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After 50 Years, Barbie’s Still a Living Doll

After 50 Years, Barbie’s Still a Living Doll
From left, USC Marshall dean James G. Ellis, vice president of marketing Lisa McKnight and Global Branding Center director C.W. Park

When it comes to global influence, few brands can claim the reach of Mattel’s Barbie, which for generations has shaped the lives and ambitions of children around the world.

That influence was the topic of a two-day symposium at the USC Marshall School of Business in mid-November that brought together scholars, students and business professionals to reflect on the icon’s 50th anniversary and consider the half-century impact of one of the best-selling toy brands of all time.

Titled “Forever Barbie: The Global Marketing of Pop Culture and American Femininity,” the symposium was sponsored by USC Marshall’s Global Branding Center, the school’s marketing department and Mattel.

Symposium organizer and center assistant director Therese Wilbur saw the topic as a natural fit for Marshall. “I worked on the Barbie brand for 13 years [most recently, as senior international marketing director for girls’ toys] before coming to USC.

“This seemed like the perfect opportunity to expose students to the real-world application of what they’re studying while putting together two of my favorite brands,” she said.

The two-day event featured a presentation on Barbie’s past, present and future by Lisa McKnight, vice president of marketing for Barbie, and closing remarks by USC Marshall dean James G. Ellis.

McKnight also accepted an award from the branding center honoring Barbie’s extraordinary success and ongoing cultural relevance. “It’s a well-deserved recognition,” said center director C.W. Park. “What other brand can perform the kind of roles Barbie has been performing for customers? It creates such a strong bond with young girls, and that bond continues throughout the girl’s life, eventually being passed along to her own children. Barbie is not just a doll; she represents a never-ending, continuously evolving relationship between a brand and its customers.”

It was a common refrain among event participants. Professor of marketing Deborah MacInnis, co-editor of the Journal of Consumer Research, noted that Barbie “represents our possible selves,” a theme reinforced by Mattel vice president of worldwide consumer insights Michael Shore. “Barbie is open-ended and possesses the ‘I can be’ element,” Shore said. “She has been a veterinarian, a preschool teacher and a racecar driver. Barbie doesn’t have a predetermined storyline.” This openness, Shore said, not only allows us “the freedom we associate with play” it also helps Barbie stand out in a highly competitive marketplace populated by more scripted characters like Hannah Montana and the Disney princess dolls.

As Dennis Rook, chair of USC Marshall’s marketing department, pointed out, Barbie’s laidback identity has also been key to its commercial success. “Barbie is Californian,” he said. “Historically, she’s been more casual, and less stodgy.” This, Rook suggested, has made her more adaptable to changing times, a considerable asset in a market driven by a host of emerging challenges.

Assistant professor of marketing Lan Luo, another event participant, summed up a number of those challenges. “Kids, even those ages three to five, now want an iPod for Christmas, so Barbie’s got competition from high-tech toys,” she noted. As a result, Barbie is under even more pressure to stay relevant – something, Luo suggested, Mattel might do by extending the brand to other platforms, such as video games and film.

The Internet is another way to ensure that Barbie retains her place among the world’s most recognizable brands. “An active part of our corporate strategy is the Barbie Girl Web site and online communities,” Shore said.

It is uncharted territory, but Barbie is well positioned to thrive, Wilbur said.

“Barbie has had a lasting effect on consumers and the culture,” she said. “The bottom line is that it continues to be a truly incredible brand.”

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