build a buzz across generations

Enduring brands: What we can learn from Barbie

Get ready to see bubblegum pink everywhere you look this Summer! Margot Robbie is starring in a new live action Barbie movie, and Mattel has already signed licensing deals with over 100 brands. Not only can you dress like her, but you can also dress your dog to match (courtesy of Gap.) You can wear her inline skates, eat her yogurt, relax at a Barbie Airbnb in Malibu, and play games on a pink Xbox console.

But why should I care about a movie about a doll?

I know, I know. I never thought I’d be writing a blog post about Barbie either. But if you can get past all of the pink, you might just learn a thing or two about enduring brands.

It took vision

Barbie can be traced to one person’s vision. Ruth Handler was one of three people that started Mattel in 1945. She was also a Mom, and saw her daughter (Barbara, of course) set aside her baby dolls in order to play with paper dolls that she could dress up in paper fashions and imagine as a grownup. While visiting Switzerland in 1956, Ruth saw a foot-tall doll based on a somewhat NSFW comic strip, but with clothes that could be taken off and changed. Handler bought three of them, took them home, and started prototyping what would eventually become Barbie.

But when Ruth presented Barbie to buyers at the 1959 American International Toy Fair in NY, she got no takers. So she advertised directly to her target market with a TV commercial, telling kids that “everything from wedding gowns to sunglasses will be sold separately.” Those spots created such a huge demand that department stores were soon begging for inventory. 300,000 Barbies were sold in the first year. Mattel went public the next year, and soon became the largest toy company in the world.

A long-term strategy

While the explosive growth of Barbie was a surprise for Mattel, it was something else that became the biggest challenge for the company. By positioning Barbie as the “ideal woman,” Mattel realized that they were responsible for setting beauty standards for little girls during their most formative and impressionable years. And they were rightly getting flack for those standards being unrealistic.

Even so, Barbie became one of the first female astronauts and went to the moon before women could get credit cards. She was a surgeon, a corporate executive in power suits, and a US President. She became a symbol of female empowerment, complete with a supporting partner in Ken (a man with no ambitions of his own.) Barbie was THE mega-star, and Mattel began expanding into other product lines.

Well, expanding at least until the early 90’s. That’s when several questionable business decisions were made, competitors such as Bratz dolls and Disney princesses gained ground, and sales dropped off for a couple of decades.

And the willingness to change

That same slow down brought in new management. A mostly female development team updated Barbie, adding body types and skin tone options, along with more inclusive designs such as Barbies with hearing aids and new Dreamhouses that kids wanted. Sales began to pick back up, which allowed Mattel to start rethinking how to capitalize on their intellectual property. That thinking became the idea for a movie.

Here’s how Barbie flipped the script

Now, after finding writers that were known for their creativity and giving them freedom to write a script that lets Barbie act more like a real person, attracting actors that people like and follow, and supporting it all with a relentless promotional schedule, Barbie seems to be everywhere.

Plus, while licensing has always been important in toy sales (usually after a big media hit like Star Wars or Harry Potter), this time the toy has become the focal point instead of an afterthought. And licensing deals with those 100+ other companies means even more advertising promoting the movie.

Plus their target audience covers generations

Lots of girls that grew up with Barbie are now adults; parents and grandparents with purchasing power. So they were careful to target fans of all ages, not just kids. And by continually releasing snippets of a PG-13 film that has been referred to as “comedic”, “anarchic”, “crazy” and “feminist,” they have built buzz across generations of those fans.

All for a movie based on a toy that was first created and marketed to young girls back in 1959. Kind of amazing.

Do I think this movie will be a huge hit?

I have no idea. But even Barbie’s naysayers should be impressed by her enduring brand.

Kent Dicken

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