Barbie: From Paper Dolls to Phenomenon - Lessons for Entrepreneurs
January 1, 2022

Barbie: From Paper Dolls to Phenomenon - Lessons for Entrepreneurs

Barbie: From Paper Dolls to Phenomenon - Lessons for Entrepreneurs

It’s hard to turn anywhere right now without seeing one name: Barbie. The Barbie Movie launched this weekend to a record breaking $337 million in box office sales. Fans adorned in pink lined up around the world to see the world’ most famous doll come to life. These incredible sales figures, booming merchandise and fanatic fans have truly been decades in the making. As with many great businesses though, Barbie started simply: with one person and one idea. The story of how Barbie was brought to life and broke industry norms to become an overnight success holds a number of lessons for entrepreneurs.  

To understand how Barbie stood out from the crowd (and not just because of her pink convertible or Dream House) let’s look at the toy industry before her 1959 debut. Toys at that time were relatively simplistic - trains and cars, jacks, silly putty. Most weren’t designed for additional purchases to add on to the toys. Dolls were typically representations of babies or toddlers, designed mainly to cater to young girls' nurturing instincts. While some accessories were offered, they were simple ones like a blanket or nightgown. 

Back then, paper dolls were popular. Ruth Handler watched her young daughter play with her paper dolls and noticed several things: 

  • Her daughter really enjoyed dressing the dolls in different outfits.
  • She often pretended that they were grown-ups, not kids.
  • The dolls made of paper were actually pretty frustrating to dress and engage with.

Ruth put these pieces together,  and came up with the idea of an adult-shaped doll made of plastic that embodied fun and classy fashion and style for grown ups. She and her husband were already running a toy company called Mattel and through that company they decided to bring to market this entirely new type of doll. 

Handler's vision for Barbie solidified when she encountered the Bild Lilli doll, a German toy inspired by a racy comic strip character. The Bild Lilli doll was not designed or marketed for children - quite the opposite in fact! But Handler saw in those dolls the potential for a more sophisticated and fashion-forward toy that young girls would flock to. With this inspiration, Mattel introduced Barbie to the world at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959. The doll's name was a tribute to Handler's daughter Barbara, whose love for fashion and dolls had ignited the idea in the first place.

Barbie was a revolution in the toy space, not only because she was a grown woman with a knock-out sense of fashion, but also because of how she was marketed. Handler wanted to market Barbie directly to kids; a revolutionary idea in the toy industry at the time. Mattel invested heavily in television advertising, including a sponsorship of the Mickey Mouse Club. Early advertisements spoke directly to children and tapped into girls’ sense of wanting to be fashionable, sophisticated, and independent. Critics of Barbie strongly opposed both this marketing approach as well as the move away from dolls that kept girls in nurturing, motherly roles. But Handler’s instincts for what kids would want proved true and she sold hundreds of thousands of Barbies in the first year!

Barbie also revolutionized the toy industry, moving from one-off purchases to creating a true brand that offered a slate of products and boosted the lifetime value of every customer. Barbie quickly became not just a one-time doll purchase but simply the gateway toy into an array of accessories, playsets, houses and additional characters like Ken, Midge and Skipper. This expansive world enabled young girls to immerse themselves in Barbie’s adventures, fostering loyalty to the brand and keeping customers coming back for (and spending!) more. 

Mattel also kept customers linked to the Barbie brand even when they traditionally aged out of playing with dolls. They collaborated with real-life fashion designers, such as Oscar de la Renta and Diane von Fürstenberg for exclusive Barbie outfits. These partnerships not only elevated the doll's style quotient but also positioned Barbie as a trendsetter in the fashion industry, setting her apart from other dolls on the market.

Barbie's introduction marked a groundbreaking moment in the toy industry, transforming dolls from mere baby figures to aspirational and fashion-forward toys. The strategies adopted by Mattel in the early days played a pivotal role in catapulting Barbie into the hearts and minds of generations of children worldwide. By combining innovation, marketing prowess, and a commitment to evolution, the Barbie company set the stage for a legacy that has endured for over six decades. From one idea by a mother watching her daughter play with paper dolls to an iconic status, Barbie offers a reminder to any one pursuing their idea: take action on your ideas about innovation to even the most established types of products or industries. Follow your instincts, speak directly to your target customer, and let the sales do the talking.