Ken and Barbie 101: A branding seminar

March 28, 2011

It’s official. Ken and Barbie are a couple again. Though it seems Ken has had some “work” done. His face looks completely different — more like a recently graduated collegiate football player than a distinguished 50-year old. And he’s a newly-minted movie star, having scored a leading role in last year’s Toy Story 3.

Barbie has been “refreshed” as well, in no way physically divulging her 52 years. However, Ken and Barbie are not the only ones to have been updated. Mattel’s branding strategy and marketing campaign also have been.

Looking to social media, mobile applications, localized content and branded video, Mattel has decided to go where its customers live. Beginning with Ken’s appearance in Toy Story 3, the Barbie brand has successfully experimented with creative media solutions that enable the company to reach its traditional base of young girls, as well as an expanding group of grownup boys and girls, and nostalgic adults.

The lesson learned? Good brands are organic. They update messages and communication tools to meet market preferences. And as exemplified by Mattel, good brands realize that they must sometimes follow instead of lead—follow their customers, speak their language and target buyers where they live. The premise holds true for both iconic consumer brands and successful business-to-business brands.

With Barbie’s more than 50 years of entrenched market status, Mattel understands the importance of being an organic brand. Most recently, the company has demonstrated that awareness by developing creative and appealing campaigns that support the Barbie brand while also expanding its established demographic.

Beginning with Ken’s Toy Story 3 appearance, Mattel has implemented a series of modern media-friendly campaigns. Earlier this year, billboards pronouncing Ken’s love for Barbie — “Barbie we may be plastic but our love is real” — were spotted in major cities. The ultimate conclusion was the couple’s highly publicized reunion after a 7-year hiatus. Last month, Mattel produced one of the most viewed webisodes on Hulu, entitled “Genuine Ken: The Search for the Great American Boyfriend.” The winner, a 25-year old former collegiate football player, will serve as the physical foundation for a redesigned Ken doll.

Is this creative for creative sake or has Mattel reaped business rewards being an organic brand?

As of January 2010, Barbie sales notched their biggest gain in a decade increasing by 12%. The growth has continued. Additionally, Barbie has nearly 1.9 million followers on Facebook and 40,000 on Twitter. She updates her status daily, tweets many times a day and regularly checks in on Four Square. Every post results in hundreds of comments. All the while Barbie makes hip pop culture references, links to like brands, such as Dylan’s Candy Bar, Sephora, Mac and The Twilight Saga, offers buyers direct links to purchase products and continuously employs humor. Barbie is funny. She is also chic and in touch.

The Barbie brand has not changed its core. Barbie is still about playing and dreaming, but these campaigns make the brand slightly more cool and sophisticated. The result is a brand that understands its audience and has employed creative tools to expand that audience. What changes can you make to your brand that will open new avenues of buyers?

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