By Danielle Wiener-Bronner, CNN
New York (CNN) — During its first few days in theaters, “Barbie” raked in $337 million globally in the box office, the largest opening weekend of 2023 so far. But even before the numbers came in, “Barbie” was a merchandising hit.
In June, brand strategist Moshe Isaacian started keeping track of the official partnerships on Twitter. A scroll through his thread shows, among other things: A gaming console, pair of shoes, hotel, house, insurance commercial, a candle, rugs, nail polish, roller blades, a toy car, a lunchbox, dog apparel, a toothbrush and several other items emblazoned with the Barbie logo, awash in hot pink.
Isaacian has posted about roughly 50 partnerships. That’s, almost literally, the half of it: Mattel, maker of the iconic toy, has made over 100 brand deals for the movie, which is distributed by Warner Bros. (CNN and Warner Bros. are both owned by Warner Bros. Discovery.)
For marketers, “Barbie” has turned into a massive opportunity: A rosy, fizzy way to get new customers – of all ages – and stay culturally relevant. That’s always a good opportunity, but especially so in the current environment, where even seemingly benign marketing campaigns can be controversial.
And it’s not often that so much attention is focused on a single event, like a movie premier.
“We live in such a fragmented world, that it is really hard for events to break through the clutter,” said Tim Calkins, associate chair of the marketing department at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “These shared moments, when they really catch on, have enormous power.”
The Barbie effect
For some bars and restaurants, Barbie mania has led to a rush of patrons.
In the spring, when Barbie memes started leaving their glittery trail across the internet, the team at Wunder Garten, a beer garden and event space in Washington, DC, started to take notice.
Around that time, it started planning Barbie parties: Celebrations with themed cocktails, pink food and plenty of opportunities to show off Barbiecore outfits in the Instagram-friendly venue, including life-size hot pink Barbie and Ken boxes.
“We were expecting a very big turnout, and we got a very, very big turnout,” said Leana Chavez, assistant manager at Wunder Garten.
Meanwhile, retailers have used partnerships to boost product sales.
Candle maker Homesick has been selling a Barbie Dreamhouse candle with notes of sweet peony, rose bush and pink jasmine, among other scents. The candle drove a 39% increase in sales in June, year-over-year, according to Lauren McCord, General Manager of Homesick. And most of that came from new customers: Over 70% of Dreamhouse purchases were made by new clients.
The Barbie brand is particularly powerful because it appeals to multiple generations, noted Christie Nordhielm, an associate teaching professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
By marketing Barbie products to adults, large retailers may be able to get them to buy similar products for kids.
“Parents, or possibly other family members, will gatekeep on whether this product comes in,” she said. With Barbie products that appeal to grown-ups, marketers are “getting that interactivity between adults and children, that bonding,” which can also be used as a selling point.
Gap may benefit from this aspect of the marketing. The clothing retailer offers a Barbie line that includes Gap and Barbie branded t-shirts, jackets and more, for both kids and adults. A Gap spokesperson noted that the collection “has been killing it across all categories.” The relationship between Gap and Mattel runs deep: On Wednesday, Gap announced that its new CEO will be Richard Dickson, who currently serves as Mattel’s president and chief operating officer.
In retrospect, and with huge box office numbers under its belt, it seems clear why so many companies would want to work with “Barbie.” But partner products were conceived and launched well before the movie premiered, when there was a possibility that it wouldn’t be so well received. During that period of uncertainty, they may have been soothed by the sheer volume of partnerships.
In other words, if “Barbie” was a flop, they’d all go down together.
Strength in numbers
There are plenty of ways for “Barbie” to have gone wrong.
The doll itself has a spotty history, and with its inhuman proportions has been accused of upholding unrealistic beauty standards. Plus, movies in general are not a safe financial bet: Aside from breakthroughs like “Barbie” and Oppenheimer, box office sales have been disappointing, making a sluggish return after pandemic-era theater closures.
And there was no guarantee that people would like the movie. Some might still see Barbie as anti-feminist, or anti-male, and the movie as little more than a major corporate effort to boost the doll’s sales. Others may have been turned off by the relentless marketing, especially for a movie with a message that (spoiler alert) people don’t need to buy products to feel good about themselves. And then there’s the fact that “Barbie” was directed by a woman and marketed to women, which can inspire online trolling.
For brand partners, “there was some risk that this movie might be a total bomb,” said David Reibstein, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school. But that risk was “dampened by the fact that others are doing it. And so if we look bad, well, we’re not alone.”
But while there have been calls to boycott the film, they don’t seem to have gotten much traction. Now, with everything coming up Barbie, marketers may lose out by staying away.
“I think there is a risk of not doing it,” Reibstein said. “If you happen to be a retailer and you see the other retailers doing it, you sort of feel like you need to be on the bandwagon… and not miss whatever Barbie wave there might be.” At this stage, that may mean using the success of “Barbie” to market pre-existing hot pink products.
But with everyone going in, it becomes even harder to stand out.
This Barbie is just like all the others
If your promotion is too similar to another, “it’s going to limit the lift that you get, because it’s just more of the same,” said Northwestern’s Calkins. Once you see one Barbie-pink nail polish, for example, you probably won’t be wowed by another.
Isaacian, who started the Twitter thread, thinks Mattel has been strategic in choosing its partners, even though there are so many.
“They’ve really done a good job of making almost all parts of the movie feel tangible,” he said.
For Reibstein, the collaboration that stood out was the Airbnb Malibu Dreamhouse. Staying at the Dreamhouse is free, but Airbnb only made it available for two nights in July.
Prior to those dates, model and TV personality Chrissy Teigen shared photos of herself and her family in the Instagram-friendly house, including one boomerang video of her in a hot pink outfit and Ken-inspired roller blades.
Nordhielm pointed to Cold Stone Creamery’s Barbie pink cotton candy ice cream as a standout. “It”s a happy product, it’s a family product,” she said.
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