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Barbiecore: Practical Lessons in Vision-Centric Strategy
What the Barbie hype teaches us about brand and content strategy
A consistent, vision-centric approach to branding and brand storytelling wins with audiences.
When you go big with marketing, go simple with your messaging.
For fashion collaborations, adopt a test-and-learn approach and scale strategically over time.
IN the fashion world, Barbiecore is the new Louis Vuitton x Yayoi Kusama. Earlier this year, you couldn’t go anywhere without being bombarded with polka dots. Now it’s Barbie pink.
At the moment, fashion and luxury brands, marketers, and forecasters seem equally enthralled and mystified at the phenom that is Barbiecore. The launch of the new “Barbie” movie by “Little Women” director Greta Gerwig starring Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken—and the sheer volume and consistency of the marketing content surrounding it—have been nothing less than breathtaking. For instance, on TikTok alone, the hashtag #Barbiecore has received over 610 million views at time of publication. When you type “Barbie movie” into Google search, the page explodes into bright pink sparkles.
A lot of media space has been devoted to the why, what, and when of Mattel’s decision to go full-in on the world’s most iconic fashion doll with the roll-out of the brand marketing campaign ahead of the upcoming movie. But the how of it all—or rather Mattel’s impressively comprehensive brand and content strategy behind Barbie—has perhaps received less attention and analysis.
To put it straight, Mattel’s re-invention of Barbie as a feminist style icon has quietly been one of the most successful brand strategies of the past decade. The public popularity of the new “Barbie” movie is the icing on the cake.
So, what defines Mattel’s brand and content strategy, how are they different from other brand efforts, and what lessons in strategy can brand and marketing professionals learn from this campaign?
Brand awareness, engagement, and excitement come from strategy
At FSW, we talk a lot about the critical role of brand storytelling and its relationship to content strategy when it comes to delivering targeted, clear messaging to build consumer loyalty and engagement. Stories are the centerpiece of human communications. So it’s no wonder why they work well in brand marketing.
But it’s often hard to find an active case study of a brand taking what we would consider a fully holistic approach to brand content. This is in part simply because content and content channels are so diffuse these days; but also it is the result of excessive internal siloing, a lack of strategic planning, management, and ideation when it comes to cross-channel content to create true consistency, authenticity, and resonance, and a foundational lack of governance and oversight.
We feel that Mattel hit the nail on the head with its concurrent re-branding of Barbie and its omni-channel marketing strategy because its brand messaging is simple, authentic, and consistent and focuses on building engagement and community through a well-tailored combination of nostalgia, escapism, and fun.
Taking a sweeping view of the media coverage, content, and product releases surrounding Barbiecore, we see four key strategies that connect Mattel’s comprehensive approach and that of their many brand partners, which we examine below.
Take a vision-centered approach
Love her or hate her, Barbie is a cultural icon. A key element of Barbiecore is it represents a familiar, identifiable set of signs and associations that are very easy to interpret, re-interpret, and turn on their head. As "Barbie" movie star Margot Robbie recently told The Economist, “[the Barbie name is] more globally recognized than practically everything else other than Coca-Cola.” Whether you know her as Barbara Millicent Roberts or just “Barbie,” everyone knows her. Barbie is a fashion-loving doll for fashion lovers. But she’s more than that. Most women and girls either grew up collecting the plastic Barbie doll toys or have strong emotions about them, especially with her bevy of outfits and the much sought-after Dreamhouse.
A huge reason for the success of Mattel’s Barbie brand strategy lies in its ability to combine strong storytelling with a holistic, omni-channel content strategy across platforms in conjunction with critical brand partners.
From the get-to, marketing efforts from Mattel and its bevy of brand collaborations have shared a common vision: to re-habilitate Barbie’s image from a feminine stereotype into a modern fashion influencer with the power and autonomy to re-invent herself. The gist of Gerwig’s movie is the character’s journey of self-discovery in the “real” world. This plot is perfectly in line with the Barbie brand re-invention that Mattel has been implementing for the past decade.
A huge reason for the success of Mattel’s Barbie brand strategy lies in its ability to combine strong storytelling with a holistic, omni-channel content strategy across platforms in conjunction with critical brand partners. This is why it feels like Barbie is everywhere but not to the point that is annoying. The content is strategic, authentic, and targeted, channel by channel. As Tamison O’Connor noted in a piece for The Business of Fashion (BoF), “[this] move [by Mattel] is a way to keep the brand front and centre while also growing the reach of the Barbie brand beyond the core consumer audience for its fashion dolls.”
Build roadmaps and play the long game
While it may seem like Barbiecore came out of nowhere, Mattel has, in fact, been playing the long game when it comes to re-branding and re-inventing Barbie’s image. Over a decade of strategic planning, product development, and partnerships went into the current hype over Barbie.
In the early 2000s, Barbie fell out of popularity largely due to negative associations women had with the body type ideal and the seemingly anti-feminist aesthetic the doll represented. Barbie was felt to be old, out of fashion. Indeed, according to Tamison O’Connor, “in 2014 … Barbie doll sales hit a historic low after three consecutive years of declines.”
In response to declining sales of its marquis product, Mattel, under the leadership of president and CEO Richard Dickson, made the strategic decision to reinvent Barbie and rehabilitate her image. The familiar appearance of Barbie with her exaggerated body proportions and calendar-girl looks changed. Mattel introduced a more diverse, body-positive range of Barbie dolls across a range of professions and activities. According to the parent company’s website, Barbie is “the most diverse and inclusive doll line, but we cannot achieve our purpose to inspire the limitless potential in every girl until all girls have the same opportunities and support needed to believe they can be anything.”
Along with the re-invention of the plastic doll itself came a host of fashion collaborations, beginning with Jeremy Scott in SS2015 and continuing with an impressive list of major fashion brands and luxury maisons from Tommy Hilfiger, Halpern, and Vera Wang to Balmain, Valentino, and Chanel. The latter relationship is largely due to “Barbie” movie star Margot Robbie’s capacity as a Chanel brand ambassador since 2018 but a role that the luxury brand has embraced and cultivated, particularly with the recent lead up to the movie’s launch.
Mattel’s re-invention of Barbie is proof that brand and content roadmaps are worth the effort. There’s nothing romantic about roadmaps: Create a phased approach with concrete goals; know your channels, audiences, and messaging; set milestones, workflow, and oversight structure; and hit go.
As Mattel clearly realized, playing the branding long game takes takes time and effort but pays off in the end. BoF cites that in 2022 “Barbie was the number-one doll brand globally, and the number-two toy brand overall,” according to third-party surveys from Mattel. Of course, nothing Barbie’s parent company has done over the past decade compares with the sheer size and comprehensiveness of the marketing push over the course of 2023.
Keep it simple and visual for splash campaigns
Another feature of Barbiecore is the current ubiquitousness of Barbie pink. From Valentino’s AW 2022/23 haute couture collection to glittery pink Crocs and Backdrop “Dream House Pink” wall paint, the vibrant, unmistakable color of Mattel’s iconic fashion doll is everywhere.
Barbie pink IS brand messaging: it is vibrant, playful, and youthful.
Similar to Louis Vuitton’s polka-dot focused approach for its collab with Japanese avant garde artist Yayoi Kusama earlier this year, Mattel and its army of collaborators have taken a simple, highly visual approach to marketing Barbie through large-scale splash campaigns. When you go big with marketing, the trick is the same as all branding: to convey clear messaging and to evoke strong emotions. And, for Barbiecore, it works.
Barbie pink IS brand messaging: it is vibrant, playful, and youthful. The color feels concomitantly modern and nostalgic, which is exactly what Barbie’s brand re-inventors want us to feel. As Dickson told BoF, “For any brand to own a colour is a pretty powerful statement and recognition…. People aren’t calling it pink-core, they’re calling it Barbie-core. That becomes a very powerful place to be.”
Start small, test, then scale into multi-brand collabs
The popularity of Barbiecore, greatly aided through organic social media and creator enthusiasm, has come through its seemingly endless array of brand collaborations. The list of Barbie collabs feels endless, including; a life-size Barbie Dream House at London’s famous Selfridges; collections from small and large fashion brands, such as Zara, Gap, Miami swimwear brand Luli Fama, and many others; and product drops with brands like Burger King and Pinkberry. As part of its strategy and roadmap, Mattel has partnered with over 100 brands and retailers across the gamut from fashion and beauty to home decor, as part of promotions for the new movie.
But, Mattel’s Barbie brand partnerships started small with early collabs with fashion designers like Jeremy Scott, as previously mentioned, and scaled over time. This allowed the parent company time to test consumer sentiment, adjust, and keep moving, building to a natural marketing climax that has accelerated over the past six months as hype surrounding the new movie grew.
Mattel’s brand strategy has transformed Barbie into a cultural movement. And their brand partners are here for it, both from a cash perspective as well as a wave of positive consumer engagement that marketers are betting will translate into some degree of brand loyalty. As O’Connor wrote for BoF, “For Barbie’s parent company, the plethora of collaborations … are more than just a tool to promote the film. It’s a way to keep the brand front and centre while providing an opportunity and grow the reach of the Barbie brand beyond the core consumer audience for its fashion dolls.”
If you’re playing the branding long game as Mattel have, then the release of Gerwig’s movie marks the culmination of a successful re-invention of Barbie for a new generation of consumers. As Michael Sugar noted in an article for Fast Company, all the Barbiecore shows that “[t]he future [of brand marketing] lies in harnessing the power of premium storytelling and expanding brand universes to connect with consumers on a deeper and more genuine level.”
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