Barbie’s Best Fit? Story Market Fit.
Barbie, “you’ve come a long way baby.” A $155 million opening weekend at the US box office and the biggest debut by a female director EVER, is saying a lot about a doll that literally had nothing to say. I’m not part of the pink attired Millennial horde who stampeded to the theater this weekend, overwhelming my Facebook feed with cute family photos bubble wrapped in Barbie boxes. I’m also not one of the Gen Z’ers lining up, fiercely and specifically individualized, yet distinctly unified in a momentous display of girl power.
My feelings about Barbie are complicated. I despise the doll but admire the intellectual property. Mattel has been very explicit that the Barbie movie is not about “Barbie” the doll. It’s about Barbie, the intellectual property. The idea of Barbie is more powerful than a piece of plastic. Products are just products. Stories bring products to life and give them their meaning.
A few months ago I was talking to Kamini Ramani at Mayfield about story creation and she used the term, “story market fit.” Most people in business, and specifically in the tech world, have become all too familiar with the term product market fit. Product market fit dictates that companies develop products that target a specific market and meet a specific need for a specific consumer. Story market fit adheres to the same principles, and I would argue is equally, if not more, important than product market fit. But few companies talk about story market fit with the same intensity as product market fit and that's a mistake. Companies can and should learn from Barbie.
The stories we tell about products are the stories we tell about ourselves. The product story becomes our story. It's why a generation of people grew up asking “Are you a Mac or a PC person?” How we feel about products is directly related to the stories we tell about them, and the stories we wish to tell about ourselves. Getting the story market fit right can determine if people loathe your product or love your product.
There are three story market fit essentials that Barbie can teach us: 1) context matters, 2) vanity kills stories (enough about you, let’s talk about me), and 3) know what your audience wants and needs to hear. Stories do not happen in a vacuum. They happen in a specific time and place, “in a galaxy far far away.” They are a reflection, representation or reaction to a specific time. They are a window into the values we hold dear and the people we aspire to be. There is a reason the Barbie movie opens with “All problems of feminism and equal rights have been solved.” That one sentence sets the tone and gives us context into this Barbie dream world, the type of people they are and the values and dreams they share.
When I met Barbie, the world was very different. There was no talk of gender fluidity. Equality still had a long way to go to be anywhere close to inclusive. My steady refrain was anything boys can do girls can do better. My feminism wasn’t highly evolved, but neither was I. I was five. Barbie was fifteen going on thirty, and she was a girl with a reputation. Like a superhero, she glorified, fought for and protected the status quo, a way of life that seemed to work for millions of Kens and Barbies everywhere. A hero or anti hero, depending on your politics, taking a last stand on the feminine ideal under assault.
Five year old me wouldn’t be caught dead with a Barbie. Barbie was beautiful and boring. She did not move. You weren’t supposed to play with her. You were supposed to worship her. The first ad introducing Barbie didn’t have a child in sight, just Barbie on a pedestal. It was her world and you were lucky to be in it. Either you jumped on the bandwagon and wanted to be Barbie or you opted out and grabbed a baseball glove.
Friends even a few years younger were sold the slightly different Barbie with a very different story, and a lot more accessories. They credit her with acting out their dreams, and inspiring their creativity. They lived out the possibilities with and through Barbie. Barbie Director Greta Gerwig said she loved playing with dolls and says it helped her become a better storyteller. Soon there would be a wide variety in different shapes, sizes and skin tones. The new Barbie was no longer about Barbie at all. It was about any girl and every girl and all of the possibilities and paths she could take.
In the mid 2000’s Barbie busted out and leaned into the new storyline. They created the now famous “Imagine the possibilities” campaign. The ad starts with the question “What happens when girls are free to imagine they can be anything?” It was a far cry from girls imagining if you were that pretty, what a bride you could be. Instead of glamourising and idolizing Barbie, the ads feature inquisitive little girls in grown up settings, displaying unbridled curiosity and confidence as they tackled “careers” in medicine, academia, business. A new narrative for a new time.
The folks at Mattel understood that the idea the doll represents, the story that surrounds her, is more important than the doll itself. Story is how we interpret the world. With the right story market fit Barbie stopped being plastic and started being human. Barbie no longer represented ideas of the past. She represents our future. She has a new story. The doll no longer sits on a pedestal; she is real, and gives girls what they want and need: a glimpse of who they can be, and everything they can do. You can be stereotypical Barbie or you can be Weirdo Barbie or anything in between.
In the middle of this Barbie love fest, take a moment. Learn from Barbie. Know the culture and context surrounding your story. Don’t create a story that is all about you. Make the story about the people you serve, and understand the story they want to tell themselves. If you had told my five year old self, my teen self, even my college self that in 2023 the live action Barbie movie would be a cultural touchstone, a summer blockbuster packing theaters, a rallying cry for girl power, and that it would be the one movie my husband, son, daughter and I were all eagerly anticipating, I would have said that will never happen. But Barbie has a new story and it’s one I’m excited to see. Now that’s Story Market Fit.