Was the successful launch of Barbie smart strategy or fortunate timing?

Sam Bessell
By Sam Bessell | 7 September 2023
Sam Bessell.

Sam Bessell, Strategist, Atomic 212°

Barbie was released seven weeks ago and it’s still got marketers singing its praise. The issue is that too many are singing the same harmony. If not for the film’s quality, many are crediting the film’s marketing strategies for its success. While valid, these compliments neglect one important instrument at play: fortunate timing; amplified through circumstance, opportunity and context.

Recognising timing’s influence in Barbie’s success begins with understanding the brand and its film’s symbiotic relationship: it involves mutual reinforcement. The film functions as a mouthpiece for the brand just as much as the brand functions as a backdrop for the film. As such, the success of one contributes to the success of the other. So, discussing the movie necessitates discussing the brand.

Barbie is quintessentially a legacy brand. Thus, the film’s marketing is propped up by over sixty years’ worth of brand recognition and a 98% recognition rate.[1] So, through circumstance, the film and its marketers had one of the most distinctive global brand identities to market.

However, the emotional connection between Barbie owners and the brand gave marketers a tool far more valuable than Barbie Pink: a passionate audience. This is a doll created from young girls’ fantasies about who they could become as grownups, beyond the motherhood roles imposed on them by the only other dolls available at the time: baby dolls. It was created to show girls that they, like Barbie, could be anything.[2] As a sixty-four-year-old aspirational device, millions of unique personal bonds have formed with the brand. Accordingly, Barbie’s marketers not only inherited an iconic brand identity, but an emotionally invested audience by circumstance.

Barbie had its haters though, enough to have influenced the film and in so doing, demonstrate the timeliness of the movie. Since its release, the doll’s perfect, plastic physique has been criticised by mothers due to its promotion of unrealistic body standards.[3] And they’re not ill-founded. Studies have linked exposure to the doll with potential long-term body image impacts among young women.[4] While recent releases of Barbies bearing a wider range of appearances have sold, they haven’t muted criticism. Afterall, Barbie is inherently fake. However, therein lay the brand's opportunity: engage haters by bringing Barbie into the real world via a PG-13 live-action movie.

Barbie’s marketing opportunity was strengthened by the involvement of Margot Robbie in the film. With Robbie agreeing to star in Barbie, the movie’s marketers had access to one of the 100 most influential people in the world to promote the project.[5] And Robbie did. Her participation in the film was the top reason why audiences got excited about it.[6] The Oscar-winning star's popularity offered a unique chance for the marketing team to attract attention to the film – an opportunity potentially non-existent via alternate casting.

Conveniently, director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig’s career phase aligned perfectly with Mattel’s directorial needs. As revealed on The New York Times morning podcast, The Daily, Gerwig was ready to “level up” in Hollywood with a blockbuster movie “and [Mattel] needed somebody like her'' to make it appealing.[7] Gerwig’s feminist film credentials enabled Barbie to speak to the areas of the brand that were being criticised. Which, in turn, handed the marketing team the perfect marketing device: an authentic product.

Further, the alignment of Gerwig’s film narratives of identity with the LGBTQ+ experience broadened the appeal of Barbie. Gerwig’s prior films such as Ladybird (2017) – which explored LGBTQ+ resonant themes of self-discovery – enabled prominent LGBTQ+ castings in Barbie. Lesbian icon, Kate McKinnon and trans model and actor, Hari Nef joined the project post Gerwig’s involvement. Consequently, Barbie’s marketers were granted access to renowned LGBTQ+ events like Pride parades and the ability to appeal to the queer community.

Above all, the demanding global context meant Barbie arrived at a time of need for audiences. Half of Australians go to the cinemas to escape reality, and the pandemic and rising cost of living gave people the perfect reasons to escape.[8] According to Roy Morgan, Australians with the largest increase in cinema attendance in the year to March 2023 were those “paying off their home."[9] But, Australians weren’t just wanting to escape through cinema, they wanted to escape with Barbie. Barbie’s dominance over Oppenheimer in the box office showcased how audiences wanted a lighthearted cinematic release, achievable through Gerwig’s film.[10] The movie’s positive proposition appealed in a challenging period of time, accentuating the marketing’s success.

Barbie’s success story is as vibrant as the world depicted in it. Marketing played its part but, we can’t let that be all we credit. As much as smart strategies stimulate success, fortunate timing via circumstance, opportunity and context makes marketing resonate. One can’t plan for it – it’s magic – but it is possible for brands to vigilantly monitor the cultural context in which they operate and ensure they have nimble processes in place to strike when their own opportunity presents itself. That awareness and that magic is what makes Barbie truly fantastic.


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