July 21, 2023

Life in Plastic: How the Barbie Brand Conquered the World

By John Livesey

Its a verifiable fact: Barbie-mania is upon us. Promotion for Greta Gerwig’s film began back in April last year when Warner Bros posted a single image of Margot Robbie as the ubiquitous doll in her signature pink corvette. The image amassed 121k likes. And the slow-drip of content  ever since has made it one of the most anticipated films of the year. 

Experts say Barbie is now on its way to the biggest box office opening of the year: receipts are forecast to exceed $110 million in the film’s first weekend alone. Social media is also abuzz. Use of the #Barbie hashtag across YouTube and Instagram skyrocketed 145% in the first half of 2023. On TikTok, videos with the #Barbie hashtag have amassed 9bn views.

Amidst the endless content and PR (never too much in our opinion), a deceptively simple trick in Warner Bros. campaign has kept audience’s anticipation. The reviews-embargo for the movie lifted just 72 hours before its release-date, allowing stars to tantalize audiences with promises of unexpected character arcs, narrative twists, and surprising political commentary. 

Given how much still remains unknown about the project, and that Barbie is not part of any existing franchise, what is it about the film and its marketing strategy that has generated so much anticipation?

And what could brands learn from Barbie’s success?

Brand Collaboration

Aldo, Airbnb, Amazon, Boohoo, Burger King, Barbican, Forever 21, Forza Horizon, Gap, NYX, Playstation, Target, Uno, XBOX… That’s just a fraction of the one-hundred Barbie brand partnerships we’ve seen in the last two months.

Collaboration is a key part of the Barbie strategy, not only tapping into a vast range of different audiences but also constantly retargeting them. Heading the most ambitious promotional campaign in recent memory, the Mattel x Warner Bros machine seems determined to make us think pink in almost every aspect of our lifestyle. 

As Eunice Shin, head of practices at Prophet agency, observed, “They’re picking these different areas because they realize, ‘hey, if we’re here, we’re reaching audiences with these unique brand collaborations and we’re going to be able to reach the masses’’’. (Digiday)

One of the most viral collaborations was AirBnb’s reconstruction of the iconic Malibu Dreamhouse, put up for rent earlier this month. The coverage earned by the Dreamhouse represents an unprecedented return-on-investment.

The Barbie Dreamhouse received notices from all major US and UK newspapers and was discussed on almost all mainstream daytime shows including People, USA Today, and Good Morning America. Mentioned in over 4,000 articles ‘Barbie’ and ‘Airbnb’ has reached an audience of over 18 billion in the last month. This represents a publicity value exceeding $216 million. Not bad for a bachelorette pad. (AirBnb)

Self-aware Branding

On a deeper level, the manifesto of the Barbie film seems to have resonated with audiences across the board. Whilst the sheer scale of promotion is staggering, it’s also noticeable how often Mattel (and the other labels it’s working with) have been willing to poke fun at their own identity. 

Take the film itself. From what we know, the narrative follows a ‘Stereotypical Barbie’ who escapes Barbieland into the real world, only to be chased down by a gang of grumpy, grey-suited, corporate bros, headed by Will Ferrell.

As Gerwig and Robbie have admitted, Mattel had occasional qualms about the anti-capitalist direction the movie was taking. However, in this case, artistic licence won, and Mattel have cashed in on their willingness to take a risk. In the meme-factory of the internet, Mattel’s self-aware self-parody has helped the brand achieve mass engagement, beyond the conventional Barbie-doll consumer.

Indeed, perhaps the only way to run such a mass multi-channel Barbie-fied assault on popular culture was to be ironic. By leaning into Mattel’s pink, plastic, and fantastic aesthetic and the more ridiculous aspects of the Barbie franchise, Gerwig has found a way to make a commercial brand-awareness project feel DIY, funny and self-aware. 

Just like Ken’s parody Calvin Klein pants (apparently Ryan Gosling’s idea) the new Barbie brand isn’t afraid of being the butt of its own jokes. It knows that people love stories more than brandspeak and it’s refreshing to see a major Brand so openly acknowledge that.

Reinventing the Past

18 of the current 20 biggest blockbusters of all time were either sequels, remakes or adaptations. Barbie falls into this category, tapping into Mattel's pre-existing IP to produce a major studio movie.

Clear from this craze is that consumers prefer familiar stories, even better if they are fuelled by nostalgia. As fashion psychologist Shakaila Forbes-Bell told Mashable last month, “Nostalgia is known to spark joy, and for many, Barbie brings back positive memories from childhood”. Margot Robbie’s habit of recreating looks from actual Barbies for her red carpets (Malibu Barbie, Day to Night Barbie, Classic Barbie) exemplifies how this film has delved into the archives for mass nostalgic impact.(Mashable)

However, once again, what sets the Barbie promotional strategy apart, is a willingness to reinvent the past it recalls. This is something Mattel has had to do to survive. In recent years, Barbie has been at the centre of numerous controversies regarding her lack of diversity, promotion of unrealistic body standards, and reinforcement of a sexist mindset.

Backed into a corner, the company was forced to diversify and empower the Barbie range. This move into the 21st century led to Barbies with different body types, skin tones, hairstyles, and  careers, particularly in STEM fields. 

At the same time as reclaiming the hyper-pink and hyper-plastic artificiality of Barbieland, Gerwig uses the film to question Barbie’s history of telling girls pink, thin and girly was all they could be. It’s a genius way for Mattel to embrace its campness (apparently we don’t need to pretend Ken is straight anymore), and still acknowledge its past contribution to heteronormative structures. If Barbie is anything to go by, it would seem the future might just be pink.