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How the Barbie took over the world (again)
The Barbie movie is set to become one of this year’s biggest summer blockbusters. Yet this brand dominance was inevitable, right? Barbie is one of the biggest IPs in the world and the movie’s dominance was a dead certainty surely. Not necessarily. Even just a decade ago Barbie’s sales had plunged 16%, Mattel’s share price had fallen by 20% & many were claiming that ‘Barbie was dead’. As Mattel’s Chief Operating Officer, Richard Dickson himself admits:
“If you look back to 2015, CNN had headlines along the lines of ‘Barbie is dead’ and people were writing her off as irrelevant, while the business was showing that consumers weren’t voting for her either.“ Richard Dickson, Chief Operating Officer, Matel
So how did Barbie go from life support to living her best life? Let’s break it down in this week’s newsletter.
BTW from today, I will be away for two weeks on annual leave. Hence the Friday email. Also, the next newsletter will be in three weeks’ time, rather than two. Thank you 🙏.
#1 CULTURAL RELEVANCE
It is an understatement to say that the world Barbie was born into was vastly different from the one we live in today. In 1959, the year Barbie was born, women had far fewer opportunities in the world. Far fewer went into higher education or pursued a high-flying career. Looking back now it is shocking to think of the far fewer opportunities open to women.
Ref #1: Whilst women now outpace men in terms of college graduation in America even as late as the 1970s less than 1 in 10 went to college.
One of the main reasons Barbie sales were declining so fast? The world she was born into and the one she still symbolised was horribly outdated. Barbie symbolised the ‘ideal woman’ of the 1960s. She was perfect at all times. She was beautiful, flawless and her sh*t together at all times. And she did all this with one task in mind…to bag the perfect man (Ken).
Now imagine if a toy meeting this description was invented today. Not only would it not sell it would likely never reach our shelves in the first place. It would either fail to pass consumer focus groups or women quite rightly would ask for it to be discontinued. In light of this, it’s no surprise to see why Barbie’s sales & Matel’s share price declined. It is also no surprise to see why many millennial moms simply refused to buy the doll for their daughters.
“Moms, and specifically Millennial moms, were having a real crisis about whether they wanted their children to play with Barbie or not.” Tania Missad, ex Director of Consumer Insights, Matel.
How did the Barbie brand reverse this decline? Well, they started by taking a step back and addressing the heart of the problem - their outdated brand purpose. They took the time to modernise and realign the Barbie brand with culture. Instead of being a brand that symbolised a bygone era, Barbie pivoted her purpose to not only better reflect modern women but also actively inspire them to achieve their dreams and reach their full potential. Now when it comes to purpose many brands fall short because they devise something lofty that doesn’t align to a truth about their product. Barbie, however, doesn’t do this. And her new purpose reflects a truth about the product at the heart of her brand. Fundamentally Barbie is a toy to be played with. A toy that allows girls to role-play and imagine the kind of woman they want to be when they grow up. Barbie’s new purpose “Inspire the limitless potential in every girl” directly builds from this as we can see below.
Ref #2: Barbie’s purpose is built out from the product and realigns with modern culture.
So what can brands learn from this? Too often when a brand is in decline they rush to creative solutions. They think that spending millions on a new creative campaign will fix their problems. Barbie reveals that actually, it’s far more important to take a step back and look at the root cause of the problem. To really question whether your brand strategy and purpose are resonating in the modern world. And if they are not resonating look to realign and build something out from a product truth that can make your brand more culturally relevant.
#2 INSIDE OUT
Perhaps one of the biggest mistakes brands make when it comes to acting on their purpose is that they only operate only at a comms level. They believe that now they have their brand strategy in order they can simply sprint at creativity and communications. To be candid, this is a very limiting way to think. The best brand purposes operate at a brand level, not just a comms level. The best brands use their purpose to guide and move forward everything that they do. For example, Nike’s purpose is “We empower every body to be an athlete” and it brings the thought to life across new product development (NPD), corporate social responsibility (CSR) & comms. It’s what drove them to create Nike Plus (NPD), fund sports foundations (CSR) and of course, create iconic creative campaigns that inspire everybody to move more. Simply the best brands use their purpose to guide & shape everything they do from ‘inside’ to ‘out’.
Barbie is a brand that understands this and they fully embraced this approach. From a NPD perspective, their new purpose has seen them create a new range of dolls that better reflect the lives girls aspire to live (ie CEO, Scientists, Athletes). It also saw them empower girls to custom build any doll they like, allowing them to create ones that better represent who they are.
Ref #3: Barbie now empowers girls to custom-build dolls that better reflect who they aspire to be.
Beyond this, the Barbie brand has also embraced a number of CSR initiatives that are aligned to its purpose. At the height of COVID-19, they donated $5 to the First Responders Children’s Foundation for every limited edition doll bought. Further, these dolls were modelled on the doctors, nurses and scientists that helped to save millions of lives during the pandemic. More recently the brand has also partnered with Save the Children. The partnership sees the brand support Save the Children’s work in giving girls around the world access to education and learning resources. Ensuring every girl, no matter where they start off in life, can be inspired and empowered to achieve their limitless potential.
Ref #4 Barbie has brought its new purpose to life across CSR as well as NPD & comms.
Finally the brand has embraced a modern approach to comms. Beyond your typical media buys we have seen the brand stretch its IP into movies, games and brand partnerships. However, I will touch more on this in the next section.
What can brands learn from this? Well whether you are a scaleup or challenger brand or more established, always operate at a brand level rather than at a comms level when it comes to acting on your purpose.
#3 LIVING IN A BARBIE WORLD
You must have been sleeping under a rock to not have seen the communications surrounding the new Barbie movie. Seemingly every time you look on social media there is another splash of hot pink via a brand partnership. Or some Linkedin influencer is doing another hot take on what the move launch did well. And whilst I myself wrote this week on Linkedin how for many smaller brands these partnerships aren’t the best idea, for the Barbie brand itself it’s been a roaring success.
First, let’s take a step back here. Barbie is cleverly following in the footsteps of Lego here by stretching its IP from toys to movies. Lego has enjoyed huge commercial success stretching its IP into new media and Barbie intends to do the same. And whilst I don’t have access to the commercial data Google Trends does indicate that brand search (which correlates to awareness) is once again on the rise for the Barbie brand.
Ref #4: After a period of long decline the Barbie brand has seen a sharp growth in brand search.
Let’s make no mistake Barbie has a huge budget (~$100M) to promote the new film. However, they have not been wasteful in this approach and they have been calculated in how they spend and who they partner with. They could have gone down the route of merely running trailers and ads to target young girls. Instead, the brand has looked to reach and appeal to a far broader audience. An audience that perhaps played with the dolls as a child but alas has grown up and fallen out of the brand’s customer base. It’s the very reason the brand has partnered with the likes of AirBnB & Bumble. As we know broad reach and targeting the broadest possible market is the most effective way to grow. This is exactly what Barbie is doing with some of its brand partnerships.
Ref #5: Whilst Barbie has partnered with some kid-based brands it has moved beyond to reach a broader audience through the likes of its Bumble & AirBnB partnerships.
Beyond this, the brand has a real confidence and swagger when it comes to traditional comms surrounding the movie. Instead of trying to over-explain the film or flog Barbie dolls it simply ran a number of bold OOH placements with the iconic hot pink. The OOH conveys a confidence that screams ‘hey we know you know Barbie and where back on July 21’.
Ref #6: Barbie’s OOH has a confidence that real confidence and swagger.
What can brands learn from this? Well, first a $100M marketing budget really helps. However, even if you don’t have access to this level of capital there are some great lessons we can take away. First, think about how you can stretch your brand IP into new media opportunities. Now of course, if you work for a toiler cleaner brand this might be difficult. However, even brands in lower interest categories such as blenders have managed to create content that broadens the reach and appeal. Second, always think of ways to aim for the broadest reach possible. As covered in this newsletter previously we know that reach is the most effective path to growth for brands. So just as Barbie went beyond obvious partnerships to appeal to an older & broader audience, think about what brands might help broaden your appeal.
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Whilst I probably won’t go to see the Barbie movie myself there are three great lessons for brands we can learn, from their turnaround story. First, if your brand is stalling take a step back and consider how to make your purpose more culturally relevant. Second, bring this new purpose to life across the whole brand from ‘inside’ to ‘out’. Third, leverage brand partnerships as an opportunity to extend and grow your reach.
Expect big thinking and small typ0s #madebydyslexia