Business Musings: Over The Decades (Niche Marketing Part 9)

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I’m obsessed with all things Barbie right now. Not because I loved the movie. I haven’t seen it, and am not sure I will. My relationship with the doll is fraught due to some bad childhood moments, and I’m not sure I want to open that memory box all the way in the blues and pinks of Barbie World, no matter how much I like Greta Gerwig, and how subversive and feminist the movie is supposed to be.

Actually, the doll was always meant to be subversive and feminist. Created by Mattel’s co-founder, Ruth Handler, because she noted that dolls for her daughter either encouraged her to be a wife or a mother, Barbie is eternally single, someone who lives her own life.

Experts aren’t sure if Handler’s choice of a risqué German doll as the basis for Barbie was deliberate or not. Barbie certainly didn’t look like the other dolls of that era at all, which always caused controversy.

Barbie was only one small part of Mattel’s company, though. There was the Magic 8 Ball and toys for toddlers (most of which are part of Fisher Price now, and still exist) and other dolls like Chatty Cathy (which gives me the shudders just thinking about it. Dolls and I do not get along, based on long-ago childhood trauma). Hot Wheels and Major Matt Mason and other toys were all in the Mattel lines.

They were all advertised on television, and changed marketing for kids toys forever.

But Barbie, she was a part of the company. Not the whole company. And she was the original niche, something for girls that wasn’t (cough) Chatty Cathy. (God, I hated that doll.)

Barbie always changed with the times. She got a cool house and a nifty if bland boyfriend and her own car and she had her own friends. I only noticed these changes because my own friends had Barbies.

Then Barbie changed. She became representative, not just with friends of color, but Barbie herself was Black or Latina or Asian. She had real careers. I remember walking into Toys R Us back when it still existed and actually walking through the Barbie aisle, looking at all the different dolls.

It wasn’t until the movie came out that I realized how many fashion designers partnered with Mattel to create limited edition Barbies. And how many celebrities asked for their own Barbie. I didn’t realize that Barbie’s promotions had changed over the years, including  a campaign in 1985 titled “We Girls Can Do Anything” with this little tagline:

We can dream dreams and make them come true because nothing’s worth doing that we girls can’t do, your moms know it too. We girls can do anything, right Barbie?

All of these changes made an impact on the doll and on the consumer. I was listening to the NPR Politics Podcast on July 7 and I heard something that brought all of the Barbie stuff to my attention.

NPR’s Politics Podcast ends the week with a segment called “Can’t Let It Go,” which focuses on issues of the week that the reporters can’t stop thinking about. Maura Liasson mentioned that she couldn’t let go of the backlash to the Barbie movie in Vietnam.

The hosts discussed this for a moment, then host Miles Parks asked the others if they were going to see the movie. Liasson said, with disdain, that she was not going to go because “my daughter is now 22 years old and I don’t have to.”

To which host Sarah McCammon responded—not defensively, but strongly—like this: “I don’t have a daughter. I’m going to see it anyway.”

That caught my ear. I knew that Maura Liasson was close to my age. (Actually, she’s older.) She responded with the same tone and forcefulness that I would have used if anyone had asked me. It’s essentially, Barbie? Hell, no.

But Sarah McCammon is 42. She was a very young girl during the shifting promotional campaign. She was one of the girls who probably bought the Barbies from the Toys R Us aisle, from CEO Barbie to scientist Barbie to librarian Barbie.

Barbie opened doors for her. And for millions of other kids, not just girls. Boys bought Barbies too. Young fashion designers of all genders loved Barbie.

These were the people who unashamedly and enthusiastically went to the Barbie movie initially like they would go to the Super Mario Brothers movie. Then the Barbie movie turned out to be good, so they dragged other people. Eventually these folks made Barbie a record-smasher extraordinaire, earning (at this moment) 1.18 billion in box office alone.

Why am I writing about big business in a niche marketing series?

Because Barbie herself is the ultimate niche. She was a small part of Mattel’s product line when she was introduced, but she grew into a force. A controversial one at that, in the beginning anyway. (Witness my response as well as Maura Liasson’s.)

Sometimes Mattel’s marketing on Barbie was bad, and sometimes it was amazing. Then Barbie grew into such a juggernaut that the product line had niches within niches, as well as collectibles and other items that were uniquely Barbie.

The trajectory of Barbie over 64 years is the ultimate goal of your niche marketing. She went from a unique sideline in a budding toy company to one of the centers of that company to something that needed reinvention to something beloved and familiar.

Now, Mattel does large and small things with Barbie. For more than a decade, an entire team has curated Barbie’s Instagram and Tik Tok accounts in true influencer fashion. A team, meticulously creating a “Barbie” vision.

Delia Cai, the author of the article I found in Vanity Fair, had this interchange with a Mattel executive:

On a Zoom call, I ask Lisa McKnight, Mattel’s executive vice president and global head of Barbie and dolls, about the corporate rationale behind this level of investment in a doll’s social media accounts. After all, it isn’t as if the TikTok and Instagram crowds necessarily align with the core toy store customer. “A little girl that played Barbie two decades ago could be a mother today, or a grandmother,” McKnight says. “We do believe there is ultimately monetization that occurs by nurturing these relationships throughout generations.” 

Wow, how on point is that for our series? They’re still doing niche marketing. Monetization occurs by nurturing relationships throughout generations. Or…one person at a time.

Of course we can’t do this extensive Instagram/Tik-Tok approach  when we’re starting out. We can have the ideas, but hiring a team to work on our brand? Not possible yet. I doubt Ruth Handler in 1959 would have thought of hiring a promotion team to create a fictitious Barbie narrative in whatever advertising space existed then.

But that’s where we’ve gone, through creativity and vision.

I think that’s what excites me the most about niche marketing. We can be creative in a niche space. Because we’re not spending thousands of dollars. We’re not doing what everyone else is doing either.

We’re doing our thing, our unique thing, in our unique way.

It’s hard to remember now that Barbie was unique when she started out. There was nothing else like her. No Barbie knockoffs, no other fashion dolls, no dolls for boys either.

Just Barbie.

She’s not the only product that has grown from a niche into a worldwide brand. The Avengers and all of the Marvel Comics characters that people discuss now from the movies and the TV shows weren’t even the main force in the decidedly nerdy and non-mainstream comics culture back when they were introduced.

Only 300 people attended the first Comic Con in 1970. And that was for all comics, not just Marvel or DC. When I got my start in sf, Comic Con was big, but not huge. It was still a small(ish) niche convention for fans of an artform that many people disdained.

Niches within niches within niches.

As I’ve said from the beginning of this series—heck, as long as I’ve written this blog—we build our fan base one person at a time. Sometimes we lose fans as well or potential fans.

Barbie lost me and Maura Liasson and many other women of our generation. (We were raised in the feminist early 70s. Barbie had no place there. Her goals were very…plastic. (Okay, couldn’t resist).) Judging by what I see on social media, Mattel didn’t win us back. It did capture the next generation and the next and the next, though, through innovative marketing and focusing on creating a special place in the products and marketing world for Barbie herself. Making her inclusive. Making her strong. Making her someone a girl could aspire to.

Let me also note that Greta Gerwig, Barbie’s director, has just turned 40. She came of age after the rebrand. She watched all the niches and incorporated them.

So I’ve been thinking about all things Barbie because of this blog series. Because the success of Barbie through continual niche marketing is something to aspire to.

If your products—your books or whatever you choose to do—live 64 years like Barbie has, then those products will grow beyond you and whatever you planned for them.

You will not be able to envision what is coming for that product six decades down the road. And you certainly won’t get there by marketing everything like everyone else. (Nor will you get there by creating books/products that are just like someone else’s.)

Niche marketing lets you spread your creative wings with very little risk. You can find the best way to promote on a limited budget and for a short period of time. Or maybe I should rephrase. Not the best way, but your way.

And that alone will catch someone’s attention. If it doesn’t, then you haven’t lost too much. And you can try again.

Niche marketing frees us, lets us be ourselves and can be a lot of fun.

Give it a try.

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This blog started as a niche. It’s still a niche in my writing business, but it has spawned many books, made me a go-to person for all kinds of podcasters until a lack of time made me pull the plug on that, and brought a bunch of folks here to the website. This niche is working well.

Back when I started in 2009, it felt odd to remind you all that this blog is reader supported. So I channeled my public radio training and did the pledge drive thing. Gradually, it felt normal.

Thank you all for being here. And, if you want to support the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.

If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.

In case you’re wondering, this is the end of the niche marketing series. There’s a lot of other stuff to cover that’s come up this summer. I hope to get to it. See you next week!

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“Business Musings: Over The Decades (Niche Marketing Part 9),” copyright © 2023 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2022 Mattel All Rights Reserved. Used With Permission of Mattel, Inc.

2 thoughts on “Business Musings: Over The Decades (Niche Marketing Part 9)

  1. Aloha Kristin, I was born in 1963 and Barbie was my thing. My babysitter gave me the first Barbie in its original box for my second or third birthday. Of course she’s still in that box, untouched because my mother just knew.

    I went on to collect (and play with) every Barbie (Ken and Skipper too) I could get my little grubby hands on.
    I also had every Barbie car, RV, Winnebago and outfit that my babysitting, snow shoveling, leaf raking money could afford.

    I dreamt of becoming a couture designer. Designing beaded gowns for every occasion for movie stars. However when Mattel released Nurse Barbie, complete with nursing cap, I knew immediately where my life was going. I retired after 30 years as a registered nurse working labor and delivery.

    Barbie was my heroine. She really was responsible for my career. Probably for my desire to marry then divorce, being happily single as well.

    I haven’t seen the Barbie movie yet. I’ll wait until it comes out on Netflix. Peopling is hard!

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