This week, I examine a snapshot of the collaborations with the upcoming “Barbie” movie and Barbie toy, including how dozens of collaborations have created a new playbook for future pop culture moments.
In case you’ve been under a rock, a new Barbie movie is coming out.
The new film, the first live-action Barbie movie, premieres on July 21, and Barbie-owner Mattel, Inc. and the Warner Bros. Pictures-produced “Barbie” have been in full marketing mode since the beginning of the year. As a result, there have been over 100 Barbie-themed collaborations, including a Barbie Dreamhouse offered through Airbnb, a pink Xbox with its own Dreamhouse case, pink luggage from Béis, shoes from Aldo and Superga, a pink toothbrush from Moon, donuts from Krispy Kreme, and clothing collections from Hot Topic, Forever 21 and Gap. In some agreements, a brand pays Mattel a flat licensing fee, while others give Mattel a 5-15% cut of sales. Other collaborations are strictly licensing agreements with the “Barbie” movie. But the “Barbie” film and its affiliated collaborations are not influential simply because of the sheer deluge, though it helps. At this moment, “Barbie” and its marketing are consciously tapping into a pop culture zeitgeist around the soft power of femininity. They have perhaps also inadvertently created a rare collective cultural moment that could redefine branded collaborations.
“The way we position collaborations is to do one of two things: It’s either expanding our reach, or it’s building credibility. Barbie hits the mark on both. We want to be known as the go-to, on-the-go solution [for travelers] that offers function, fashion and form,” said Adeela Hussain Johnson, president of travel brand Béis.
Starting July 19, Béis will sell a range of luggage featuring a unique, glossy Barbie-pink color. The collection’s pieces, priced $48-$328, are pre-existing luggage models to avoid additional customer education, said Hussain Johnson. An accompanying photo shoot with the brand’s founder, actress Shay Mitchell, shows her in full Barbie glory, wearing a pink and white Nana Jacqueline dress while a Ken-type model carries her various Béis bags. Launching collaborations has not been a consistent strategy for 5-year-old Bèis. The brand’s first-ever collab — a collection of baby products with model Elsa Hosk — took debuted in Oct. 2022. As Béis “knocks on the door” of $200 million in annual revenue, collaborations have to offer scale alongside brand awareness and credibility, Hussain Johnson said.
“As our brand is hyper-functional, gives you everything you need and also looks chic, it has a direct correlation with the Barbie world,” she said.
Mattel has sold more than a billion Barbie dolls since 1959, and Barbie’s been the company’s most expansive and most profitable toy. But it’s also a toy that’s been often criticized in the past for its rigid promotion of the ideal female being white, blond and impossibly skinny. In 2016, Barbie’s proportions changed in response to criticism that the doll’s shape wasn’t realistic. Mattel also issued dolls with more skin tones in response to diversity critiques. In Mattel, Inc.’s first quarter 2023 earnings, it reported that Barbie had earned $176.9 million in global gross billings for the quarter, a decline of 40% year-over-year in constant currency.
Moving forward, Mattel is eager to raid its toy box, which includes household names like Hot Wheels and American Girl dolls. It has at least 13 films in the pipeline, with Barbie taking the plunge as the first. Considering the success of other IP juggernauts, like Nintendo, Marvel and Lego owner Kirkbi, Mattel hopes Hollywood can fill its coffers and boost the relevance of its brands.
But it has taken a long time for the “Barbie” film to get made, some of which was outside of Mattel’s and Hollywood’s control. During Barbie’s inclusive evolution, the doll played into a wave of cultural reexamination and the emergence of intersectional feminism. Oscar winner Diablo Cody touched upon this in a recent interview with GQ magazine, remarking on her efforts to draft a “girl boss” script for Barbie in 2014.
“I don’t think the culture had embraced the femme or the bimbo as valid feminist archetypes yet,” she said. “If you look up ‘Barbie’ on TikTok, you’ll find this wonderful subculture that celebrates the feminine, but in 2014, taking this skinny, blonde white doll and making her into a heroine was a tall order.”
Aside from Barbie subcultures on TikTok, there’s also the thriving “Soft Girl” aesthetic adopted by young women, which embraces all things cute, fluffy and ultra-feminine. It’s a push against the girl-boss ideal and its expectations around women’s masculinized behavior and demand on personal energy. It’s also a satire of expectations for the female gender by amplifying feminine stereotypes. And Barbie is nothing if not the personification of everything saccharine, emotionally fluffy and feminine. But Barbie was also the first mass representation of a female astronaut, in 1965, four years before men went on the moon and 18 years before Sally Ride went to space. Barbie then broke more glass ceilings by becoming a surgeon in 1973, a Canadian Mountie in 1987, a paleontologist in 1996 and a snowboarder in 2012. In the 2020s, conversations around diverse and inclusive representation are par for the course in pop culture, but professionally, Barbie was there from the beginning. To borrow from the adage about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, Barbie did all of this in high heels, too.
“Barbie taught all of us to dream big,” said Michelle Peterson, CMO of jewelry brand Kendra Scott. “Likewise, our company dreams big, and we don’t let budgets or time hold us back. Kendra Scott created this business, and [dreaming big] is part of our culture and the appeal for this collaboration, which Barbie stands for.”
On July 6, Kendra Scott debuted a limited-edition, nine-piece Barbie collection at Kendra Scott retail stores and its e-commerce site — pieces sell for $60-$130. It’s the second collection that Kendra Scott has done with Barbie, following the first in Nov. 2022. Kendra Scott supported the second collection via paid advertising and marketing, email marketing, and in-store events on launch day. For those who could not secure a piece from the initial sell-out collection, it allowed Kendra Scott to re-engage that clientele and capture a new Barbie-enthusiastic audience. Kendra Scott produced 50% more inventory for the second collab than the first due to the anticipated demand. Peterson said the return on ad spend on the new collection’s launch day was nearly three times that of the first collab.
“We learned from the last collaboration — from our customer care and social team — what appeals to that [Barbie] consumer, [including] bright creatives and optimism,” she said.
What is also unique about the Barbie movie and its extraordinary marketing, coupled with the meme-filled phenomena known as “Barbenheimer,” is that it’s one of the few instances where the overall general population is collectively experiencing a cultural moment. With an infinitely growing internet space, thanks in part to new platforms like Meta-owned Threads, it can be difficult to capture the collective consciousness of the masses, let alone keep them around long enough to have a genuine impact. In a world of streaming, appointment television nearly ceases to exist, and movies have certainly been the victim of that. But with dozens of Barbie collabs oozing pink, no one is left unaware of what is going on, and it’s damn near impossible not to get seduced into participating. According to AMC theaters, 20,000 moviegoers have booked tickets to see “Barbie” and director Christopher Nolan’s atomic drama “Oppenheimer” on the same day.
“Barbie is one of those toys that has been able to evolve and transcend the generation when it was created,” said Maria Salcedo, svp of merchandising at Ulta Beauty. “It’s so prevalent and timely. Barbie has always been about femininity and self-expression and evolving, so we thought it would be a great property to leverage that across all of our categories.”
Throughout June, Ulta Beauty launched an exclusive, multi-branded and cross-category Barbie collection in-store and online featuring brands like NYX Cosmetics, OPI nail polish, Kitsch hair products and Tangle Teezer hair brushes. In-store opportunities tied to Barbie include pop-ups with NYX Cosmetics tutorials, hair product demonstrations, product sampling, selfie moments and giveaways. There is also a separate Barbie-branded salon experience in locations including New York and Chicago, with salons using Barbie-themed hair products and tools plus offering a Barbie-style blowout.
The multitude of Barbie collabs also speaks to the well-roundedness of the character. Unlike, for example, Mario Bros., Barbie’s world is filled with clothing, household entertainment, travel, athletics and other examples of a well-rounded “lifestyle.” And through the decades, she has reflected our cultural machinations to aspire toward like property, wealth and the trickle-down benefits of each. She has a dream house, a dream jet, events to go to and people — like Ken or Kelly — to see. Unlike a Mario Bros. eyeshadow palette repackaged with Mario Bros. insignia, a Barbie eyeshadow palette is instead plausibly something she’d use if she were real. To further bring to life this concept, actress Margot Robbie who stars as Barbie in the film has gone to great lengths to recreate famed outfits from the doll with notable contemporary fashion houses. For her press tour, Balmain recreated the Barbie 1992 “Earring Magic” Barbie, while Versace did the 1985 “Day-to-Night” Barbie, and Herve Leger offered its take on the famed black and white striped swimsuit from the original 1959 Barbie. As a branded opportunity in the future, fashion can become part of a film’s marketing rather than simply serve as an individual brand marketing strategy.
“[Barbie] could be a playbook. I don’t think collaborations would be all intellectual properties, but there are going to be properties going forward where there is that strong connection with pop culture,” said Salcedo. “We look to pop culture to inform the bets we want to place and the products and brands we want to support.”
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