Friday, April 1, 2016

When Creating a Product Name, ONE WORD Can Make a Difference

On International Women’s Day in March 2016, a famous company known around the world for one of its products became THE NEWS as a result of a new product launch announced earlier this year. The company is Mattel, the product known around the world is Barbie – and the new product’s name is “Interim CEO Barbie.” From a marketing perspective, why would a company made famous by its adult woman doll launch a professional businesswoman doll and add the word “Interim?” This product name seems rather odd.

Before we analyze the reasons for this move, we need to take a walk back through history. In 1945, Ruth and Elliot Handler started their company, Mattel, combining Elliot's name with the last name of their partner, Harold Matson. In 1956, the Handlers took their two teenage children, Barbara and Ken, on a trip to Europe, and during the trip, they saw a doll that looked like an adult woman. This doll was much different from the baby dolls that most little girls played with back in America.

Ruth was inspired, and three years later, Mattel’s version of the adult doll, which she named after her daughter, debuted and became a big success. The Barbie doll also had a wardrobe of outfits that could be purchased separately. In 1960, the Handlers took Mattel public, and Barbie quickly became an icon, with a wardrobe and career options that mirrored women’s changing goals.

Ruth Handler said in a 1977 interview with The New York Times, “Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future. If she was going to do role-playing of what she would be like when she was 16 or 17, it was a little stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest. So I gave the doll beautiful breasts. And Barbie kept pace with the times. During Camelot, she sported a Jacqueline Kennedy hairdo. During the 1970’s, her career choices and outfits begin to change to include a doctor, astronaut and veterinarian, among others. My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, a girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

According to the BBC News, “Barbie was one of the first toys to have a marketing strategy based extensively on television advertising, which has been copied widely by other toys. It is estimated that over a billion Barbie dolls have been sold worldwide in over 150 countries, with Mattel claiming that three Barbie dolls are sold every second.”

So, with all the emphasis on career options and women’s choices, why would Mattel create a new Barbie with the name of INTERIM CEO? According to Heidrick and Struggles, a recruiting firm, women now hold 20 percent of corporate board seats among Fortune 500 companies, up from 19 percent in 2013 and 17 percent in 2009. If those numbers are correct, it will take 28 years before women comprise 50 percent of corporate board seats. While the percentage of female Fortune 500 board leaders is still staggeringly low, it's nearly twice that of female CEOs, who make up just 4.6 percent of those companies (as of June 29, 2015).

Back to Mattel’s decision for this new doll’s name. Who wants to grow up to become an INTERIM CEO? How does that title motivate a young girl or teenager who sees the new doll on the Target or Walmart shelf or on More importantly, how would a parent explain the title to his or her child so that the child understands this individual’s role and value in a business? Above all, why would a young adult want to grow up and become an INTERIM CEO?

Renee Chanon, former President of the League of Women Voters of Los Angeles and a retired public affairs consultant, explained, “Mattel may want us to believe that the new Barbie is empowering girls, but it’s really telling them to settle for second best.”

But wait a minute! Have you checked your calendar today? Yes, that’s right, it’s April 1st, and that means it’s April Fool’s Day. So, if you had doubts that this story about a new doll from Mattel with the name “Interim CEO” was fake, you would be correct. While Barbie has been a football coach, dentist, yoga teacher, veterinarian, United States Air Force jet pilot, UNICEF summit diplomat, firefighter, police officer, architect, chef, astronaut, architect, film director, and ballerina, she has never been an “Interim CEO.”

However, on March 8, 2016, this story was reported in the Los Angeles media by a well known and very respected business reporter. After learning that this story was fake, I reached out to the reporter, the radio station’s news desk, and Mattel. Unfortunately, I did not receive any email or letter from the reporter, the radio station, nor Mattel – and I sent a letter to the CEO, the President, and the media inquiry office.

This Barbie story caused me to reflect how businesses respond to crisis communications. Do most businesses have crisis communications plans in place? Do they respond in social media? Or do they disappear under a rock with the hope that a bad news story quickly disappears? Certainly, a bigger news story will push fake stories away from reporters’ desks, such as, international terror attacks or plane crashes, but reporters should take ownership for their goofs and admit when they get a story wrong.

Reporters are brands – just as products and services are brands – and they must realize that their reports are representations of their personal brands. So the next time I hear a report that sounds odd, I probably won’t even question it, but will instead, go with my gut and know it’s too odd to be true. If I had been able to discuss this story with Ruth Handler, she would have known immediately that the Los Angeles reporter had been wrong – because of one word in the product’s name!

Original Report:   

Obituary of Ruth Handler in The New York Times:

List of women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies 

Image Credit: Photo of Dr. Barbie by Debbie Laskey.

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