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How Barbie marketing is extraordinary and the rest of us get it wrong

Alison Gaulden, APR, Fellow PRSA and principal lecturer at the Reynolds School of Journalism dives into how and why the Barbie movie marketing turned all of our worlds pink

Since the third week in July, the world has been awash in Barbie Pink; not Activist Pink of Planned Parenthood or T-Mobile Magenta or even the pinkwashing of every product imaginable for breast cancer awareness. Practically overnight Mattel’s Barbie Pink® became the color for 2023, a remarkable branding feat. Warner Bros Discovery’s brilliantly strategic Public Relations and Marketing campaign for the Barbie film exploded Barbiecore and reignited interest in the iconic 64-year-old doll while bringing in an historic  billion-plus in gross sales.  

Vox’s Whizy Kim credited the summer’s biggest hit as the Barbie Marketing Team. Those five killer reasons include: significant budget, partnership saturation, knowing the audience, taking risks, and maximizing publicity.

The PR/Marketing campaign budget reported by Variety was a colossal $150 million, which was more than the $145 million to produce the film. Generally marketing budgets are 10-15% of the commodity budget. When you have the largess to do all the things, well then you can do ALL the things.

In her article, Kim notes the innumerable marketing partnerships. Start with Googling “Barbie”-the page turns pink and sparkly diamonds flit across the screen. The product partnerships are such a broad range from HGTV Dreamhouse Challenge to Barbie’s Malibu Dreamhouse on AirBNB, from  Barbie-themed Crocs to innumerable fashion houses (film star and producer Margot Robbie wore a lot of Prada), from the five  General Motors vehicles securing ten minutes in the film to Progressive Insurance bundling all of Barbie’s assets. Then factor in Mattel’s own Barbie promotions and how Barbiecore triggered every ad agency worth their salt to newsjack elements of the film for their own clients.

Clearly you can tell Warner Bros. president of worldwide marketing Josh Goldstine and his team really studied and understood its audience. In 35 years in the industry, he indicated to many outlets he’s never seen the ginormous cultural response---embracing of pink and everything Barbie and what she stands for. His team set out to take a familiar brand and deliver in an unfamiliar way with surprise and discovery. The goal was to be the biggest female-driven IP (digital targeting) movie. The movie delivered for young girls, nostalgic women, the LGBTQ community, haters and so many more.

In a Spotify interview with Matthew Belloni, Goldstine mentioned how the campaign took cool risks such as its December 2022 seed-planting sci-fiesque teaser ads during Avatar. So not Barbie, but totally generating curiosity. The fact the campaign used “hate” in its talking points (“The movie is for those who love Barbie and for those who hate Barbie”) demonstrated a willingness to break marketing rules.

The final strategy with extraordinary success is the variety of angles of publicity. First if you google Barbie, the page turns pink and magenta sparkly diamonds cross the page. Reviewing the stories about Barbie, there’s outreach in media and film trade publications as you’d expect. But you wouldn’t expect articles in automotive magazines, about the marketing campaign itself, in sports stories. Goldstine says the lessons learned are that  director Greta Gerwig is a genius, others should check their assumptions about female-driven IP (targeting digital consumers) and make bold brave choices in marketing.

This marketing campaign will definitely be featured as a case study for future PR/Advertising course at the RSJ. One of the quotes from  Gloria is “We have to always be extraordinary but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.” The Barbie marketing team certainly pulled off the extraordinary and showed us how others can be doing it wrong.

About the author

Alison Gaulden, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a principal lecturer of Public Relations/Advertising in the Reynolds School of Journalism.

Alision Gaulden smiling headshot
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