Does Mattel’s film have what it takes to revive the Barbie empire?

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Image Credit: Caroline McCredie/Warner Bros/NBC Universal

Barbie, the fashion doll and fictional character manufactured by Mattel has made a mark on pop culture since its creation in 1959.  

After observing how girls gave ‘adult worlds’ to paper dolls, Ruth Handler saw an opportunity in the toy market to devise a three-dimensional version that girls could use to imagine their future selves. Ruth’s philosophy was that through Barbie, girls could be empowered to imagine themselves as anything they wanted to be.

And with that ambition, Barbie went to the moon years before Neil Armstrong, Barbie became president, and Barbie bought her first home in 1962, at a time when American women were denied mortgage applications because of their sex and marital status. 

In the early days, Barbie was seen as a disruptor, rebel and ground-breaker, but then lost touch and became passé, struggling to remain relevant to little girls who did not look like her. 

In 2016, a rebranding initiative occurred.  Mattel launched the “Fashionista” Barbie line, introducing curvier body types and a range of different skin tones, facial features, and hair textures. By 2019, Mattel diversified further with Barbies in wheelchairs, and the top-selling doll was a curvy black Barbie with an Afro. That same year, Mattel announced that sales of Barbie had reached a five-year high.

So why the Barbie film? 

A 2017 Sydney Morning Herald article claimed that one-third of toys sold are linked to movies and/or media.

It’s clear that Mattel, owner of the Barbie IP, is taking its cues from Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. Mattel’s aim – is to create an experiential ecosystem centred around its hero products and to evolve from a toy manufacturer into an entertainment company. 

This strategy is all thanks to Mattel’s CEO, Ynon Kreiz, who stepped into the position in 2018 with the revolutionary idea of leveraging the company’s IP. Now, Mattel is capitalising on its assets with 45 films in the works, all based on Mattel products, including Polly Pocket, Hot Wheels, UNO and Barney. 

Why Greta Gerwig? 

To revive Barbie and reconnect the doll to the zeitgeist, Mattel needed to connect the ‘feminine icon’ with a contemporary name. Enter the indie American actress, screenwriter, and director Greta Gerwig whose two coming-of-age films Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019) both earned nominations for the Academy Award for Best Picture. 

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Photo Illustration by Inez and Vinoodh Source: New York Times

Let’s talk about the Marketing campaign.

Mattel has gone all out to guarantee the success of the Barbie films. The ad campaign alone is rumoured to cost 100 million USD. 

The campaign started when “leaked” photos of Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) rollerblading on Venice Beach in June last year. 

Then in April 2023, the film promotion kicked into full swing with the launch of the official trailer, a poster campaign and Barbie Selfie Generator. It encouraged fans to pose for a photo and create a personalised Barbie tile in less than a minute.

Fans could choose a Barbie or Ken selfie, different coloured backgrounds and customise the text to create their self-expressive sentence. The creator could then download their personalised meme-like tile and share it on socials with the hashtag #BarbieTheMovie. With word-of-mouth still the most effective form of marketing, the Barbie Selfie Generator, simply encouraged the conversation to take place online. Furthermore, the meme-ish nature of taking a photo and adding a caption also drove virality, with many other companies, celebrities and comedians putting their own twist on the Barbie Selfie Generator.

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In May, the international design authority, Architectural Digest, unveiled images of inside Barbie’s Dreamhouse. This was an intelligent story placement and could potentially pave the way for future films to secure press stories in Design titles. 

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Photographer: Jaap Buitendijik Image Source: Architectural Digest

In June, Architectural Digest surprised us again, dropping a video of Margot Robbie taking a tour of the Barbie Dreamhouse. This was a new and inventive take on AD’s popular ‘Open Door: Inside Celebrity Homes’ series, allowing a ‘character’ to tour a film set. 

In July,  Barbie’s Malibu Dreamhouse returned to Airbnb (following its original collaboration in 2019) this time, but this time Ken was hosting.

It’s been noted that the Mattel marketing and PR team have secured more than 100 brand partnership deals in the lead-up to the film’s release.

Honourable mentions go to: Barbie and Cotton OnBarbie and Grill’dBarbie and Glasshouse Candles and Barbie and GAP. 

And then there’s the pink carpet… 

The Global Press Tour for the film, which was anticipated to take place across eight cities (Sydney, Canada, Mexico City, New York, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, and Seoul) however, was halted after six due to the SAG-AFTRA Strike. 

Margot Robbie and stylist Andrew Mukama have paid homage to Barbie at each red (read ‘pink’) carpet with ensembles inspired by replicas of the doll’s iconic outfits.

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Photographer: Getty/AP/iStock Source: Independent.co.uk

Robbie embodying the character of Barbie, has produced an explosion of media coverage and driven extensive interest in the film. The “Barbicore” trend has emerged, driving deep consumer engagement and motivating movie-goers to lean into Barbie mania. Event venues are even getting in on the theme like Nova Cinema offering a discount on its ‘Comopoli-ken’ drink for those wearing pink. 

But wait, there’s more …

Only weeks before the film’s release, Warner Bros. has dropped a video of Ryan Gosling’s power ballad “I’m Just Ken” – sending enthusiastic Barbie fans into a frenzy!

There are now podcasts and news articles devoted purely to the ‘Marketing of the Barbie film’, not the narrative film, as the crew have kept lipped about the plot. So yes, 100 million USD has certainly permitted innovative marketing initiatives but Barbie also has more than six decades of brand-building behind it. Today, Mattel also has access to more technology compared to 1959, with the proliferation of social media. A simple search and one can see that ‘Barbie The Movie’ is on Facebook, TikTok, and Threads.  

So do we think the Mattel team will be able to present us with a ‘Barbie’ that embodies the disruptive and ambitious nature that Ruth Handler originally intended for the doll? 

Well, if the films marketing campaign is anything to go by, Barbie has certainly disrupted the current climate with its pink spectacle and captured my attention. 

I do think Barbie is re-entering the zeitgeist, and I will most definitely be wearing pink to this screening. 

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