It’s a Barbie world: Inside the film of the summer’s viral marketing strategy

Posted by Emilie McMeekan in Comment

10 months ago

Perhaps the most significant illustration of the success of the Barbie movie is the global shortage of the colour pink. How do you run out of a colour? Ask the Mattel marketing department.

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie released on 21 July to almost universal frenzy. The numbers for the film’s opening weekend have been astonishing – gratifyingly, it’s the biggest opening weekend for a female director, but with the Oppenheimer combustion, it’s also the fourth biggest movie opening weekend of all time. The reviews are solid. The fans fanatic. Moviegoers have been flocking to the feature head-to-toe in pink. Dressing up to go to the movies slipped into the mainstream last summer with the release of Minions: The Rise of Gru and the #gentleminions movement on TikTok – now it’s the barbies’ turn.

How has a movie about a doll, a polarising doll in a polarised world, managed to bring so many people together? It lies with the values of a creative corporation that understood this wasn’t about bringing a doll to life, it was about the power of possibility. If Barbie herself is about the relationship between dreams and reality, then so has been the marketing strategy. Every partnership, every activation, every creative touchpoint has been about integrating Barbie’s universe with ours. Suddenly it’s Barbie’s world and we’re living in it.

How Barbie became an unmissable global event

The timeline for Barbie fever began with the release of images of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling filming scenes rollerblading in full 80s regalia on Venice Beach last year. It unleashed Barbiecore, the TikTok culture built around all things pink. The images of the Dreamhouse spoke to all 90s kids – delivering cross-generational interest. Nostalgia has been a huge trend since the pandemic and the movie relies on that momentum, including bringing to life discontinued dolls, including Ken’s friend Allan (played by Michael Cera) which are now selling on eBay for more than $300 (£232).

Ah, the money talk. The Barbie budget was $145 million (£112 million), and the marketing budget is allegedly the same. It began with an AI selfie generator in April, which allowed social media users to build their own Barbie posters. This was a great example of audience engagement, making fans feel early on that they were part of the narrative. As a result, the acceleration of views on TikTok has been astonishing. In April, the BarbieMovie hashtag had 800 million views – scroll through to July, it’s at six billion.

Then came the brand partnerships with Burger King, Crocs, Uno, Krispy Kreme donuts and Xbox, to name a few. There is also Ken’s Dreamhouse in Malibu, which the likes of John Legend and Dixie D’Amelio seeded with stays, that people can book through Airbnb. An eight-city premiere tour from Mexico City to London ensured that this was a global event.

Mattel also constructed life-size Barbie boxes so that moviegoers could create their own Barbie moment at the cinema – a real-life transition from the AI selfie generator, in keeping with the themes of the marketing campaign – and encouraging people to attend in person.

On Google Trends, if you look at the interest in the search term “barbie” over five years, the graph flatlines until rising in a sheer vertical for the month of July. If you Google “Barbie”, there’s a sparkly pink explosion. But it’s not merely a commercial juggernaut; there is also a collaboration with Save The Children, reinforcing the values of the Barbie message: the investment in children and their futures.

Even the release on the same day of that other summer blockbuster, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, suddenly became an opportunity, with fans dubbing the rivalry “Barbenheimer” and fan art going viral across the internet. In the end, as with all good collaborations, both parties benefited, with Oppenheimer delivering one of the best opening weekends for an R-rated biographical film. The Barbie soundtrack, produced by Mark Ronson, harnessed the power of that other Barbie, Nicki Minaj, as well as upcoming artists such as Ice Spice and PinkPantheress, and has also lubricated Barbie’s path to the top.

This isn’t the first time that Barbie has been a hit in the digital sphere. Since 2015, Barbie has been vlogging about her life from her bedroom like the good influencer she is. She has 11.5 million subscribers on YouTube. In June 2018, she went viral with a video about girls’ usage of the word “sorry” that made a wider impact thanks to the following statement, which was put on Twitter and retweeted hundreds of thousands of times: “The sorry reflex is learned and every time we [girls] use it, we take away from our self-confidence.” The public response? One teenager tweeted: “Barbie’s vlogs are what the world needs right now and what young girls and women (of all ages really) have needed for a very long time.”

The marketing tidal wave has swept a lot of those vlogs away, but Mattel has been seeding this message of empowerment online for a long time. The concept of a Barbie movie has been greenlit since 2009. Timing is everything, though. It is probably worth noting that the alacrity with the way Barbiecore has been adopted is a reaction to post-pandemic and cost-of-living pressures. Pure joy is an easy sell right now.

Could this marketing strategy be replicated? Empowering a digital community by including them in the narrative, aligned brand partnerships and clever collaborations will always be crucial blocks in the building of any marketing campaign. The sheer depth of the Mattel IP (there are one hundred Barbies sold every single minute), however, means that this Barbie era might be hard to match. Life in plastic is indeed fantastic.

By Emilie McMeekan, CORQ features director. Picture credit: Warner Bros.