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Trends & Insights | Blog

How the Barbie movie turned the world pink

August 17, 2023


Unless you’ve been trapped inside a plastic toy box this year, it’s been impossible to escape the Barbie-core movement that has swept the world.

Lee Peters

Senior Account Director

Turning the world pink

Unless you’ve been trapped inside a plastic toy box this year, it’s been impossible to escape the Barbie-core movement that has swept the world.  

The movie’s mammoth marketing campaign, reported to have cost $150m – more than the $145m production budget – has paid off big time. The movie has taken over $1bn at the box office and has helped toymaker Mattel stem its losses, turning an unexpected $27m profit the past quarter. 

To understand how and why it’s been such a success, we’ve taken a deep-dive into the Barbie movie’s marketing strategies and tactics, with some invaluable learnings for all brands and marketers to consider.

Why is Barbie a cultural icon?

Barbie has been around for six decades and has worn many hats. As the concept of the American dream has shifted over that time, so too has Barbie’s. Her image and role have been constantly updated and reimagined so that she represents a wide variety of different ethnicities and careers that reflects cultural changes. In the current movie, Barbie has evolved into a fearless and grown up person. 

The products available for the Barbie doll expand her world into something that mimics the real world. This is Mattel’s grand business strategy – to bring the world of Barbie to life. The movie and the marketing around it have been developed to take Barbie ‘out of the box’ and into the real world.

The campaign was well-calibrated and manufactured, and based on three key areas:

  1. Renewed brand positioning (taking Barbie out of the box)
  2. Timing 
  3. Intrigue 

To move beyond the toy aisle and create branded storytelling, Mattel harnessed a host of pre-existing brand licensing deals – and a global marketing team of more than 100 collaborators – to create a new IP phenomenon. 

No stone was left unturned. The movie has touched a huge range of marketing channels and verticals, including social media, experiential, product, influencers, fashion, gaming, music and editorial.

Setting clear objectives

The ultimate business objective was to have the Barbie movie serve as the launchpad for Mattel’s pivot away from the cyclical toy-making business into a moviemaking multiverse and more. It wanted Barbie to be everywhere in 2023.

The marketing campaign objective was to expand the Barbie ecosystem so more people can participate and generate brand love.

The movie’s objective was to challenge the conventional norms in which the toy, its story and its world can exist.

Mattel is also clear about the doll’s future. EVP and global head of Barbie, Lisa McKnight, has said: “Barbie is more than a doll… She’s a lifestyle, a spirit, an attitude.”

Understanding the audience

It was clear from the first trailer that the movie was not primarily targeted at children, in contrast to the core product (the doll).  

The campaign hits hardest with millennials, as well as some Gen X and Gen Z, who are attracted to the expressive nature of the Barbie lifestyle marketed directly to women through nostalgia.

This opening strategy was carefully planned by answering three key questions:

  1. What should be the first piece of material to share? 
  2. When is the right time to share it? 
  3. How much of the story should it give away? 

The Mattel marketing team made sure each time a new piece of material was shared that it expanded Barbie’s world, with social media being the primary route to delivering it.

The first piece of material shared was the photo of Margot Robbie in a pink car, which was released at CinemaCon 2022. The brand obtained one key finding: lean heavily into the pink colour palette, which was striking and had the power to sustain interest.

The breadcrumb strategy

Barbie deployed a classic breadcrumb strategy, with pieces of new information sprinkled liberally across different media and building gradually over time to keep audiences engaged and feverishly anticipating the release. These ‘breadcrumbs’ included:

  • The album’s tracklist was revealed with the likes of Lizzo, Dua Lipa and more. The secret sauce? Not all the songs were available at once. In fact, not all the music stars were announced at the time the tracklist was released. That was the point. The releases had a social-first mentality applied to them.

  • Make a bold statement early on that the film would be different from what audiences would expect. The teaser trailer, which featured an unexpected and humorous parody of classic sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey, was released on social media and generated huge online buzz and excitement.

Leaning on existing brand deals to pile on to the brand collaboration strategy, with over 150 companies – including Crocs, Bumble, Burger King, Gap and Xbox – covering everything from food and dating, to gaming and fashion.

The secret sauce

Throughout the film’s marketing, the actual story was never revealed. This presented a risk for Mattel and director Greta Gerwig in case the product couldn’t live up to the hype. Fortunately, it paid off for a number of reasons:

  • A focus on adult audiences, particularly millennial women. Marketing of the story focused on nostalgia, a feminine aesthetic, activism and empowerment.

  • It opened opportunities beyond the toy category by understanding the biggest brand move is outside the toy shop.

  • Didn’t solely focus on the features and benefits of the doll, and instead led with storytelling that served a purpose.
  • The movie campaign leveraged over 150 brand partnerships that offered relevance, in sectors that Barbie would never usually reach.

  • Focused on nostalgic brand moments to reach old audiences, and connect with new audiences through cultural shifts. It moved away from older traditions to embracing diversity in culture.

  • Led with repetition, brand relevance and clever creative execution. Each activation or moment was clear: it was Barbie.

Mattel’s big bet paid off. The film has been one of the biggest smash hit summer blockbusters of all time and is part of a once-in-a-generation marketing moment. 

Social media was at the core of the plan, used to reach and engage audiences old and new, and subvert expectations. The legacy of the film’s success is only just getting started. Mattel turned the world pink in 2023 – and we can expect it to stay that way for a long time to come.  

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