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The Barbie Ecosystem

17 minutes
Branding = culture 🔦
April 5, 2024

The Barbie Ecosystem

An invitation to look into mastodon brands such as Mattel
17 minutes

What is a Play Brand for me?

A Play brand is a brand that has Play as a mission, solution and expression.

These brands embody a spirit of youth and innovation, some of them disrupting conventional norms. They are built on the foundation of play and infuse it into their DNA. What if Play was more than play? They go beyond just offering entertainment and amusement, that is when branding power and culture come in.
As a species, we are drawn to play, seeking entertainment, games, competition
and stories, in a nutshell, a world of imagination. Play brands leverage that inner superpower and skillfully invite us into their captivating Play world.

The Barbie wave is revived

It is hard not to be informed by the latest movie from Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie. Even a simple Google search for the movie "Barbie" and the casting team receives special treatment: it gets all-pink with a splash of stars and a tailored UI (user interface). I used to play with Barbies when I was younger. I do have a history with Mattel's brand, and this movie reignites childhood play memories with a fresh twist. I am happy to dive into the Barbie Brand, which stands as an empire of its own: a series of worlds that have influenced culture in many ways.

Let's deep dive into Barbie as a World

First of all, Barbie is a name with many faces, in many countries and with countless stories. Since her debut in 1959, she has been a revolutionary figure. She was disruptive in many ways: in her acquisition, very closely inspired by the German Bild Lilli Doll. But also in her intention, she is a woman doll that young girls can identify with and ‘‘dream of their future life’’. Her name refers to the daughter of her creator, Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel– she wanted to inspire young girls after seeing her daughter playing with paper dolls and was in a quest to make a three-dimensional inspiration.

📈 A building of Barbie

✅ Barbie → A name, a brand and a trigger

I could focus on Mattel and try to show the mastery of how they transformed the play industry in the US with Barbie. But, what is interesting is how Barbie became a global monopoly and still coexists with Mattel, her mother Brand. Mattel transformed Barbie's name into a powerful marketing trigger—a short and popular nickname with a distinctively American way of life trait.

🔎 Barbie is identifiable → Logo, colors and aesthetics

Not only is Barbie identifiable through her name and design, but she is also through her branding toolkit. Her logo since 1959 has evolved but always kept that playful rounded calligraphy font called Barbie Script. Added to a strategic bright pink called Barbie Pink, is supposed to emulate feminity appealing to both children and adults. Barbie is continuously visible and recognizable as a mark, name and logo to young and older generations. The visual universe also adds to storytelling by having illustrations alongside the doll, adding that playfulness with bright colours and comic-like imagery. Barbie's brand book would be a treasure to dissect, especially in light of the notable evolutions within the vision of the doll.

👩🏼 BarbieThe woman behind Barbie

Barbie stands as a brand of her own, evolving into a cultural icon and serving as a radar for societal changes and disruptions. The core positioning of Barbie, as conceived by Ruth Handler, was to create a doll that embodied the essence of being an independent woman in the 1960s and beyond. Ruth designed the doll not only to capture the imaginations of young girls, allowing them to envision their future lives but also to empower older audiences to claim their rights and independence. We have to remember that Ruth Handler faced significant resistance while creating the US version of Barbie, particularly within a predominantly male industry.

My whole philosophy was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman had choices.

Ruth Handler

🎞 Barbie is a character She is an idea ‘‘she’’ has outgrown

Barbie is more than just a character; she represents an entire world carefully crafted around her. Perhaps inspired by Hollywood culture, she always has a new story to tell. She is set in a decor meticulously designed and orchestrated to place her as the shining star. In the movie Barbie, the set is so detailed that it becomes a character of its own. Barbie is a fictional character who has become a reference in various domains, including art, fashion, design, cinema, and sociology. All these explorations led the Barbie brand to access iconic status.

🚀 Barbie a world that defines or defiers?

Barbie is a divisive brand and it is rooted in the brand’s building. We are talking about education, female empowerment, leadership, sustainability and even political issues. Some countries did ban the doll due to its progressive history but it succeeded in adapting to diverse cultures. Even within her primary audience, women are divided by what Barbie stands for today. She still challenges and questions what is female leadership. The conversations that she enables are difficult conversations tackling perceptions and controversies about what a powerful woman should look like in a fantasy world and the normal world. I believe the focus on the visual of Barbie is one of the main pain points we could critique, again we make an image of her. Many questions about feminism arise and critique the doll for its primary mission, even if she succeeded in portraying various panels of women doing many progressive activities and career paths, the contrast and gap with real life still exist. The divisive character of Barbie is also a heritage for new collectors of the doll.

Barbie's popularity has paved the way for alternative dolls that showcase everyday experiences, handcrafted and designed by local artisans. It is important to note that Barbie faced challenges in expanding in some countries like India, China, and some Arabic countries where it did not expand due to cultural misunderstandings.

Why is Barbie a Play brand?

Let’s decode this formula: play as a mission, solution and expression.

  • Mission: Barbie helps children to imagine a world of possibility. With an audience of children and adults, her mission is in constant change. There are many stories and dreams and she has to be representative and innovative.
    Mattel’s tagline is ‘‘inspire future generations through play’’. The innovative trait of Barbie grows as she embodies the change she inspires her audience to become. She is multiple in one and she owes herself as a brand to redefine as a brand language.
  • Solution: She is transportable in many stories, outfits and environments. She also exists in a diversity of representations. Everyone can see themselves in the Barbie world, at least today more children and adults can better envision themselves in her world. Showcasing human experiences: the scars, the uniqueness, ever-evolving trends, and the growing bravado.
  • Expression: Barbie is always doing something! She can be on the moon, run for president, launch her new tech company, organize parties with her friends and Ken in Malibu and finally have a non-profit. She is a busy one! That was an appetizer, now seriously her brand is always in motion and expanding its reach, pushed by Mattel’s marketing to conquer new niches. There are always new collections, collaborations and partnerships with other brands and creatives. In fashion for example with Barbie X Karl Lagerfeld). In art with the MAD exhibition about her Genesis with Mattel. In music with the Aqua song (not intentionally created to celebrate Barbie), in 3D TV series and in cinema. Her true value lies in the personal attachment her audience has to her, she is more than a doll for many of them. All these elements have elevated her as a cultural trigger for storytelling, role play and marketing success.
Barbie gains value as her audience ages. Childhood play characterized by experimentation and spontaneity evolves into a more methodical ritual. There is a rise of collectors who restore and preserve her to become an object one wishes to keep in pristine condition.

The Doll test: Society speaks through dolls

The doll test by Drs. Kenneth & Mamie Clark in 1947 © Gordon Parks

In the initial experiment, black children were presented with different dolls and asked questions about beauty and worth. Researchers used dolls to communicate with these children and extract from them the ''unease/malaise'' of society. This is how deep the intersection of dolls and people can be. Since then, there have been many tests with Barbie as a leading doll. With progress, many of the questions seem irrelevant to contemporary children. Nowadays, we can witness the growing influence of Barbie which has a mission that goes beyond the toy.

Brands for children have a pivotal role in shaping and challenging identity. Barbie has faced criticism, for not representing all women, the hypersexualization of young girls, leadership perceptions and even low sustainability efforts. Still, Mattel was able to act upon the societal pulse and respond with a broader range of dolls. Extending shades, body types, ethnicities, and even physical deficiencies, but also non-profit initiatives. There is still a long way to go! Barbie vehicles an idea of a society, and despite changing the doll itself, the incoherences of Society remain. Is it solely for the doll to change?

The movie is a statement

Margot Robbie is the initiator and one of the producers of the project. She intentionally approached Mattel and wanted to shed light on a different Barbie. A mission she succeded in accomplishing with novelty and spark. The Barbie Brand has evolved and resurfaced from various pop culture moments and is sometimes still tagged as Kitch. The movie is another opportunity to shake off the perception people have of Barbie and let go of it. Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie gathered around them a panel of talents to confirm the disruptive character of Barbie. She brought in Issa Rae (the genius storyteller), America Ferrera (in constant shine and embodies a voice for many women) and Kate McKinnon (the SNL pillar). The casting and surprising script serve as a statement and tribute to Art that catches you like a surprise.

💈 Marketing Genius: Enter the character, be the character

The Barbie movie is a living advertisement for Mattel and the Barbie Brand. I can already sense a renewed wave of collectors* chasing vintage models, accessories and houses. The creative and marketing team have succeeded in birthing new cool into Barbie and a lot into Ken. The leading man in the story finally gets the long-awaited spotlight to shine and reflect on his existence thanks to Barbie.

  • You must have heard about the imposing Kenergy → Ryan Gosling did wonders with this role, adding another disruptive character choice to his filmography. The term "Kenergy" or ‘‘kenough’’ and all things Ken serve as a powerful marketing trigger—a perfect example of how you can amplify a culture criticism and brand disruption as a language.
  • Critique or celebrate but let’s have a Barbie conversation → Media coverage is massive, spanning from lighthearted pieces to in-depth analyses. They dissect not only the movie and pop culture moment but also revisit the story of Barbie and Mattel, exploring their foundational WHY. We (re)discover the building of Mattel's journey to Barbie, but also the doll’s continuous activities.
  • The potential of branded movies → A possible future for Hollywood cinema lies in tapping into an already captivated audience. We may see movies around products that have already established dominance in the market. Various industries could venture into creating movies with their products as main characters (if applicable), offering a different dymanic and perspective on their brand story. Maybe one day we will watch a movie on Marmite!

🛋 Barbie is a design icon

The AD magazine highlights Barbie's status as a design icon. Inspired by trends and acclaimed designers, Barbie has lived in houses of design and architecture. A world of design crafted around her and friends. Each house, object, accessory, fabric, graphic element—everything is designed to serve the purpose of Barbie living an extraordinary life. That feeling is what her audience can access by buying the most iconic collections. It is also a beautiful tribute to miniature art! Have you ever dreamed of living in the Barbie house, for real? Well, It is possible thanks to Airbnb and it has been updated by Ken (kendreamhouse).

⏳ Takeaway and final note

For me, the main takeaway from this indie-branded movie lies in the artistry of redefinition of the ‘‘Barbie idea’’. The Barbie movie is an invitation to look into mastodon brands such as Mattel and the values elevated by our present society with a kind hug in the end. The beauty and human standards they celebrate do not serve true inclusion and probably never will. Despite the advancements and great ideas, the fundamental issue that persists for children and adults is to detach themselves from the massive projection society has placed on ‘‘a doll’’.

After seeing the movie, I have even more respect and admiration for the tribute they succeeded in embodying. To remind us of the power of an idea becoming a living thing. I was moved by the freshness of the script and the overall world they created with a joyful eye towards the present. Being enough is already more than enough. Hopefully, it is perfectly ok if you don't relate to Barbie, just as it is if you do.

The Barbie movie is an invitation to look into mastodon brands such as Mattel and the values elevated by our present society.
Founder of Keva Epale Studio

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The Barbie movie is an invitation to look into mastodon brands such as Mattel and the values elevated by our present society.
Founder of Keva Epale Studio