How well did Barbie’s marketing efforts really pay off?


31st August 2023

If you’re in any way involved with B2B marketing, advertising and PR, you might think Barbie is a world away from what we do – wrong.

There’s nothing Barbie does that can’t be done for construction, fintech, software or e-commerce companies (although that’s a sentence we never thought we’d write).

Barbie has been an astronaut, a teacher and the president of the United States – and sold over a billion dolls to date. She’s also been called a “perpetuated sexual stereotype” and decried as having a physically impossible body shape.

Whatever you think of her, Barbie is an icon. When it came to marketing her 2023 cinematic debut, the team faced a tricky challenge: how do you market the girl that everyone already knows? And how do you squeeze the most out of a $150 million budget?

Come on Barbie, let’s go market

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie came out last July and, to mark the launch, public transport, national monuments and profile pictures turned pink in a ubiquitous stream of seamless advertising, marketing and PR.

Months ahead of the release, images of the film set were ‘leaked’, paired with sources claiming that Gerwig had ‘exhausted the world’s supply‘ of pink paint in her set design. This created buzz long before trailers and posters were dropped, keeping Barbie in the back of people’s minds.

And as the premiere approached, the hype ballooned into Barbie-mania. The marketing team harnessed Barbie’s history and pop culture presence, leveraging social media, augmented reality experiences, influencer marketing and even the London Underground’s iconic roundels to put Barbie at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

From the get-go, online engagement was designed to be as fun and friendly as the film. To accompany promotional posters, interactive filters hit social media which enabled users to insert themselves into the scenes with an automatically-generated quote. The tagline ‘This Barbie is _’ made for a silly and easy-to-share way to invite everyone to the Barbie party – perfectly on brand and surprisingly simple.

Then there were brand partnerships, experiential events, merchandise, videos and much, much more. Barbie appeared in unexpected places – and that’s why it worked: a collaboration with Airbnb saw one of its Malibu rental properties transformed into a ‘real-life Barbie dreamhouse’, complete with hot pink everything.

Barbie-to-Barbie marketing

Barbie’s marketing antics were simple but effective. Creating genuinely engaging experiences that people want to share sounds obvious, but it’s so often overlooked as marketers focus on what the brand wants to say instead of what their audience wants to hear. Any and all campaigns must be built around the people who will be buying the product.

And don’t underestimate the power of surprise. Putting clients’ brands in places their audience might not expect to see them is unique and memorable. Build a pink house, launch a hot air balloon, tap dance at the top of Ben Nevis, anything goes. As Daniel da Costa says in the upcoming episode of the Born to B2B podcast: ‘if you genuinely believe in an idea and you think it’s going to work, be relentless in pursuing it’.

Although Barbie-mania was everywhere, the actual promotion and its presence as a corporate entity was smartly downplayed. At its core, the film is a two-hour-long advert. But somehow, it never feels like one.

Director Gerwig weaves a profound understanding of the Barbie brand throughout, not only satirising its glossy, candy-coloured surfaces but reminding the audience of their original purpose: fun. It’s a masterclass in messaging and not taking yourself too seriously.

Warner Bros. created a Barbie-fever so pervasive that it became impossible to take ten steps without encountering something in her signature shade of pink. In interviews, Gosling and Robbie repeatedly told us that Barbie was a party and everyone was invited – and that permeated every aspect of the Barbie marketing juggernaut.

The big question is – did it work?

Life in plastic, it’s fantastic

As of August 24th, 2023 the Barbie movie has grossed a staggering $1.34 billion worldwide. That’s a big number, but sales of the doll are yet to see an impact. It makes sense, really; when you think about it, there’s no real crossover between Barbie’s target audience of Gen Z-ers and Millennials (75% of which have heard of the movie) and those who would want to buy a doll.

True, one day these people could go on to have their own children and buy Barbies for them, but that seems like a long game for Mattel to play.

The Mattel execs don’t seem fussed that their investment hasn’t immediately paid off, however. The stratospheric boost in brand awareness that the film has provided means that Mattel have a solid springboard from which to launch new Barbie products.

And let’s not forget: the Barbie movie hasn’t been a mere repositioning of the brand. Any trace of pre-2023 Barbie has been completely obliterated. She’s been totally reborn for a new generation.

It’s a valuable lesson for all marketers to remember: good marketing will generate rewards beyond KPIs. While we all want to see an increase in profit, those less tangible benefits are equally as important – if not even more so.

So, is the future pink for Mattel?

Barbie’s multidimensional marketing campaign didn’t simply drive interest in the film. It actively contributed to shaping perceptions around the brand, transforming a plastic doll into a cultural event.

Sure, with a budget in the hundreds of millions, anything is possible. But the marketing team’s meticulous attention to detail, expansive creativity and sheer enthusiasm to cover all bases in Barbie-pink paint are things that every marketer can take note of.

Time will tell if the Barbie phenomenon is a spike or if it will have a long-term impact on profit and sales. What we do know now is that it’s almost impossible for any brand to maintain such a high momentum, so what Mattel does next is crucial.

The takeaway for marketers? Smash-hit campaigns are always a welcome success – and they deserve celebration. But don’t lose your focus on the road ahead, because that’s where you’ll find that shiny Barbie energy is going to pay off.

After an agency who’ve got comprehensive marketing down to a tee and aren’t afraid of the colour pink? Get in touch.

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