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Opinion: Was Barbie a marketing masterclass?

Written by Matt Johnson

88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. £293m in the opening weekend. Top 10 singles from the soundtrack. Almost double the takings of Oppenheimer. Over $1 billion at the box office so far. Guerilla marketing that took the world by storm.

But was Barbie’s marketing a masterclass?

A Barbie movie, in one form or another, has been on the cards since 2009 when Mattel signed a deal with Universal Pictures. And, despite big screen appearances by the doll in Toy Story 3 & 4, it wasn’t until July 21st 2023 that the live-action film debuted on screens around the world and the Mattel cinematic universe was born.

With declining revenues and a falling share price, the decision to commit to a Barbie movie was a change in strategy by the new CEO of Mattel, Ynon Kreiz. The new direction being one very much focused on making the most of the brand’s existing IP.

But once a movie’s been made, you need to get bums on seats. And Warner Bros has tried to paint the world pink in an attempt to get those seats filled.

Barbie’s marketing masterclass

From star-studded posters to pink burgers, Google special effects to pride parades and viral pressers to Malibu AirBnBs. It’s safe to say Barbie has been EVERYWHERE over the last couple of months.

Although the team have not confirmed how much was spent on marketing, it is estimated that the budget for activation was greater than the production of the film itself. CRAZY!

However, Mattel and Warner Bros still had to be smart about how they approached the challenge in front of them. The key was getting mass buy-in across society.

You can look at how major brands have tried to jump on the Barbie hype for evidence of this. Some were lucky enough to already have licences in place with Mattel but many others saw an opportunity and took it. Bumble, for example, paired up with Warner Bros to create a tool which helped users deliver Barbie and Ken-themed compliments to other users.

Though, the part that stood out to me the most was how the audience was galvanised.

Seemingly of their own accord, fans around the world donned pink to attend screenings of one of the most anticipated films of the year. To further harness the power of this movement, Barbie photo opportunities were set up in cinemas across the country. Add to this many of the viral trends created by Barbie-mania along with the general outpouring of adoration online and you start to see the important role the audience played in this phenomenon.

Is it a “masterclass”, though?

The elephant in the room is the budget.

The Barbie movie had a humongous marketing budget, rumoured to be in the region of £120 million. The chances of SMEs being able to replicate these successes with a fraction of that budget are unlikely.

That’s not to say there aren’t lessons that can be learnt, but it was a behemoth campaign that was quite simply buying everyone’s attention. It was hard to ignore.

Another thing to consider when perceiving this as a masterclass is the role third parties played in its success. Some of the most creative ideas came from partner brands, not Mattel or Warner Bros. So, yes, there were some fantastic Barbie activations, but they didn’t always come from the movie’s marketing team.

And, finally, I’m someone who often goes on about the fact that marketing is more than just promotion, it’s so much more than that, including the product itself.

Unfortunately, when people say this was a marketing masterclass, they are, once again, focussing on the promotional element. When, actually, the movie itself did a lot of heavy lifting. If the movie was rubbish, it doesn’t go on to break the records it did.

So, yes, with that in mind, you could say the marketing was a masterclass. But that’s not the part of the marketing mix people are referring to when they laud this perfectly pink campaign in such high regard.

Also, it’s worth noting that the movie as a marketing tool for the Barbie brand is also a smart move. But that’s a whole other conversation!

Overall, I think it was good. Some elements of it were fantastically creative. But a masterclass? I don’t think so.

Until next time, thanks for reading


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