Barbie is the material girl par excellence, the original mall rat. Introduced by Mattel at the Toy Fair in 1959 [...]
January 17 1992 by Michael T Harris
Barbie is the material girl par excellence, the original mall rat. Introduced by Mattel at the Toy Fair in 1959 as “The Barbie Doll: A Shapely Teenage Fashion Model,” the long-limbed, 11-inch clotheshorse has no soul and barely a personality but has been the most successful doll in history. She is a perpetually pubescent girl, and the only thing on her mind is turning Ken’s vinyl head.
Dispute if you will this description, taken from “The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste.” In any case, you have to admit that like a handful of other famous women who only need a first name-Madonna and
Behind most successful toys, however, is a capable corporate executive. In this case, that’s Mattel’s Jill Elikann Barad. Since 1982, the year she became marketing director for Barbie, she and the plastic princess have been on the fast track: A vice presidency in 1984 led to an EVP post and, in 1989, to an appointment as president of the girls and activity toys division. In 1990, she was named one of two presidents of the corporation’s Mattel-USA.
But this July, her career took another giant leap forward when she was named president and chief operating officer (posts left vacant since 1987) of the
“I’m somebody who looks at the goal in front of me and goes after it aggressively,” says 41-year-old Barad. But being corporate president was not on her list of goals. “I don’t look above me very often to see where it’s going to get me,” she adds. “I am preoccupied with what I have to accomplish here.”
Effectively, Barad pulled off a marketing miracle. While Barbie is seemingly ageless, in the toy business she’s 33 years old. Yet it wasn’t until age 29 that Barbie recorded sales of more than $400 million a year. Now, just four years later, the doll is nearing $1 billion a year.
Much of the credit goes to Barad and her team. Mattel’s 1992 revenues are projected at $1.92 billion: That would represent a Barbie-propelled 16.6 percent gain from 1991.
As for other giants of the entertainment industry, Barad acknowledges, success for Barbie hasn’t come without some controversy. Recently, the squeaky-clean icon came under fire from The American Association of University Women, a Washington, D.C.-based organization of more than 135,000 female graduates. The group demanded that Mattel recall its Teen Talk Barbie-or at least slap a warning label on it-because it says the doll reinforces stereotypes that women do not excel in mathematics.
“Math class is tough,” says the talking doll in one of 270 pre-programmed messages. Others, perhaps more apropos to the next generation of upwardly mobile career women, include, “We should start a business,” and, “I’m studying to be a doctor.”
“We didn’t fully consider the implications of this phrase,” says Barad.
“We take very seriously our responsibility to maintain Barbie’s image as a positive role model.” A Mattel spokeswoman says the company has no plans to recall the doll hut will exchange a Teen Talk doll with another talking Barbie if purchasers object to the math class message.
Controversy notwithstanding, the price tags of vintage Barbies are soaring. “Barbie’s – an institution,” raves Leslie Her-son, owner of “Love Saves The Day,” a specialty nostalgia collection shop with outlets in
Mint versions of the doll with its hair parted on the side can run about $3,000. “Outfits that used to sell for $25 now go for between $850 and $1,200,” says Herson, who hunts Barbies at doll shows, flea markets, and garage sales. “The quality of workmanship is unable to be duplicated today. The original clothing used real silk and satin, and the coats were lined.”
On the corporate level, meanwhile, Mattel hopes Barad can continue Barbie’s success and help guide the company’s rapidly growing international sales and manufacturing operations. Barad says she and her team have learned how to take a core business line, reverse any marketing missteps, and create a vibrant growth franchise.
“I want to take some of those principles that we applied to Barbie and put them to some of our other core businesses and new categories that we will be entering over the next few years,” she says.
One of the questions she’ll have to answer is whether she can provide day-to-day leadership for an international corporation such as Mattel.
“I was able to do it for the brands I was responsible for, and that’s about 80 percent of the company,” she says. “I have learned a lot. And I’m sure there’s much, much more to learn. Some of the new categories will not only have manufacturing challenges, but product development challenges and marketing challenges. But I have a team of people who are the best in the industry. It’s not a one-man band around here.”
Barad plans to re-evaluate how Mattel manufactures and distributes its products in the global arena: “I think there is a lot more ground to be gained in really delivering on what has been coined `quick response,’ how to get our products from our manufacturing sites to retail stores faster, more efficiently.”
One area to go under the microscope will be the boys toy market. Traditionally, the top seller in this segment has been the “Hot Wheels” three-wheeler, designed for boys up to age eight. Hot Wheels adds around $100 million in annual sales. Barad says she’ll attempt to apply the Barbie blueprint to Hot Wheels.
One of Mattel’s biggest potential revenue streams is a worldwide licensing agreement with Walt Disney, worth about $300 million in sales this year. But with Mattel’s top-notch distribution network plugged into Disney’s parks, that figure may be quickly eclipsed.
Will Mattel ever again branch out into non-toy entertainment markets, such as when the company owned the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus back in the 1970s? Barad winces at the reminder of losses from that venture. “The point is, we got back to what we know how to do, and that’s make and market toys.”