How Barbie got ‘comfortable being uncomfortable’ to strengthen its brand

The soon to be released Barbie film looks set to be a triumph, but to get to this point owner Mattel had to give the brand a makeover to make it relevant for today’s consumers.

Source: Mattel

The Barbie film is a far cry from branded content as we know it. The upcoming movie has generated incredible hype as anticipation builds to its release next week (21 July).

“We were always clear that we did not want a live action film to be a commercial for toys,” Mattel’s global head of Barbie and dolls portfolio, Lisa McKnight, tells Marketing Week.

That desire is reflected in the calibre of the cast. Even film snobs could not doubt the credentials of director and writer Greta Gerwig, best-known for Academy-nominated films Lady Bird and Little Women. Meanwhile, Barbie and Ken are played by Margot Robbie, who also produced the movie, and Ryan Gosling, both of whom are also Oscar nominees.

But Barbie did not get to a place where it could release a credible live action film produced and directed by Oscar nominees overnight.

The brand has thoroughly got “out of [its] comfort zone” to create this film, says McKnight. “We have to acknowledge where the brand is today and the work that got us here.”

Mattel has been on a journey to make Barbie fit for the world we live in today, both in terms of the products themselves and the way they are marketed.

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.

Lisa McKnight, Mattel

Looking back to eight years ago, McKnight admits Barbie had lost relevance in society and with parents. She attributes this to the brand being overly focused on communicating features and benefits of its toys, rather than harnessing the power of the brand as a whole.

“We weren’t talking about the purpose behind the brand, why Barbie matters, why she exists,” she says.

The brand “galvanised” around the original vision for the brand, which is to “inspire the limitless potential in every girl”. This saw it begin to market the brand as more than just a doll, and to re-examine the product itself.

The Barbie doll was once renowned for her perfect blonde hair and impossible proportions, but Mattel has worked hard to ensure she is a doll that now fits with the modern world.

Young girls are much more likely to see themselves in the Barbies of today, which represent different races, abilities and body shapes, than they were in the past. This is reflected in the cast of the new film, with a diverse range of actors portraying various Barbies and Kens.

“We introduced different body types, ethnicities, hair colours and fibres and we started a role model programme to create dolls in the likeness of real women doing amazing things,” McKnight says.

Barbie’s 2022 role models included Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid vaccine creator Professor Sarah Gilbert and television screenwriter and founder of production company Shondaland Shonda Rhimes.

The brand as a whole is in a very different place to where it was a decade ago, as it seeks to speak to adults as well as children.

“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,” McKnight says.

Strategically building hype

There have been more than 100 brand collaborations in the lead up to the Barbie film’s release, as well as shorter-term promotional partners.

A key goal for these partnerships has been to reach an older audience, and to work with those who are leaders in their own categories, says McKnight.

Whether it’s Barbie Crocs or sweet popcorn, there is a brand collaboration to fit almost anything a Barbie fan might desire as part of the film’s promotion.

However, judging by the online reaction, it seems people are still hungry for more. Promotional activity from Barbie’s Malibu DreamHouse being available to book on Airbnb, or a pink Tardis pitching up on the Southbank (new Doctor Who lead Ncuti Gatwa stars in the movie) have made big waves on social.

Fans “are not tiring” of the build-up to the movie and are excited for more, McKnight says. While Barbie has an inherent nostalgia for a huge proportion of the population which has undoubtedly played a role in the hype, this kind of sustained excitement does not happen without a concerted effort.

“We’ve been very strategic… keeping a steady drumbeat leading up to the film,” she states.

Our full-time job is to ensure that Barbie endures and that she continues to stay relevant.

Lisa McKnight, Mattel

As well as its role in promoting and marketing the film, Mattel worked closely with the filmmakers on the project. Mattel took Gerwig, Robbie and team on what McKnight calls a “brand immersion”, where it shared Barbie’s brand values, fun facts and “missteps” the brand has made during its over 60-year history with the cast and crew.

The result is a film, which depicts the brand in its “multi-faceted, diverse” form, says McKnight. She hopes the movie, which has broad-based appeal, will serve to “recontextualise” the brand for those who perhaps haven’t followed its development in the last decade.

“[Working with the filmmakers] absolutely pushed us as a brand into an area that we think has made us better as a brand and has certainly made a better piece of entertainment,” she admits.

Pink means Barbie

The promotion for the Barbie film has been praised by some as “marketing genius”, not least for its deployment of distinctive brand assets.

The brand has been “working very diligently” to ensure its consistent representation over the years, McKnight says.

Its association with pink is “an amazing asset” for Barbie, she notes. Pink, high feminine fashion is often referred to as “Barbiecore”, showing the brand’s impact on wider culture as well as its close connection with the colour.

It was able to utilise this connection in a recent billboard for the movie. The billboard simply had the iconic pink pantone on it and the film’s release date in the corner. It had no logo or text.

Source: Jennifer Killens

The brand also deployed the outline of its Mattel logo in the backdrop of its selfie creator, which allowed fans to Barbie- or Ken-ify themselves.

Only 15% of brand assets are ‘truly distinctive’, study finds

The strategy behind the deploying of brand assets in this campaign has been “to have a few simple ingredients that are so iconic, used consistently in all the marketing,” says McKnight.

The awareness of these assets is an indication of Barbie’s status in culture. The brand looks set to reach a new cultural high with the release of this film. McKnight and team’s job is to make sure that it stays there.

“Our full-time job is to ensure that Barbie endures and that she continues to stay relevant,” she says.

It will do that by following where the consumer is going and what’s happening in society, whether that’s being more sustainable in its products or utilising its intellectual property.

Most of all, Barbie cannot play it safe.

“We have to continue to take risks and get out of our comfort zone, be comfortable being uncomfortable,” she says.