With the death of Eliot Handler, husband of Ruth Handler in 2011 – creator of the Barbie doll – an iconic personality may have faded into memory, but the creation endures. Barbie was a mother’s gift to her daughter.
In the 1950s Handler noticed that her daughter, Barbara, preferred to play with dolls that resembled adults rather than infants. Barbara, and possibly girls her age, played with paper dolls that looked like adults.
Realising that there was a huge market potential, Handler suggested the idea of a 3-D adult bodied doll to her husband, Eliot Handler, co-founder of the Mattel Toy Company. He scoffed at the idea and Mattel’s directors told her that it would be impossible to create such a doll.
During a trip to Germany with her daughter, Handler discovered an eleven-half-inch plastic doll for grown-ups named Lillie in a shop window. This doll was inspired by a popular character of a comic strip, drawn by Reinhard Beuthin, for the newspaper Die Bild-Zeitung.
Lillie was a fashionable society girl who knew what she wanted. She was the doll that that Handler had in mind. She was able to convince the Mattel executives to acquire the rights to the Lillie doll.
A new sculpt was designed (with help from engineer Jack Ryan) the concept was revamped. And the doll was given a new name-Barbie, after Handler’s daughter Barbara. The doll made its debut at the New York International American Toy Fair on 9 March 1959, a date that became Barbie’s official birthday later.
Barbie’s fictional biography evolved with time as her sales continued to rise. She now had a full name –Barbara Millicent Roberts – and a family and friends have been manufactured for her..
Mattel employed innovative marketing strategies to retain Barbie’s premier position in the global market. The company has also been employing what is now known as 360-degree marketing-print, danglers, television, internet, radio, outdoor advertising-you name it and they have it.
The secret of Barbie’s eternal appeal as a brand is its reinvention. Mattel has dedicated itself to promoting Barbie as a lifestyle, not just a toy.
Mattel’s exceptionally innovative strategy was to license Barbie in 30 different product categories-from furniture to make-up. Today, a girl can sleep in Barbie pajamas, under a Barbie duvet cover, her head on a Barbie pillowcase, surrounded by Barbie wallpaper and so on. Mattel has also created real-life events around her like the Barbie conventions, fan clubs, websites, magazines and collectors’ events.
When an icon carries that much weight in a society, it becomes so present, so commonplace that it is taken for granted. And, it becomes a part of the collective consciousness. Since her creation in 1959 as a paper-doll inspired friend, the Barbie doll has firmly established herself as the most popular fashion doll ever.
The brand has ossified in the public mind to such an extent that Barbie is called the collective subconsciousness of America. The Barbie doll is a 5 billion dollar industry now. Mattel, the company which created it, claims that approximately three Barbie dolls are sold every second.
(The author Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar based senior journalist and columnist. Views are personal)
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