The birth of Barbie: stolen with pride
Posted by Giles Lury on April 26, 2012
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Many marketers know the phrase, “stolen with pride”. It refers to a ‘tool’ for innovation when you ‘borrow’ an idea from another category or country and transfer it to your market. One of the cases most often quoted is that of Unilever’s Magnum ice cream, which i said to be based on US ice cream brand Dove.
Reading Johan Lehrer’s excellent new book, ‘Imagine : How Creativity works’, I came across another early example: the birth of Barbie.
The story starts with Ruth Handler watching her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls in the 1950s and noticing that she gave them ‘adult’ roles. At the time, most children’s dolls were representations of babies or young children. Ruth suggested the idea of an adult-bodied doll to her husband Elliot, who just happened to be a senior executive at the Mattel toy company. However, he was unenthusiastic about the idea, as were Mattel’s directors.
The seismic change took place during the Handlers’ summer vacation to Switzerland in 1956, when the family began ‘stealing with pride’. Lehrer states that Elliot Handler’s wife: “noticed a strange looking doll in the window of a cigarette shop. The doll was eleven and a half inches tall, had platinum-blond hair, long legs and an ample bosom. Her name was Bild Lilli. Although Ruth didn’t know it at the time – she didn’t speak German – the doll was actually a sex symbol, sold mainly to middle-aged men (- That’s why the doll was only stocked in bars and tobacco stores.) But Handler didn’t get the joke – she took one look at the blond Bild Lili and saw a perfect toy for young girls.”
Ruth bought three of the dolls, giving one to her daughter and taking the other two back to Mattel in the US. The design of the doll was slightly reworked (with help from engineer Jack Ryan) and given a new name – Barbie – after the Handlers’ daughter, Barbara.
The doll made its début at the American International Toy Fair in New York on March 9, 1959; now Barbie’s official birthday.
Lehrer goes on to describe how the toy was by no means an overnight success. Early market research showed that some parents were unhappy about the doll’s chest, which had distinct breasts, while Sears initially refused to carry a toy with “feminine curves”. Despite that, some 350,000 Barbie dolls were sold during the first year of production.
Since then the toy has – again according to Lehrer – “ become a cultural icon, beloved by girls, burned by feminists and immortalized by Warhol. Mattel has sold more than a billion Barbies: a salacious German figurine is now one of the most popular toys in the world”
For me, the above isn’t merely a lovely story that demonstrates the power of stealing with pride, but also a timely reminder that not all innovations are immediate successes.
And finally, just in case you’re interested, the Bild Lilli doll was based on a character who appeared in a comic strip drawn by Reinhard Beuthin for the newspaper Die Bild-Zeitung. Lilli was a blonde bombshell; a working girl who knew what she wanted and was not above using men to get it. The Lilli doll was first sold in Germany in 1955, and sales continued until Mattel acquired the rights in 1964 and ceased production.