Written by Canon Wing

I teach entrepreneurs and organizations the proven action steps to stand out within their market, improve the perceived value of their business, and better connect with their audience through naming, branding, storytelling, and communication platforms.

March 4, 2021

What Barbie’s Figure Can Teach Us About Branding

Today we are going to uncover the hidden truth behind what drives an entrepreneur forward, and why the entrepreneurial spirit of one person can make life better for millions of people.  

We’re going to get to how Barbie’s figure factors into this equation in a minute, I promise. But first, let’s talk about you. A recent study done by Gallup revealed that 87% of people feel disengaged from the work they do on a daily basis. And yet, most people are willing to stay in these unfulfilling work environments, and often choose to find their higher purpose elsewhere in their lives; within their close personal relationships, their roles as a parent, caregiver, partner, provider…A person can find their purpose in cooking, gardening, hiking, horseback riding…whatever it is, the bottom line is that as human beings we all crave a purpose. In fact, studies have shown that the life expectancy of a person without a sense of purpose can be cut short by around 5-7 years! We are biologically compelled to continually embark on our own personal quests to seek out a sense of purpose as if our very lives depended on it! It’s called the hero’s journey, and it’s something so deeply ingrained in the human experience, that it’s one of the few things we all have in common.

Now, it’s my own personal belief that nearly every person on this planet at one point or another has had a million-dollar idea, but not everyone possesses the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s one thing to have a great idea, but to take the path of making that idea a reality, is a whole other can of worms! The stakes are high! There is great risk involved. There are always going to be people who think you are crazy at first! Think of the Orville Brothers out in a field tinkering with their cockamamie flying machine! Stark raving mad, those two! There’s an edge of rebellion to an entrepreneur, you know? We’re a little punk rock. We break away from the trodden paths, and we go rogue into unknown territory, and not everyone has the heart for it. And it certainly isn’t easy. 

So why do we do it?

Well, to put it plainly, we do it because it’s almost as if we have no choice; our idea is bigger than just ourselves. We’ve discovered a solution to a common problem, that we know could make other people’s lives better. And yeah—that could definitely mean that we eventually create some sweet cash flow for ourselves, but what sets an entrepreneur apart from anyone else is that we’ve discovered a common need within humanity, a missing piece of the puzzle, a gap in the tapestry of life that you KNOW in our gut you could mend and make whole. And even if we’re afraid to fail, or we have no idea where to begin, we know that this idea is going to just keep grabbing at our curiosity, pulling our attention, rolling around in the pit of our stomachs, and maybe sometimes even giving us a bit of a scare until we finally run it down and see where it take us. That is just the beginning of the hero’s journey for an entrepreneur. 

So now let’s talk about Barbie’s boobs.

In the 1950s an extraordinary woman named Ruth Handler had a brilliant idea. Born in 1916 to parents who were Polish immigrants and pioneers in their own right, Ruth had never been one to play with dolls as a child, but she was gifted with an entrepreneurial instinct. When she was 21, she and her husband, Elliot, moved to Los Angeles, where he started making furniture while she oversaw the business side of things. As a way to increase production, Ruth suggested he used the scraps to make dollhouse furniture, and people loved it! Elliot and Ruth soon gained a business partner named Matt and decided they should create a brand for themselves to start marketing children’s toys. Between Matt and Elliot, they came up with the name Mattel.

One afternoon Ruth is watching her 9-year-old daughter, Barbara, play with a paper doll, she was role-playing as a teenager. Paper dolls were the only dolls available at the time that looked like young women. But they were flimsy and fragile and all the little outfits fit poorly and fell off a lot. The only other option for a young girl was to role play as a mother, caring for a baby doll. And Ruth thought, “Little girls should be able to dream about becoming young women.” And to Ruth that meant making a doll that had boobs, and a woman’s body. Now, this was the  mid-50’s and as a female entrepreneur, Ruth found herself in what she describes as “A sea of men.” The pushback was relentless. No one thought it was a good idea to make a doll with the body of an attractive young woman. There’s just no market for it! Little girls want baby dolls! Who would even buy it! It borders on perversion…But Ruth stood her ground. In a later interview with Connie Chung, Ruth was asked how the men around her felt about having a powerful woman in their midst to which Ruth replied with a chuckle, “Well, they either liked me, or we’d have a go.” The men on the board of directors for Mattel fought adamantly for four years, to keep those boobs at bay, and make a flat-chested doll instead, and Ruth flat out said “That’s stupid. Little girls know about boobs.”

Finally, in 1959, she convinced Mattel to produce a doll with big beautiful boobs, and she named that doll, Barbie after her daughter. The first Barbie Doll cost 3 bucks and in her first year, Barbie brought in almost a million dollars. Barbie’s clothes were themed after things Barbie liked to do, and for the first time ever little girls everywhere, instead of just playing house, we’re imagining what it would be like to play tennis, go to the movies, get a job…when asked if she realized at the time that she was creating a feminist movement Ruth said, “I never dreamed of trying to change the world. I just wanted to show the world as it is.” How crazy do you think people thought Ruth was INSISTING on Barbie’s boobs? She was a disruptor. And was she trying to change the world? No, she was on an entrepreneurial quest and staying true to her vision no matter how crazy it seemed to anyone else. 

Obstacles are always part of the hero’s journey. 

I bet you’ve noticed as much! Naysayers are a particularly common obstacle in the hero’s journey as an entrepreneur, and even we ourselves can become the most formidable naysayer in our own story. In fact one of the greatest challenges an entrepreneur faces is their own doubts, and fears of failure, second-guessing that gut instinct that just won’t go away…but part of the plight that we carry as entrepreneurs is that we are entering uncharted waters, we are going first into the unknown to bring something new back to everyone else, and we often can’t imagine the impact our efforts will have on the lives of other people, but we forge ahead, sometimes stumbling, taking our setbacks in stride, and learning as we go. This is the middle of the hero’s journey for an entrepreneur.

Okay back to the boobs. So flash forward millions and millions of dollars, and Barbie lovers all over the world later, and Ruth hits a setback. She’s diagnosed with breast cancer, and the same year her partners get federally indicted for fudging some numbers. She finds herself in a whirlwind of litigation, illness, and the removal of one of her breasts. Well aware of the irony that she fought tooth and nail for Barbie’s boobs, and now she’s lost one of her own, she decides to step away from Mattel, and focus on her recovery.

The day comes when she’s to be fitted for her first prosthetic boob, and she hates it. In her own words, “They were clearly made by men, who have no idea what it’s like to have boobs. I tried every breast on the market. They were globs; there were no rights or lefts. You wouldn’t think of putting your right shoe on your left foot…” And that entrepreneurial spirit in her kicked back into high gear.

She created her own line of prosthetic breasts and called the company Nearly Me. And one more time Ruth and her boobs made millions of dollars and changed the world. She would often joke that “I’ve lived my life from breast to breast.” She was known for opening her blouse for reporters and photographers and insisting that they feel her boobs to see if they could tell which one was the fake. She was a disruptor, an entrepreneur, and she was freaking awesome.

In that interview with Connie Chung, later in life, after she’d sold Nearly Me to the medical supply megabrand, Kimberly-Clark, she says that she knows she’s been successful in life because how many hundreds of women approach her to tell her how she’s changed their lives, and then wryly adds, “and even a few of them are because of Nearly Me.” Because Barbie was, and is, still such a big deal, and worth billions of dollars. That’s billions with a B for Barbie….and boobs. When asked if she realized the cultural significance that Barbie and her boobs were going to have on society she replied, “I am learning that she is far more important than I ever understood.”

Which is just incredible, isn’t it? To fight so hard for something so obscure as a doll with boobs, and not even be totally certain as to why it’s so important, apart from an inner instinct, and a fervent desire to stay true to her vision. It was her path, clearly. We can say that now, looking over her life in a case study almost 20 years after her death. I would say “at the end of her hero’s journey.” But that’s the thing about an entrepreneur’s hero’s journey when you trust your gut and you stay true to your vision, you can’t even begin to imagine how many different ways your efforts are going to launch people into their own hero’s journeys with your brand by their side to guide them toward a greater future. An entrepreneur’s hero’s journey doesn’t end, really. It’s lived out again and again in the lives of the people who needed you to go first.

My call to action to you today is this: Stay True to Your Vision, and if it scares you a little that’s a GOOD sign. 

I don’t care if it’s a boob, or a train, or a plane, or a thingamajig, or a whatchamading…if you have a calling to create something that is going to make people’s lives better, BRING IT! Follow your gut. Because you can’t even imagine how much your idea might mean to this world. It’s not easy to be an entrepreneur, but you follow that call into the unknown because you can sense your own life’s purpose is out there somewhere. And that urgency you feel that emboldens you to face such uncertainty, just might be because that call you hear actually is the collective voice of the millions of people who need you to keep going. So, thank you.

As promised, here’s an exclusive link for The Answer Key to The Blink Test which is one of the first obstacles that every brand must face before they are able to Come Out of Nowhere, and it includes The Ten Landmarks of Branding so you can begin to more clearly outline your vision for Becoming an Inspiration to Millions. I want you to use it to keep moving forward boldly on your hero’s journey, toward your higher purpose, your greater future.