March 25, 2024

Beanies and Barbies: Three Factors That Make Brands Last

I was walking down the random merchandise aisle in my local supermarket last week.  I call it random because it is the aisle that has a section that sells notebooks, pens, padlocks, wiffle balls, Beanie Babies….That’s right, Beanie Babies!  I laughed to myself in surprise because I didn’t know that Beanie Babies were even still on the market.  Then I remembered the Beanie Baby craze of the 1990’s. People collected them and would pay hundreds and thousands of dollars for the hard-to-find ones. There were issues with knock-off’s and fabricated scarcity. But what was the secret that took these little, animal-shaped, bean-bag dolls from fast fad to long-term nostalgia?

I got to thinking about another set of dolls that have never faded, having recently inspired a blockbuster movie… Barbie dolls. Barbie dolls are plastic and not as cute or cuddly as Beanie Babies or even other soft dolls. But generations continue to not just collect but play with Barbie and her friends, Ken, Midge, and Skipper.  At least those were the names of her crew when I played with them, along with their cars, clothes, and equipment.

In these brief descriptions of Beanies and Barbies lie three key interrelated differences between fads and things with staying power.

1. Integrated Design

Many products we buy now place an emphasis on functional and material goals and uses OR they have an emphasis on deeply human aspects like emotion, relationships, or image. The products that- by design- integrate both, are the products that tend to last. Beanie Babies certainly appealed to human nature needs for cute and cozy and even to competitiveness when they were scarce. However, what could you really do with a Beanie Baby besides let it sit on the bed or on a shelf? Barbie dolls, on the other hand, appealed to the human need for relationships and imagination. Barbie had friends, and if you bought a Barbie, you generally bought her friends and imagined their lives together. Barbie dolls were designed with movable parts and accessories, so they're more functional and multi-use than ordinary dolls. Barbie and friends don’t just sit around.  You dress them, play with them, have them go places in their spiffy car, and have them talk to each other.

2. Relationship Facilitation

Reflecting on my own experiences, Beanie Babies often served as conversation starters or display pieces, rather than active participants in imaginative play. My memory of playing with Barbie dolls, and watching kids today, is that we relate to the dolls and the lives we imagine them leading. What’s more, we relate to each other while playing with Barbies. Human beings crave relationships for functional, emotional, and spiritual reasons. Those things that enable us to relate tend to stand the test of time better than things that are simply objects.

3. Multi-Use

I’ve already mentioned that Beanie Babies, as cute as they are, don’t do much but hang out on the bed. Barbie dolls, on the other hand, are used to generate stories and scenarios. They allow kids to experiment with clothes and accessories. They require social skills if you want Barbie, Ken, Midge, Skipper, and the gang to get along, go places, and get things done. Barbie dolls are the perfect set of companions for a rainy or snowy day when you need to stay inside and imagine life on the beach. Barbie has a lot going for her, one of those things being versatility.

Guiding Principles for Enduring Products

Beanie Babies may have tugged at our heartstrings with their cuteness and nostalgia, yet they lacked the versatility that Barbie dolls effortlessly embodied. While Beanie Babies were cherished for their cozy charm, Barbie dolls seamlessly integrated functionality, relatability, and imagination. With movable parts and a plethora of accessories, Barbie encouraged dynamic play and storytelling, transcending the boundaries of mere collectibles.

Whether we are talking dolls, communication technologies, food and beverage products, furniture, or other products, those that last have been designed and use messaging around the integration of functional and deeply human goals, relationships and relatability, and the ability to serve multi-purposes.

So, the next time you are innovating, marketing, or shopping for a product or service that you want to last for a good, long while, test it against these three inter-related criteria. Look what it did for Barbie!