IP Strategy: Barbie and Ken – An endless love story

I couldn’t let Valentines Day go past without picking up on one of the longest courtships in history. Barbie and Ken have, I’m sure, celebrated many Valentines Days together. And they have a sound IP strategy to thank for that.

Barbie and Ken – how a sound IP strategy contributed to one of the longest courtship in history

Many of you will know the basic story of how the Barbie doll and brand was conceived, so just briefly then: Ruth Handler had the idea for a ‘grown up’ doll when she watched her daughter, Barbara, and her friends playing with dolls and noticed that they seemed to favour the more grown up dolls over the baby dolls. Many of those dolls were made of paper, rather than being three-dimensional, although Ruth did find a German doll called Lilli, which was made of hard plastic with moulded on shoes and earrings and a blonde ponytail. Lilli was Ruth’s inspiration for Barbie.

Lilli doll – the inspiration for original Barbie


Ruth’s husband, Elliot, and his business partner, Harold Mattson, had a toy business called MATTEL and, in 1959, they agreed to market Ruth’s Barbie (named after her daughter). The first Barbie patent (https://worldwide.espacenet.com/patent/search/family/025254600/publication/US3009284A?q=US3009284) was filed in 1959 and granted in 1961, and was directed to the doll construction (irrespective of its facial features or other aesthetic characteristics). The first Barbie doll was exhibited at a New York trade show in 1959 and, although it was not well received there, the public had a different idea, and over 350,000 dolls were sold in that first year alone!

original Barbie

Other patents followed covering, for example, the angularly adjustable limbs (https://worldwide.espacenet.com/patent/search/family/023329922/publication/US3277601A?q=US3277601) and the rest, as they say, is history. Barbie later had a boyfriend, Ken, and a younger sister and annual sales under the Barbie brand now exceed $1.6billion.

Other intellectual property

Of course, the original patents will have expired in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, but Barbie and Ken’s IP love story didn’t end there, and neither did Mattel’s IP strategy. By then, and thanks (in part) to the patents, Mattel had had enough of a head start in the market to ensure that the registered trade mark, Barbie(R) was very well known globally, so that the business could continue to stay ahead of the competition by brand recognition alone. Also, several registered designs were secured (mostly after the patents had expired) covering the appearance of the various facial and other bodily characteristics of (updated versions of) Barbie and Ken (and some of the other characters), thereby ensuring that competitors could not make or sell dolls that looked like them.

All in all, Barbie and Ken have a very healthy IP strategy to thank (at least in part) for their long courtship, and I’m sure they will be around to celebrate many more Valentines Days together!

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