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Alum at the Center of a ‘Barbie’ World

On Eve of Movie’s Opening, 5 Fantastic Facts About the Grad in Charge at Mattel

By Karen Shih ’09

Barbie-themed merchandise, including frozen yogurt, a pool float, an Xbox, a doll, pink high heels, and a dog hoodie

Friday’s opening of the movie “Barbie” has inspired a marketing juggernaut by doll producer Mattel (led by Richard Dickson ’90) and other corporate partners, including, clockwise from top left, a branded Xbox; a Barbie that looks like the movie’s star, Margot Robbie; a Gap dog hoodie; hot pink Aldo pumps; a Mattel pool float; and sparkly Pinkberry fro-yo.

Doll, Xbox, float and Dickson photos courtesy of Mattel; frozen yogurt photo courtesy of Pinkberry; dog shirt photo courtesy of Gap; heels photo courtesy of Aldo

She might be just under a foot tall (in heels!), but Barbie looms large this summer.

Her spotless, plastic, bright-pink aesthetic is inescapable as “Barbie” movie promotions have gone viral. Want to float on the classic cursive “B” in the pool? You got it. Live out childhood fantasies in a Malibu DreamHouse? Ken (and Airbnb) are ready to host you. Eat like Barbie—if she could? Treat yourself to a sparkly fro-yo concoction. And that’s all before the film comes out this Friday.

Just a decade ago, the iconic doll seemed to be on her last, tip-toed legs. But thanks to University of Maryland alumnus Richard Dickson ’90, who became toy giant Mattel’s president and chief operating officer in 2014, the brand has seen a resurgence that has vaulted her out from behind clear cellophane into every aspect of pop culture.

Dickson headshot

“Barbie has been through it all: the rise of the Berlin Wall, the Beatles, the computer, hip-hop, space travel. She has stood the test of time,” said Dickson at a 2019 CEO@Smith event.

A branding expert, Dickson worked at Bloomingdale’s, beauty product company Estée Lauder and fashion house The Jones Group before joining Mattel. Its products are tangled in nearly every toy box in America, including Hot Wheels cars, Fisher-Price baby toys and American Girl dolls, and to honor the company’s long legacy, Dickson has turned to immersive experiences before this year’s Barbie bonanza. The company celebrated Hot Wheels’ 50th anniversary in 2018 by inviting enthusiasts to show off life-size versions of its racecars at Walmart parking lots across the country.

But now, the “Barbie” movie marketing has taken it to another level, saturating social media feeds with its perfectly coiffed and hyper-attractive stars, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, and products galore. As the world counts down to 2023’s most hotly anticipated summer flick, take a minute to learn about the Robert H. Smith School of Business alum behind the brand.

seven diverse Barbie dolls, including one in a wheelchair and one with a prosthetic leg
Photo courtesy of Mattel

Dickson revamped Barbie: In 2014, she had “lost her way with consumers, largely because she no longer reflected the world that girls were seeing every day,” he told Smith Magazine, and was steadily losing sales. He led a complete makeover of the Barbie lineup, “from skin tone to eye color, hair color and texture, and even the iconic silhouette.” Today’s dolls, offered in original, petite, tall and curvy, represent every facet of society, such as ones that use wheelchairs, have natural-textured Black hair, or honor inspiring women like scientist Jane Goodall or tennis star Naomi Osaka.

scene from "St. Elmo's Fire" on UMD campus
Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Dickson was inspired to come to UMD by the 1985 movie “St. Elmo’s Fire,” which was filmed on Fraternity Row and starred Rob Lowe and Demi Moore. “I wanted the ultimate collegiate experience: Great academics. Great athletics. A diversity of ideas and people. A strong feeling of community,” the New York City native said. “I wanted it all, and I got it at Maryland.”

actors on "Barbie" set surround Greta Gerwig

He’s been hands-on with the “Barbie” movie: Dickson flew to the London set to discuss removing a scene he felt was off-brand. But once Robbie and director Greta Gerwig performed it for him, he saw the nuance and changed his mind, according to a Time cover story.

Black and white garage from 1945
Photo courtesy of Mattel

He’s inspired by Mattel’s humble beginnings: His office at company headquarters in El Segundo, Calif., features an enormous wallscape of the garage where it was founded in 1945. “I make sure that everybody connects to what that garage represented: the entrepreneurial spirit, that ability to take risks, that ability to look at culture around you and bring insights into action,” Dickson said to students, including fellow Terp innovators, at UMD in 2019.

Barbie's dream house
Photo courtesy of Airbnb

He wants to build a Barbie world: From apparel to sporting goods and home accessories, Dickson envisions the doll stepping beyond the playroom and into every aspect of people’s lives. While the toy remains a kid favorite, the movie, which is rated PG-13, appeals to “teen, young adults, moms, glam-mas,” he told Yahoo Finance, reinvigorating a nostalgia that he believes will translate into a new “Barbie ecosystem.”



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