Insights August 2010

Healthcare Innovation: An Authenticity Lesson from Barbie dolls

Neil Seeman


Pity the iconic Barbie Doll. MGA’s Bratz doll has won an important fight against Barbie. A unanimous decision of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned an earlier court order which had forced MGA to hand over its ‘Bratz dolls’ to Mattel, the maker of the impossibly proportioned Barbie.

For all you Barbie lovers out there, don’t worry: she’ll be okay. “America thrives on competition; Barbie, the all-American girl, will too,’” Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in the recent ruling. “Mattel can't claim a monopoly over fashion dolls with a bratty look or attitude,” the judge said.

A new Bratz line out in October – to celebrate the popular pouty-lipped dolls’ 10th anniversary – is expected to be fashionable like all Bratz dolls, but not too sexy. Parents had complained about too-leggy Bratz dolls.

The appeals court ruled that even if MGA had misappropriated some of Mattel’s intellectual property, the trademarks MGA later obtained for the urban, ethnically diverse and hip Bratz line “was significantly greater because of MGA’s own development efforts, marketing and investment.”

The MGA win represents a major legal victory for new ideas, curiosity and free expression – personality traits the modern Barbie doll supposedly champions. (Barbie defenders are always quick to point out that she has enjoyed life as an astronaut, pediatric specialist, presidential candidate and business executive.)

The Healthcare Innovation Beauty Contest

“The losers now will be later to win ‘cause the times they are a-changin’.” Bob Dylan could have been singing about healthcare innovation – and girls’ dolls. Beauty queens fade quickly and the late bloomers bloom beautifully.

What I call the Barbie dolls of innovation are organizations sun-tanning lazily while deaf to the crashing waves of change. Consider: Did Mattel see or hear the sensational Liv dolls coming? In a recent interview with Fast Company, Nicole Perez of Toronto-based Spin Master Toys described the strategy for their popular Liv dolls: “The dolls needed to be pretty because they’re dolls and that’s what girls want, but we also wanted to make the dolls approachable and real.” Spin Master launched, where girls can register their Liv dolls, play dress-up with virtual clothes, play games, read online diaries, and watch Web videos.

The take-home lesson from the doll wars:  Authenticity pays. It’s not possible to ginny up authenticity out of thin air: i.e., you create a brand strategy, a social media presence – and, suddenly, you are an exemplar of sincerity. As Idris Mootee has written: “... Stop Botoxing your companies, start changing the core of the organization and start ‘doing’ what is responsible for shareholders, societies and the environment.”

How do you pass the authenticity test?

In a lovely Dilbert™ cartoon, Dogbert (a public relations consultant) advises Dilbert: “The public won’t forgive you until you fake some remorse.” Truckloads of management gurus have held up BP’s replaced CEO, Tony Hayward, as the master of the kind of fakery that the public can sniff out in a second.

All of which brings me to healthcare innovators, whether in the private or public sector. It’s easy to say you’re “going green” or stitch together a new tag line promoting patient-friendly, team-centred care – it’s a lot harder to persuade the public to believe in you. We’re all jaded now. This is especially so for people under 35, for whom the word “corporate social responsibility” is risible. (BP marketed itself as a sustainable energy company; Enron widely touted its CSR reporting, environmental and community programs, all the while winning awards like Fortune magazine’s “Most Innovative Company in America,” or the “All Star List of Global Most Admired Companies”.)

Yes, beauty still matters (the iPhone and the always hot-selling Barbie are testimony to that). But authenticity – genuine apologies for errors , transparency in your efforts and in your failures – these are the “Black dot” healthcare quality indicators of the future. Isaac Larian, founder of MGA Entertainment Inc., is upbeat about his Bratz line now that he has wrested back control of the dolls from Mattel. “We’ve done research that shows that while Bratz hasn’t been on toy shelves in a significant way in three years, it has 100% name recognition among tween girls,” he said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Sure, Barbie enjoys 100% name recognition among girls too (especially given her role in “Toy Story 3”) but the mere mention of Barbie evinces snickers. No authenticity, no respect.

About the Author(s)

Neil Seeman is Director of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College.


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