The world has turned pink, and I’ve well and truly caught the Barbie bug.
I’m influenced following my morning scroll on Instagram to go for a bubblegum manicure at lunch, I’m drawn into article after article on why Barbie is the new feminist icon we all need, and my unhealthy late night online shopping sprees see me unwittingly adding #Barbiecore to my basket.
The world’s most famous doll has been dominating for weeks now – and it all came to a colourful crescendo this week as the film hit the big screen and brought in a whopping $356m globally on opening weekend, the biggest debut ever for a film directed by a woman.
This global Barbie domination is no happy accident.
Warner Brothers, the studio behind the film, and Mattel, Barbie’s creator, have together crafted, honed, and deployed a marketing and comms strategy that is nothing short of brilliant, inserting the brand into culture in a way that must be admired (and is now paying off in spades – pretty pink ones, at that).
The film was always going to be hotly tipped at the box office with its stellar lineup of Hollywood’s finest, from lead stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling to a cameo line-up conceived for peak publicity. It was originally estimated to make $40m in revenue, but once the Barbie marketing machine kicked into gear, that prediction rose to $70-80m – a serious understatement of where it has actually ranked.
You only have to look to TikTok, where there have been 505 million views of #BarbieCore, Lyst which has reported a 416% rise in searches for Pink and Spotify which has seen over 500,000 “Barbie” and “barbiecore” user-generated playlists created on the platform, to see that the film has hit peak hype culture status.
The Power of Brand Barbie
The PR behind the plastic has been a lesson in intelligent and impactful consumer comms. But let’s be honest: the success can’t be boiled down to the last few months of film promo, marketing partnerships, and smart PR tactics. The Barbie movie began its campaign from a baseline that most brands would kill for.
Not only is the film a who’s who of Hollywood – led by one of the most exciting female directors of the moment, Greta Gerwig – it’s the power of Brand Barbie that’s really at play here, as our favourite doll enters her new era as a feminist icon. And the film is just the next step in her journey.
A recent article by Marketing Week summed it up well, explaining that without the work that the brand has done in the last 10 years to modernise and become relevant again, the film’s campaign might not have been the one we’re seeing play out so positively today.
Mattel’s global head of Barbie and dolls portfolio commented that “all of those building blocks strengthened the foundation and got us to a place where we were ready for the big stage and a massive project like this.”
The brand has very effectively lived and breathed its purpose in recent years to “inspire the limitless potential in every girl.” This saw the release of new body types including ‘curvy’ and ‘tall’ and a celebration of real women heroes in medicine and science with ‘Vaccinologist Barbie’, to name just a couple of examples. As a result, the pink feminine iconography of the film once considered a marker of the dumb blonde, now translates as female, powerful, and proud – and in turn works as an enviable creative toolbox that any marketing team could only dream of.
PR’ing Plastic, It’s Fantastic
With the Barbie promotional campaign reading like a PR 101, here are the bits I loved and why.
The perfectly executed tease
What do you get when you place Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling on Venice Beach, each in a pair of brilliantly retro rollerblades and adorned in neon spandex? A worldwide media frenzy, that’s what. This was the first move in what would become a behemoth of a marketing campaign. There is nothing complicated about what the team did here – it’s a simple BTS shot, but purposefully filmed in public, to create the first wave of Barbie mania content and very cleverly place fans in the story from the get-go. Greta Gerwig told Rolling Stone: “It was fascinating because it was actually happening in front of us.”
The art of the feature
What I think I love the most about this PR campaign is the way it left no stone unturned when it came to Barbie’s story – nailing the brief we so often get from clients on telling the in-depth story, which can be a really hard thing to achieve. The team clearly had a very well thought through media strategy vertically targeting media that spoke to every element of the Barbie world and appealed to all age groups. My favourite example is this Architectural Digest feature, which saw Margot Robbie touring the Barbie set, taking the reader right into the heart of the film, and very smartly sweating an asset that already existed. So simple, but so, so effective.
The carefully crafted partnerships
Mattel reportedly signed over 100 licensing deals ahead of the film’s release as brands around the world recognised the powerful cultural currency in the brand. It’s a very clever way to intentionally infiltrate all corners of culture and it did so very thoughtfully. Film Critic Ali Plumb commented: “It’s more like [they’re selling] Barbie’s lifestyle plan now, like this is how Barbie would dress up, talk, the things she would eat, what kind of candles she would have in her house.”
We all saw the Malibu Barbie House listed on Airbnb which monopolised media at launch, as the home-letting giant rolled out the next iteration of their money can’t buy stays. The eye-watering cost of the execution does take away somewhat from the brilliance of it, but it’s hard not to get on board with a pink mansion, especially when every influencer in Hollywood seemed to paying it a visit.
We saw Xbox create the Barbie console, tapping into the potential modern-day interests of Barbie, a far cry from the original doll (who wouldn’t be seen anywhere near a console) – and once Burger King reimagined the meal that Barbie would turn to with its Barbie Burger (because who wouldn’t want a cheeseburger with smoky pink sauce?)!
The classic PR ‘stunts’
I feel the ‘PR stunt’ is dying a bit of a slow and painful death – sure, they had their heyday, but do they really deliver impact or is it merely eyeballs? Like anything, there are exceptions.
Barbie proved that the power of the OOH stunt in earned media isn’t dead and buried. Images of plain pink billboards, which featured only the film’s release date in the iconic Barbie font were everywhere on the day of launch, and I can see why. The power of pink as a key creative asset, has played out in culture for months. This was so perfectly timed and shows that simplicity so often pays off, and in the context of a wider campaign, delivers real impact too.
Then there was last week’s ‘Barbie-Can’ London Underground takeover, which initially I wrote off as a bit of a cheap tactic but mere hours later anyone who was anyone was reposting across their socials… a way to grab attention during a key ticket sales week for the film, so hats off to them, I guess! Although Barbie-Ken, was surely the way to go?
Then there’s Google, who treated us with a pink explosion across our screens when the actors or name of the film was typed into the search engine in its very own takeover – a key marker that the perfectly pruned plastic doll has captured the zeitgeist of the time.
The power of personal storytelling
I called it Barbie’s feminist era earlier, and who better to take on the reigns as Director than Greta Gerwig, who since the film entered the public discourse has been on her own PR publicity spree, revealing her own experience growing up longing for a Barbie of her own faced with mother who didn’t approve of the popular toy, and landing the feminist themes that the film would explore as quick follow-up to the trailer, which purposefully revealed very little. Through her own (and her publicity team’s) masterful storytelling, audiences have been captivated by what it means to be Barbie in a modern world and are desperate to be let in. My standout has got to be Greta and her female cast ensemble take to the cover of Time, pictured on perfectly pointed toes in a playful and powerful homage to leading lady Barbie.
I suppose I’ve got to round-off with what has become perhaps the most talked about trend in the Barbie saga. If you’d have told me that a children’s doll and the inventor of the atomic bomb would come together in what feels like the biggest viral trend in years, of course I wouldn’t have believed you. But here we are. Barbenheimer is flooding the internet with memes aplenty and fuelling the world’s media into a reporting frenzy, as well as becoming an offline phenomenon of double bill cinema trips that’s led the highest-grossing weekend since the beginning of the pandemic in early 2020.
Many have suggested that it was an intentional move by the Warner Bros studio to release Barbie on the same day as the historic drama, in reaction to Oppenheimer Director Christopher Nolan’s rift with the studio. Maybe, maybe not. Part of me hopes that it was intentional in creating one of the best film rivalries of recent years and fuelling a public reaction like no other.
The way Barbie stars leaned into the conversation should be applauded, with both Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig pictured with tickets to Nolan’s blockbuster – very well done, indeed!