The multi-million dollar campaign to make Barbie cool again

A huge marketing drive for the new Margot Robbie movie has turned Barbie from tired brand to the height of fashion. How?

Published by: The Telegraph
Written by: Eleanor Steafel
Date: 04/07/2023

Margot Robbie is smiling down the camera lens, welcoming me into her home. “This is my breakfast table,” she trills, sweeping through the ground floor of a Malibu mansion, flooded with sunlight and painted in various shades of pink. “Here’s a fun little bar and the slide that goes from the bedroom to the pool. […] It’s just fun and gorgeous.”

For fans of the viral Architectural Digest home tours (viewable on YouTube) – where celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and a roll call of Kardashians open up their show homes, point out the “old timey European influences” they have bestowed on gated Beverly Hills compounds, and boast about the marble countertops they shipped in from Milan – it’s so far so normal. “It’s see-through, so we can see each other,” Robbie goes on. Sounds a little exposing, but perhaps the Australian actress is particularly close with her neighbours? “All the Barbies in their own Barbie dream houses wake up in the morning and they can wave at each other.” Ah.

In every corner of popular culture right now, from video games to travel, fashion, food and interior design, a pink wave is gaining speed and power. It is 17 days until Barbie – the Greta Gerwig directed movie of which Robbie is the producer and star – hits the cinemas.

The film (projected to take $55 million on opening weekend, the kind of numbers movies haven’t seen since pre-pandemic, and over half the money it cost to make it) is set to catapult history’s most problematic doll into the 21st century, and with it has come a marketing campaign like no other.

Ever since the first trailer was released in December, Barbie has been on a committed rebranding journey. She has a social media presence most influencers would dream of, a portfolio of brand hookups that have ensured she has infiltrated every corner of the zeitgeist, and a list of merchandise that seems to be getting longer by the day.

Much of the campaign isn’t, as you might expect, aimed at children (though with the number of new toys coming out in conjunction with the film, some parents may wonder if makers Mattel are intent on bankrupting them) – rather, this is all aimed at a new wave of Gen Z fans who are discovering Barbie World on TikTok, and the millennials who still have their old dolls in a box in their parents’ houses somewhere.

Today you could, if you were so inclined, buy a surprisingly classy Barbie candle (scent: Dreamhouse, naturally); you could pick up a Barbie shade of OPI nail polish, order a pair of adult Barbie roller-skates, a fuchsia Barbie swimming costume, a range of mid-century style Barbie martini glasses, or a Barbie inflatable pool toy to ensure your summer snaps are as Instagrammable as can be. You could interact with Brand Barbie out in the wild – Mattel has launched Malibu Barbie cafés in New York and Chicago – or let your wardrobe transition into a shade of bubblegum (Barbiecore is one of this summer’s key looks).

You could even book to stay in the Barbie DreamHouse itself via Airbnb (in Malibu, California), go on a Barbie cruise or check into the Barbie hotel (in Malaysia). You’ll need new Barbie luggage for all that, which luckily you can also find for the low low price of $328 (£258).

It all points to an unlikely truth – after all this time, Barbie appears to be cool again.

A couple of years ago, no one would have predicted it. Despite efforts to make Barbie dolls more diverse in the years since she was first launched in 1959, the original impossibly slim version – surely a dire physical role model for little girls everywhere – is the dominant Barbie in the public imagination. And something about a story based on a perfect doll with a perfect life just doesn’t sit comfortably in a post #MeToo world. The revamped children’s animations have been popular, but they were never enough to make Barbie trendy.

So why has the brand suddenly taken off?

Barbie's Malibu DreamHouse, for rent on Airbnb

It’s partly because the children who begged their parents for a Dreamhouse in 1998 are now just the right age to get nostalgic about this second go round – and they have the disposable income to be taken in by all the merch. Last week, fans crammed into a shopping mall in Sydney to catch a glimpse of Robbie and America Ferrera (who also stars in the film) at the first fan event for the tour. Many were women who had come clutching their old Barbie dolls. “It’s been hyped on socials for a very long time,” one told the Guardian. “The sneak peeks of the rollerblading scene – that is iconic.”

It’s also thanks to the campaign that has been built around the movie. In six months, Barbie has gone from being a tired brand to a modern icon for the social media age.

That Gerwig (known for coming-of-age films like Lady Bird and a feminist retelling of Little Women) is behind the film has perhaps helped to legitimise her, making it feel more possible to get behind all that pink and plastic.

But the hype has been driven by more than just an enticing trailer and a stellar cast. “If you love Barbie, this movie is for you,” the trailer declares. “If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you.” Robbie has added: “If you feel indifferent about Barbie or haven’t thought about Barbie in years, this movie is also for you.”

That’s the genius of this campaign, says Alex Wilson, global executive director at Amplify, a global creative agency. It sends a message that Barbie is for everyone these days. “They’ve taken that DNA of what made this toy so successful and put that into the marketing having her turn up in gaming, in Architectural Digest, in food, fashion, interior design, everything,” says Wilson.

Campaigns like this one, Wilson says, are part of a growing trend in Hollywood, where a movie franchise will now be built on “product or IP” rather than the other way around. As the appetite for superhero movies wanes, studios are vying for new intellectual property, on the hunt for IPs with a ready made fan base.

Mattel clearly thinks it’s onto something – after Barbie, the toy company plans to make 14 further movies based on its toys, including a Barney film with Daniel Kaluuya and a Hot Wheels movie produced by J.J. Abrams. Streaming shows and video games are also underway, as is a Mattel theme park.

Social media, says Wilson, is key to the Barbie campaign. Barbie TikTok has received 13.3 million likes since it was launched in the October of 2021. It isn’t explicitly part of the movie campaign, but it’s all part of the plan, cleverly positioned by Mattel not as a way to sell toys but to recast Barbie as an influencer.

The movie serves a similar purpose. “It’s not about making movies so that we can go and sell more toys,” Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz said recently. “We’ve been doing well selling toys without movies.” That may be the case, but on the day the Margot Robbie Barbie hit the shelves it shot to number one on Amazon.

The lines become even more blurred when you see pictures of Margot Robbie on the promotional tour for the movie and realise she is wearing an outfit almost identical to the one Instagram Barbie (followers: 2.6 million) is posing in that day (cleverly positioned by her team in front of the Sydney Opera House).

The movie, Wilson says, is proof the industry has “transitioned from product placement to product protagonist”.

Will the campaign succeed in sending people to the cinema? The gaggle of influencers who were invited to watch the trailer recently were sold. “I want to be in Barbie’s world,” said one, dressed head-to-toe in that trademark pink. She’s in luck – she already is.

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