The Business of Barbie®
Izabel Falcão do Rego Barros Feb/Mar 1998 last revised February99
• Mattel and Barbie - a quite long story
• The toy market in the late 50’s and 60’s
• Shaping strategy with design: 70’s and 80’s
• The 90’s and the second breakthrough
• The near future
• Learning from Barbie
Figure 1 Barbie#1
At the end of the 1990s, the timeless Barbie, an 11 1/2" doll, is America's number one best-selling toy in the market. Mattel Toys, Inc., the largest manufacturer of toys in the US, has produced Barbie since 1959. But very little is known of its business and design aspects of Barbie's story. In the 1998 $31 billion toy market, Mattel has nearly $4.8 billion in sales. Barbie is responsible for more than one-third of those sales. In 1997 alone, Barbie represented 80% of sales in the doll segment. What is it about this doll that makes it such a phenomenon? What are the main factors that have allowed Barbie to dominate the doll market for almost 40 years? How have technology innovation and design strategy influenced product development at Mattel? What kinds of strategies has Mattel used to determine Barbie's design and evolution? What approach to design is behind their strategy? This paper points to possible answers to those questions from an outsider point of view. Issues related to design development philosophy, teamwork, technology and innovation are explored. It is important to stress that this paper does not address or consider sociological or anthropological issues related to the doll - extensive literature is available from other sources on those subjects.
Mattel and Barbie ...a quite long story
Figure 2 Christian Dior Barbie
After World War II, various industrial segments evolved from the existing, and surviving, industries. Manufacturers whose production capabilities had been focused on war-related goods were forced to redesign their businesses for this new era of peace. One of the sectors that grew considerably at that time was the toy industry. Mattel was founded in 1945 by Ruth Elliot, a stenographer at Paramount Pictures, Elliot Handler, a light fixture builder and industrial design student, and Harold Matson, a friend and foreman who left the partnership in 1946. The company was started as "Mattel Creations" with capital composed of the "life savings" of the partners; by 1955 the company was worth $500,000. With a tendency to take risks and a belief in advanced and new materials, Elliot produced Plexiglas furniture, jewelry, candleholders, decorative objects, and picture frames through Mattel Creations before centering its production on toys. An Ukedoodle, a plastic ukulele, was the first popular toy produced by Mattel in the early fifties. The 1950s brought to the toy industry some immortal toys like Mr. Potato Head (1952), Lego (1955), and Barbie (1959). Disneyland opened in July 1955, and the first advertising on TV targeting the youth segment was aired. In the same year, 'The Mickey Mouse Club' was first aired - sponsored by Mattel. It was the first time in industry history that a toy company would sponsor a TV series. Mattel aired a commercial for the Burp Gun on 'The Mickey Mouse Club, and by Christmas the gun had sold out.This was a hallmark for opening new markets, and pioneering aggressive marketing techniques. In the middle of all this, Jack Ryan – who had formerly designed missiles for the Pentagon on the Raytheon team, was hired by Elliot to reinforce Mattel's design force. Ryan had everything Elliot had dreamed of: technological knowledge, inventiveness and an open mind. It was in this environment that, in 1959, the first Barbie doll was introduced at the NewYork Toy Fair in February 1959, accompanied by a massive advertising campaign which referred to her as "a shapely teen-age fashion model."
The birth of Barbie
Invented by Ruth Elliot, Mattel's co-founder, Barbie's original design was inspired by a postwar...
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