Having earned over US$700 million globally, this Barbie is rich. But how did she do it?
In July 2023, the cinematic world witnessed the meteoric rise of a movie that quickly charmed its way to massive box office success—the Barbie movie. That’s unsurprising, seeing as its anticipation was long-drawn and just as major.
Whether you use social media or not, you have most likely been subjected to the Barbie marketing effect. We see “Barbenheimer”—the intersection of Barbie and Oppenheimer, birthed from the simultaneous releases of both films—triggering an intriguing culture and becoming an internet phenomenon. Massive retail chains, like Gap and Bloomingdales, proudly displayed their pink apparel and accessories, i.e. the “Barbiecore” aesthetic.
During its opening week, the Barbie movie raked in over US$700 million worldwide. The outfits, social media buzz and star-studded cast, featuring Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Dua Lipa, America Ferrera and many more, made Barbie a noteworthy case study for marketing success. After all, as of 2023, the Barbie brand’s worth was estimated to be around US$700 million, representing an almost twofold increase from only two years before.
Here’s a look at the movie’s top strategies and why they worked.
Creating a “pink movement”
Barbie has been a cultural phenomenon for decades. Her blonde hair, trademark pink outfits and aspirational physique have been points of play and critique. Even though some feminists have questioned the doll’s relevance in kids’ lives, there’s no denying the nostalgic power of Barbie. Many of us—typically girls—had a Barbie doll as one of our first toys. So, it’s no surprise that when the Barbie movie premiered, throngs of enthusiasts showed up in their pinkest attire in fashion items inspired by the doll.
The President of worldwide marketing at Warner Bros., Josh Goldstine, attributes this to the blossoming of a “pink movement”. In an interview, he said, “Everyone has become their own evangelist for what is really a Barbie movement, a pink movement, of empowerment of women and girls.” In the case of Barbie, consumers, or prospective viewers, became the brand ambassadors, allowing for organic marketing.
Joining other movements
Besides tapping into Barbie’s nostalgic charm, the marketing team also made the movie a part of ongoing societal movements, thereby shaping the narrative of a renewed, more socially conscious Barbie. In June 2023, they set up a float for the Pride Parade, and during press interviews, the cast, notably lead actress Margot Robbie, spoke about the writers’ strike.
Given that Barbie is a feminist movie with a goal to redefine the doll’s infamous reputation for promoting unrealistic beauty standards, its association with progressive movements is not just important for the movie but also for the brand. While you might want your brand to become a phenomenon, it also helps to have your brand be part of an existing phenomenon. This tactic enhances the brand’s overall image, positioning it as responsive and engaged with broader societal discourses.
The social media effect
This is no head-scratcher; social media is integral to any marketing activity today. However, besides using social media influencers to promote the movie, Barbie harnessed the widespread appeal of memes. A report found that two-thirds of Gen-Zers and millennials who wanted to watch Barbie credited their interest to related memes and other such digital activity.
Snack Content data found that the number of references to Barbie on TikTok surged by 191% in the past year, surpassing the 80% increase seen on YouTube. Furthermore, videos featuring the #Barbie hashtag on TikTok also accumulated over nine billion views. Many people also jumped onto the “This Barbie is a __________” trend, a phrase that even found its place on the movie poster—this Barbie is an inspired marketer!
What’s more, in the first half of 2023 alone, TikTok, YouTube and Instagram Reels used the #Barbie hashtag 145% more frequently than throughout the entirety of the preceding year. This emphasizes that when implementing social media in your marketing strategy, don’t be discouraged if you don’t have the budget to get big influencers or celebrities on board. Creative endeavors such as unique Instagram Reels or clever memes can potentially to set your campaign apart and maximize your reach.
Get brands on board
The Barbie movie boasted over 100 partnerships, and no, they were not all fashion-related. From Barbie swimsuits and hoodies to Barbie-themed water bottles, notebooks and even burgers with pink sauces in collaboration with Burger King, the movie engaged a spectrum of brands to echo its message that Barbie is not going to be just a fluff film.
When marketing a movie or a product, one might instinctively align only with brands that closely mirror their own identities and values. However, Barbie makes a case for thinking beyond the brand alignment and focusing on the broader message. While it would have been straightforward for Barbie to align with eminent fashion brands to generate buzz, the goal was to set the stage for the film’s narrative and to dispel any preconceived notions. Its brand partnerships do just that.
Celebrating a virtual Barbie world with AI and the metaverse
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the name of the game, no matter what field you are in. The Barbie movie did not shy away from using it. Besides making its presence felt in retail outlets and eateries, the Barbie team also employed AI to generate interactive marketing campaigns, such as the “This Barbie is a _______” initiative. In partnership with Forever 21, they set up a store within the popular virtual gaming world Roblox, marking the brand’s presence within the thriving metaverse. Even the gaming console giant Xbox got on board, setting up competitions with car replicas of Barbie and Ken as prizes.
To truly succeed in today’s digital-fueled world, you’ve got to optimize the use of tech in conjunction with conducting campaigns in the real world, especially when targeting a diverse audience. The innovative and digitally savvy approach of the Barbie movie’s marketing team certainly serves as an inspiration in this regard.
Several news outlets have dubbed Barbie’s marketing the “campaign of the year”, while many others have credited the Barbenheimer phenomenon for the revitalization of cinema, which had been suffering since the Covid pandemic. The catch is, campaigns and events of this magnitude are few and far between. It prompts us to ponder—is cinema’s Barbie dreamland here to stay, or is an Oppenheimer blast-like end inevitable?
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