customers, particularly in the UK and also globally,” Mr Malani added.

Cobham plc is a group of defence and technology businesses which started out as a family firm founded by Sir Alan Cobham.

Sir Alan became a flying instructor in 1918 after volunteering to join the Royal Air Force during World War One.

He received a knighthood from King George V in 1926 for his pioneering work in aviation.

Sir Alan became a household name after devising Cobham’s Flying Circus in the early 1930s. The aeronautical acrobatics show toured England and South Africa.

He then went on to focus on air-to-air refuelling and formed Flight Refuelling Limited in 1934, which developed into Cobham plc as it is known today.

Aside from aviation, Cobham’s innovations include lightweight tanks, radar technology for maritime defence and spacecraft technology.

Emanuel Ungaro: French fashion designer Emanuel dies aged 86

French fashion designer Emanuel Ungaro has died in Paris aged 86.

Ungaro was the son of Italian immigrants who trained under Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga.

He founded his fashion house in the 1960s and described himself as a “sensual obsessive” – with a reputation for bold colours and prints.

He retired and sold the brand in 2005. He went on to criticise the fashion house when US actress Lindsay Lohan was briefly hired as an artistic director.

‘Dared to be different’

Ungaro was born in Aix-en-Province in the south of France in 1933.

He first learned tailoring by working under his father and moved to Paris in his early 20s to launch a career in fashion.

His time training with Balenciaga taught him “rigor and perfectionism”, according to his former brand’s website.

“Season after season, Emanuel Ungaro dared to be different, combining unexpected yet sensual clashes of bright colours and prints with beautiful draping,” the House of Emanuel Ungaro website says.

Ungaro’s work included haute couture designs as well as clothes for the ready-to-wear market.

“One should not wear a dress, one should live in it,” he once said, according to the AFP news agency.

The label was at the height of its popularity in the 1980s and 1990s.

Ungaro sold the label to Silicon Valley businessman Asim Abdullah in 2005.

After his departure, the brand gained a reputation for a high turnover of creative staff – most notably Ms Lohan.

The collections the actress worked on were widely panned by fashion critics, and Ungaro himself, as a “disaster”.

The designer was quoted at the time as saying he was “furious” with the move and said his former fashion house was “in the process of losing its soul”.

Today it continues to produce women’s fashion, as well as other products including perfumes and luxury furniture.

Ungaro was married and had a daughter, but in recent years stayed out of the spotlight.

He had spent the last two years of his life in a “weakened” state of health, a family member told AFP.