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Negotiator Barbie: Lessons from Mattel’s iconic success

Ann Allfrey
Negotiation Barbie

Feeling rather late to the party, we have finally, as a family, booked tickets to see Barbie this weekend.

Breaking box office records, Barbie has grossed over a billion dollars in the 3 weeks since its release - equivalent to almost 10 x its budget. When I was a child the doll I wanted, was not Barbie, but Sindy, its UK equivalent. Yet, while Sindy was essentially de-listed by 1997 Barbie has grown in strength. Undoubtedly, this is in large part due to Mattel’s appetite to create more diverse and inclusive versions of the doll, and today there are 176 different types of Barbie.

Even since its launch in 1959, Barbie was ahead of its time, with dolls who had careers that were rare or unavailable options to women of the day. Astronaut Barbie was launched in 1965, two years after the first woman Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova travelled to space, although it would be another 19 years before the second female astronaut would follow. In 1972 Surgeon Barbie hit the shelves and by 1992 she was running for president.

The career and business world for this pint-sized plastic fantastic was clearly an easy one to navigate but for real women, the commercial world can still, on occasion, face us with outdated attitudes and challenges as a result.

As negotiators, regardless of gender, we can learn lessons from the huge success of Barbie through the decades. There are 3 key things I believe Mattel has done brilliantly which has ensured their success. Firstly, they kept focussing on the global objective of growing Barbie as a brand rather than simply producing a product. For negotiators retaining clarity on the key objective allows us to take a step back and re-focus rather than getting entrenched in detail or sidelined and distracted.

The second thing Mattel did (and arguably the most successful) was that they were creative and agile in how they achieved their objective. A focused objective is great but the more flexible we can be around how to achieve that objective the better. Mattel’s diversification into 176 different types of Barbie kept her relevant and inclusive and ensured an appeal to all that moved with the times.   

Finally, Mattel built collaborations and partnerships as it grew. Working cooperatively with others to ensure mutually beneficial outcomes and develop trust is crucial for negotiators in long-term commercial relationships.

So, this weekend, in the spirit of all that is pink, my real-life Ken, AKA Mr A and I, along with our daughter will be sporting pink, entering the Barbie world and hopefully having a thoroughly good time!

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