Key Takeaway:

Barbie is one of America’s most trusted brands, with worldwide sales of US$1.5 billion in 2022 and a brand value of US$590 million. Mattel has used a “multiply” strategy to increase brand visibility and storytelling tactics to sustain interest in the brand. Mattel’s strategy of targeting older consumers through nostalgia and designer and limited edition dolls has been successful, but has also faced criticism. Barbie has been accused of promoting unrealistic body standards, stereotyping and objectification of women, but Mattel has attempted to address criticism by offering multiple career options and introducing ethnically and racially diverse dolls.

Rejected by the toy industry at first, Barbie is now one of America’s most trusted brands. “She” – the 11.5 inch blonde doll, but also her brand persona – generated worldwide sales of around US$1.5 billion (£1.3 billion) in 2022, and has a brand value of US$590 million.

Barbie debuted on March 9 1959 at the New York International Toy Fair as Barbie Teenage Fashion Model. Sixty-four years later, the doll continues to be the subject of cultural, sociological and psychological interest. By creating an iconic brandwith special meaning for fans of all ages (Barbie is marketed to children aged three and older), toy company Mattel has successfully extended the lifecycle of the Barbie brand for well over half a century. 

Barbie is also a polarising figure. The brand embodies the notion of a “double bind”, celebrated as an inspirational role model while at the same time blamed for creating unrealistic expectations of women, particularly when it comes to how they should look. 

But while most toys remain popular for only two or three years, Barbie’s long-term success reflects Mattel’s responsiveness and adaptability to the changing cultural and political discourse in society and around this doll. So how has the company done it?

Black and white photo of Ruth Handler, Barbie inventor, standing behind a display of male and female dolls.
Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie. Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

A Barbie girl, in a Barbie world

Research shows there are many ways to build and sustain brand characters, but Mattel has used a “multiply” strategy for Barbie. This has involved introducing other characters that play supporting roles in Barbie’s “world”.

Over the years, these supporting acts were introduced to portray Barbie’s relationship with friends and family. First there was Ken (1961), Barbie’s boyfriend, then her younger sister Skipper (1964), followed by friends including Midge (1963) and Christie (1968), the first black Barbie character. 

The storylines and individual characteristics of these additional characters connect to Barbie’s persona and increase brand visibility. Mattel has also used storytelling tactics such as announcing that Barbie and Ken had officially broken up on Valentine’s Day in 2004 (they got back together in 2011). Such stories resonate with fans’ emotions, sustaining interest in the brand.

These tactics typically work for a while, but how has Mattel sustained true brand longevity for this long? There are many strategies designed to revitalise mature brands. Mattel successfully extended Barbie’s brand to capture new audiences, drive growth and expand into new types of products beyond dolls.

This is a risky endeavour if the brand is stretched too far. But Barbie’s brand has been successfully extended into other profitable categories such as clothes, accessories, cosmetics and entertainment (music, movies and games). And now, after several computer-animated, direct-to-video and streaming television films, Barbie’s first big budget, live action movie will be released in cinemas in July 2023.

Early reports suggest the movie – helmed by Oscar-nominee Greta Gerwig, who also directed Little Women (2019) and Lady Bird (2017) – is likely to be rated PG-13. This is not the “universal” rating you might expect for a film about a popular toy. It hints at another strand of Mattel’s successful Barbie branding strategy: nostalgia.

Life in plastic, it’s fantastic

Alongside ongoing efforts to appeal to young girls, Mattel also deliberately targets older consumers. Specific objects – not just toys but clothes, food such as sweets, or even items like vinyl records – can give a physical form to a set of attitudes, relationships and circumstances for people. This evokes a powerful sense of the past

This kind of nostalgia generates trust and positive attitudes towards a brand, influencing consumer preferences when it comes to choosing between toys. 

In addition to the upcoming film, Mattel has attempted to capitalise on the nostalgia Barbie evokes in other ways. It sells more sophisticated designer and limited edition lines of collectible dolls aimed at adult fans, for example. These items are typically sold in speciality or boutique stores, and carry higher price tags than the average doll.

New York City, New York/ USA - February 16, 2019: Toy Fair New York Barbie signage at the Jacob Javits Center
A Barbie banner at the 2019 New York Toy Fair. Sean P. Aune/Shutterstock

Criticism of Barbie

As Barbie’s brand has expanded and evolved, the doll has also encountered criticism. Over the years, Barbie went through many transformations to look more confident, and was marketed as having many life options, particularly when it comes to work. There are now Barbie dolls representing more than 200 careers – from astronaut, surgeon, paratrooper, game developer, architect and entrepreneur to film director and even US president.

But critics have argued that these career dolls are a “misfire attempt at inspiring girls”. This negative perception of the brand’s moral vision is linked to the notion that Barbie is rooted in an ideal of femininity that still characterises women by their physical appearance.

Barbie has been accused of promoting unrealistic body standards, stereotyping and objectification of women, as well as having a negative influence on girls’ self-esteem and body image

Toy Fair New York, Mattel Barbie dolls on display, New York City, February 24, 2020.
Mattel has attempted to address criticism of Barbie over the years, for example by giving consumers multiple career options to choose from. Sean P. Aune/Shutterstock

So, faced with declining sales and competition from smaller brands offering dolls with more realistic body types (such as Lottie and Lammily), Mattel launched “Project Dawn” in 2016. This included the launch of Fashionistas, a line of Barbie dolls with different body types (curvy, petite and tall) and abilities, skin tones and eye colours, as well as hairstyles and outfits. 

But research suggested that young girls aged between three and ten prefered the original tall and petite dolls. They were negative about “curvy” Barbie, and this doll also received intense public scrutiny.

In 2017, Mattel took another significant step by introducing ethnically and racially diverse dolls of different nationalities, including the first hijab-wearing Barbie doll. However, this approach prompted criticism that Mattel was treating race and ethnic differences as “collectible”, and commodifying culture. 

Despite this, Barbie continues to be a toy that many children play with. The longevity and iconic status of the doll is a tribute to Mattel’s astute marketing and reinvention efforts. These have helped the brand remain relevant even now, 64 years after it was launched.


Recently Published

Key Takeaway: The Singapore Stone, an ancient epigraph measuring three-by-three meters, was discovered in 1819 but was almost entirely lost. Three fragments were saved by Scottish military officer James Low and sent to the Royal Asiatic Society’s Museum in Calcutta. The remaining fragments are unknown, and the script remains undeciphered. The epigraph’s origin is unknown, […]

Top Picks

Key Takeaway: The double-empathy problem, a concept popular among social scientists, suggests that people with different identities and communication styles struggle to empathize with each other. This theory has gained attention due to its potential to explain why different people in society struggle to empathise, potentially leading to personal and societal problems. However, the double-empathy […]
Key Takeaway: Research indicates that modernization and rapid technological advancements are contributing to contemporary problems such as mental health issues. An evolutionary mismatch theory suggests that our physical and psychological adaptations become misaligned with the environment, leading to issues like tooth decay, obesity, and diabetes. The modern world also presents challenges such as crowded cities, […]
Key Takeaway: The global demand for critical minerals, particularly lithium, is increasing rapidly to meet clean energy and de-carbonisation objectives. Africa hosts substantial resources of these minerals, leading foreign mining companies to invest in exploration and acquire mining licenses. The critical minerals market doubled in five years, reaching US$320 billion in 2022. The demand is […]


I highly recommend reading the McKinsey Global Institute’s new report, “Reskilling China: Transforming The World’s Largest Workforce Into Lifelong Learners”, which focuses on the country’s biggest employment challenge, re-training its workforce and the adoption of practices such as lifelong learning to address the growing digital transformation of its productive fabric. How to transform the country […]

Join our Newsletter

Get our monthly recap with the latest news, articles and resources.


Welcome to Empirics

We are glad you have decided to join our mission of gathering the collective knowledge of Asia!
Join Empirics