With tech giants like Airbnb, Intel and Spotify pledging to take action to increase gender and racial diversity within their ranks, it’s clear that social progressivism and inclusion are finally going mainstream. Although the benefits for job seekers of this new commitment to diversity are obvious, it turns out consumers also stand to gain.
Not only does it make us feel good to know that the companies behind our weekend getaway, semiconductor chips and “Mood Booster” playlist value diversity in hiring, but many companies are actually starting to change their products to better reflect the makeup of our population. The result is that consumers receive products that incorporate and acknowledge their own identities, thereby sending a positive and affirming message that they are important and appreciated members of society, no matter their race, gender, physical appearance, sexuality or other identifier.
This trend of progressive product updates has been observed in companies of all sizes, from the smallest startup to Fortune 500 companies. It also crosses industries, spanning tech, entertainment and more. However, nowhere have these updates proven so dramatic, nor so impactful, than in the toy industry.
Throughout its long history, the toy industry has been lacking in diversity. For instance, the first Barbie dolls, released in 1959, were all white. Disney’s first non-white princess, Jasmine, came in 1992, a full 55 years after the 1937 debut of Snow White, Disney’s first princess. And even today, children grow up reading books in which 73.7% of protagonists are white, 12.5% are animals or inanimate objects and only 13.8% are people of other races.
However, there are some toy companies, such as LEGO, that have been attempting to fight this lack of inclusion for decades. As early as 1974, some LEGO toys included a letter to parents encouraging them to allow both their sons and their daughters to play with them. Nevertheless the vast majority of LEGO characters were male, and the packaging of LEGO sets were clearly targeted towards boys.
Progressive product updates have been observed in small startups and Fortune 500 companies alike.
That all changed in 2012, when LEGO promised to “deliver meaningful play experiences to girls worldwide.” They company’s first attempt to make good on its promise was to create the “LEGO Friends” set, a pink and purple world in which five female characters spent their days at cafes and beauty salons. Unsurprisingly, the set was met with its fair share of criticism, with many saying that the toys strengthened negative stereotypes about women and girls.
Fortunately, LEGO’s second attempt at progressive products went over much better. In 2013, LEGO’s Minifigure Series 11 made its debut, and included in it was a female scientist minifigure. Female scientists rejoiced in publications like Scientific American and Live Science and LEGO sales increased by 11%.
Mattel, makers of the Barbie doll, have also made product updates in recent years in response to consumers’ calls for diversity in toys. Mattel took a hit in 2014, with Barbie sales down 16%. 2014 was also the third consecutive year that the company saw falling Barbie sales. The significance of this trend did not escape Mattel CEO Bryan Stockton, who told analysts that “the landscape is changing” during a quarterly earnings conference call.
To survive in this changing landscape, Mattel made a drastic move in 2015. It jumped on the socially progressive train, so to speak, and rolled out its new and very diverse Barbie Fashionista line, which included eight new skin tones, 22 hairstyles, 23 hair colors, 14 different facial structures and 18 eye colors. And in January 2016, Mattel took it a step further by creating Barbies with “tall,” “petite” and “curvy” body types, which were intended to fulfill Mattel’s “responsibility to girls and parents to reflect a broader view of beauty,” according to Evelyn Mazzocco, senior vice president and global general manager of Barbie.
Most of the products we use and consume do not accurately reflect the demographics of our society.
It was a risk for Mattel to break from the traditional and iconic Barbie silhouette, which had forever included long, skinny legs, narrow hips and long luscious locks. Mattel executives were not sure what the public response would be, and communications and public relations employees spent seven months before the new dolls’ debut designing a strategy that would help the brand cope with a negative public reaction.
Luckily, it was a strategy that was never necessary to implement. Doctors, who as a group had previously slammed Barbie for her unrealistic and even impossible proportions that gave young girls unrealistic standards of beauty and lowered their self-confidence, came out in support of the new dolls. Queen Latifah called them “groundbreaking” and “incredible,” Twitter used the hashtag “#RepresentationMatters” to express its appreciation. Additionally, Mattel spokeswoman Michelle Chidoni stated that the recently released Barbies had earned 5.2 billion media impressions, 97% of them positive. “The curvy dolls in particular are doing exceptionally well,” she said.
The numbers back up Chidoni’s claims. According to the The Wall Street Journal, Barbie sales rose 23 percent in the second quarter of 2016. The rise helped mitigate the falling sales of Mattel’s other brands.
Humans have a nearly universal need to see themselves represented in the products they use.
The success of both Mattel and LEGO after changing their products to be more progressive is evidence of how much truth there really is behind the Twitter hashtag “#RepresentationMatters.” Representation really does matter, especially in a world where most of the products we use and consume on a daily basis do not accurately reflect the demographics of our society.
Clearly, there exists a vacuum between what companies produce and what we as consumers want. Human beings have a nearly universal need to see themselves represented in the products they buy and use, and companies that tap into this need are bound to see success. LEGO and Mattel are proof of this, and other companies, such as Disney, with its increasingly diverse princesses, and H&M, with its increasingly diverse models, are taking note and following their example. Additionally, there are many startups following suit, such as Lammily, a company that makes dolls that reflect real women. We can only hope that this mindshift on the part of companies large and small proves to be more than a passing fancy, and that products continue to become more and more diverse.