University of Southern California

Barbie Symposium Gets Down to Business
USC Marshall Celebrates 50 years of Global Icon, Looks to Challenges Ahead
November 30, 2009 • by Jeremy Deutchman

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 recent symposium at the USC Marshall School of Business, bringing 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 (GBC), the school's marketing department and Mattel. Symposium organizer and Global Branding 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 Global Branding Center honoring Barbie's extraordinary success and ongoing cultural relevance. "It's a well-deserved recognition," says Global Branding 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, observed 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 website and online communities," said Mattel's Shore. It is uncharted territory, but Barbie, says the Global Branding Center's  Wilbur, is well positioned to thrive. "Barbie has had a lasting effect on consumers and the culture," she says. "The bottom line is that it continues to be a truly incredible brand."

The Global Branding Center
Led by Director C.W. Park, the Global Branding Center at the USC Marshall School of Business is a global creator and disseminator of branding knowledge and path-breaking research, expanding the scope from traditional product and service branding to entertainment and business-to-business branding. The Global Branding Center serves the needs of managers globally by providing research-based solutions relating to branding.

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.