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 doll called “Lilli”. Lilli had been created by Reinhard Beuthien for the Bild Zeitung, a sensationalist German newspaper, in 1952 as a comic strip character. She gained a third dimension at the hands of Max Weissbrodt in 1955. “How do you mean to marry a man with a lot of money?
As soon as you marry him it will be gone! “2 The Lilli doll was not intended to be a children’s toy. Conceived as a gag gift for the adult male market, Lilli became a common personage in post-war Germany and neighboring countries. “Whether more or less naked, Lilli is always discreet”3 Figure 3 Mattel advertising campaign on Playthings1 Later, Lilli became popular among children in Germany, and her outfits became more modest to fit this new audience. Ruth found the Lilli doll on a vacation trip in Switzerland and bought three of them for herself and for her daughter as a “decorative item. Seeing her daughter and her daughter’s friends playing with the adult doll, Ruth realized that it would be a great idea to make a woman doll for children. She discussed the idea with Mattel’s designers foreseeing that this would be a special opportunity. “Special was not how the male designers saw it. It was costly. “
In America, they told Ruth, It would be impossible to make what she wanted – a woman doll with painted nails and “real nice clothing” that had “zippers and darts and hemlines” – for an affordable price. “Frankly”, Ruth recalled, “I thought they were all horrified by the thought of wanting to make a doll with breasts. 4 Designing a breakthrough The Lilli design was not appropriate for the new Barbie. The doll was redesigned in order to make it viable. Barbie’s design was the work of several different minds: Ruth Elliot, Jack Ryan, Frank Nakamura (product designer), Seymour Adler (plastics engineer), Bud Westmore (make-up specialist from Universal Pictures), and Charlotte Johnson (fashion designer) – each one with a different role in the final design. Ruth and Jack coordinated the whole concept of Barbie. Frank Nakamura helped with finding a manufacturer to produce the doll.
Seymor Adler solved the problems with injection molding and rotation-molded soft vinyl to guarantee that Barbie would have arms, legs, hands, feet and fingers. Bud Figure 4 Lilli’ s comic strip from the Bild Zeitung newspaper: “How do you mean to marry a man with a lot of money as soon as you marry him it will be gone! ” 2 Westmore, together with a sculptor, worked on the face so that Barbie would not look like a “street girl. ” Charlotte Johnson designed Barbie’s wardrobe. Jack Ryan also designed the joints that attached the arms and legs as he supervised the production of the molds.
Well-designed wardrobes of synthetic and natural cloth were a hit in the doll market of the early 1960s. For dolls in particular, lifestyle trends dictated industry directions. As described by Judd, in her book on Glamour dolls of the 1950s & 1960s: “… By 1957 careers began to open up for girls. While they still expected to become wives and mothers, they also dreamed of being a glamorous fashion model, airline stewardess, nurse, ballerina or television star. ” “… This was also a time when the women of the United States discovered the home permanent and hair care was no longer a luxury.
Even little girls were given permanents by their mothers. … these little girls wanted combs, curlers and even permanents for their dolls. ” In a time of great changes in women’s fashion and career opportunities, Barbie was manufactured in Tokyo, by KBK – originally a widget factory. She was launched in the American market with a complete wardrobe to appeal to the most demanding customers – perfect fit, the right fabric, well-done finishing, matching accessories. All of which were made by housewives throughout Japan. Figure 5 Lilli’s promotional image: “Whether more or less naked, Lilli is always discreet”3
Figure 6 #1 Barbie6 actually worth $3,000 to $4,000 The toy market in the late 50’s and 60’s Figure 7 Ginny by Vogue Dolls, Inc. Hard plastic jointed neck, shoulders, waist and hips. 7 Barbie was not a success at first. During and after the New York Toy Show its sales were yet to be what Mattel expected. Most of the buyers, used to baby dolls, did not like the new adult look of Barbie. When Barbie was conceived and launched, the doll segment of the toy market was dominated by Ginny, a doll made of hard plastic by Vogue Dolls, Inc. and by Miss Revlon, produced by Ideal Toy & Novelty Corporation.
In order to deal with those two strong competitors, and with the issue of the adult look, Mattel commissioned for $12,000 a toy study by Ernest Ditcher, the witchdoctor of 1950s marketing. The study included several observations of children playing with Barbies as well as follow up interviews with the children and with their parents. This study helped establish the guidelines for the advertising campaign that would launch Barbie in the retail market. One cannot overestimate the importance of television in early 1960s and the changes that it brought about in children’s participation in the purchasing decisions.
For the first time in history advertisers had wide-reaching access to the youth market. Toys were shown in commercials making it possible for children to determine exactly what they wanted. Using the guidelines determined by Ditcher’s study, this was how Mattel reached its public. By the end of 1960, Barbie’s popularity was well established, and the orders started to grow. It took Mattel several years to catch up with the demand. Figure 8 Miss Revlon, by Ideal Toy & Novelty Corporation Vinyl “Magic Touch” pliable skin, feathered eyebrows, swivel waist, soft vinyl head. 8 Shaping strategy trough design: 70’s and 80’s