Brand strategy – what Mattel are doing with Barbie


8th September 2023

Blake Morgan Legal Director Joanna Corbett-Simmons gave expert insight into Mattel’s brand strategy.

She was quoted in an article first published in World IP Review on 30 August here. The intellectual property specialist spoke about brand strategy, trade marks, opportunities and challenges.

1. What do you think about Mattel’s brand strategy in the wake of the success of the Barbie film?

Mattel is capitalising on the reinvigoration of Barbie and is looking to reach new audiences as well as existing fans of the brand. It has done this in part through expanding and extending the story behind Barbie and giving each character more complexity, making it relatable to a wider audience and increasing the brand’s potential reach. Mattel is also embracing and owning pink – you would be hard pushed to avoid the ubiquity of the colour in recent months.

2. What impact has its global success had on its IP?

With great power comes great responsibility. The bigger the brand, the greater the likelihood of counterfeit products being created which makes protection of intellectual property rights even more important – and more time consuming. Mattel will inevitably have a team of experts monitoring the market for potential infringers. We would expect them to be selective in those they take action against given the breadth of the market and popularity of the brand.

3. What Mattel IP is protected and licensed?

Mattel will inevitably have a raft of intellectual property rights and thousands of registrations.  A search of the UK trade mark registry for the word “Mattel” produces over 700 results and Mattel Inc has 229 registered trademarks in the UK alone.

We can trace Mattel Inc’s trade mark registrations for “Barbie” all the way from 1962 in Class 28 (toys, dolls, games and playthings) to modern day where it is included in everything from Class 25 (cosmetics) through to Class 3 (sweets) and Class 41 (entertainment and films). A recent registration for Class 43 (hotels, cafes and bars) could potentially provide a hint for what’s to come next for the brand.

The current Mattel Inc Barbie logo has been registered in Class 28 since 1991. A UK trade mark search for the word “Barbie” produces over 600 results including the historic logos used throughout the brand’s lifespan. It’s likely that trade marks are the main focus of Mattel’s licensing agreements, giving others the right to use the Barbie name and logo on specific goods in specific territories.

Mattel will be monitoring the use of the trade mark closely to ensure that the licensees do not go beyond the terms of these agreements. There have been some fantastic collaborations around the Barbie movie, with everything from a pink Barbie burger in Burger King Brazil through to Lush x Barbie pop-up shop in London. Barbie has also collaborated with Monopoly, with a special edition set to launch later this year. It has been a marketeer’s dream!

4. What challenges or issues did Mattel face before Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster?

Despite Barbie’s feminist origins, the brand faced a downturn in popularity during the 2010s largely due to criticisms of a lack of diversity within the brand, and its perceived promotion of an unhealthy and unrealistic body image for young girls.  While Mattel has been a trailblazer at certain times – including releasing its first African American doll in the 1960s – more recently, Barbie has been seen to have failed to move with the times.

Mattel turned to its customers for answers on the popularity decline and discovered that representation was key. Barbie was no longer considered relevant or relatable. Cue Barbies of 22 ethnicities, 35 skin tones, 97 hairstyles and 9 different body types (to date) resulting in a huge popularity spike. Mattel gave the customers what they wanted, a Barbie which reflected their image.

Mattel is known for taking action against those infringing its IP, not least the rights in the Barbie brand. In one high profile case, Mattel took issue with Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” for portraying the brand in a negative light. After a lengthy and messy law suit, the Supreme Court concluded that the song was a parody and criticism of the brand so there was no infringement. Some years later however, Mattel used a version of the song in advertisements for their Barbie Fashionista and Fab Girl Barbie dolls.

Finally, Mattel has, on several occasions, attempted to register Barbie pink as a colour mark, without success. That has not however stopped the colour from being synonymous with the brand.

5. What IP issues have arisen since the movie’s success?

The omnipresence of the Barbie brand has no doubt seen an increase in counterfeit items. The increase in the use of online marketplace websites presents a challenge for all brands in monitoring infringement and taking action against those responsible for the dupes. All in a day’s work for brands like Mattel.

The movie has prompted some unexpected issues though. There has been a spate of hackers taking advantage of online searches for “Barbie”, promoting links that will download malware onto the user’s machine.

Barbie is not impervious to politics either, despite international sanctions and film studio embargos, the Barbie movie has still been aired illegally in parts of Russia.

6. What lies in store for the brand and its IP in the future?

The future looks pink! Mattel is riding the wave of our rekindled affection for all things Barbie which is likely to endure past the DVD release date and streaming and terrestrial premieres. Mattel’s Adventure Park in Arizona is scheduled to open next year and features a life-size Barbie Beachhouse (and no doubt a huge selection of Barbie licensed merchandise) which will provide further momentum for the brand.

7. What lessons does the Mattel story have for other brand/IP owners?

Above all else, Mattel has endured by learning to embrace diversity and communicating that to its customer base in an authentic way. Barbie had to learn to evolve to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience. In developing its new Down’s Syndrome Barbie, Mattel worked closely with the National Down’s Syndrome Society to ensure that the doll accurately represented those with Down’s Syndrome. Strategic licensing is also key, and Mattel has shown the importance of partnering with brands whose values align with your own to capitalise on your joint popularity and expand your reach.

How can we help?

Blake Morgan’s specialist Brand Protection and Trade Mark team are experts in all aspects of worldwide brand protection and trade marks. Find out more about their trade mark expertise here.

If you need advice on IP, trade marks, copyright or how to protect your brand

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