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  • Writer's pictureNathanael Lim

Why Barbie's Box Office Success is a Case Study in Brand Building

Updated: Jan 15

Love it or hate it, everyone is talking about the Barbie movie. From your favourite influencers to your most annoying friends, they all have their own take on why Barbie is the best (or worst) movie that premiered in the summer of 2023.


What critics cannot deny about Barbie is its box office success. Forbes projects that the movie, featuring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and Ken, will surpass the $1 billion worldwide box office milestone in no time, making it the top-grossing movie of 2023. Forbes attributes Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Barbie's success to phenomenal word of mouth and must-see pop culture status, drawing bigger audiences and repeat viewings. The viral branding and marketing campaign of Barbie has also allowed the film to avoid many pitfalls of earlier blockbusters of 2023, indicating a stronger-than-average impression on its audience. Additionally, the sale of merchandise or royalties from Mattel's impressive 165 brand collaborations and thousands of displays in stores globally has not even been considered. Although it may be too early to tell how much of Barbie's box office success can be translated into higher doll sales, the CFO of Mattel, Anthony DiSilvestro, is optimistic about July's earnings that are likely to last for the next few years.


With its record-setting box office success and ability to revitalise a shrinking market, we believe that Barbie is a worthwhile case study on brand building. While there are countless articles written on how the Barbie movie succeeded through the personal branding of Greta Gerwig, a stellar cast, and a star-studded soundtrack, we will not be examining this latest wave of Barbie craze from the perspective of Hollywood. Instead, we aim to leverage our professional expertise as a brand consultancy that focuses on go-to-market strategy to understand it from a branding perspective, listing what we feel Barbie excelled in and what other businesses can learn from it.


What is brand building?


Based on our experience working with founders to provide only what is necessary for a holistic strategy and visual identity, we understand brand building as a strategic process of creating and nurturing a positive brand image for a company, product, or service.


This involves carefully crafting a unique identity and perception in the minds of consumers and stakeholders. We achieve this by leveraging data through research and implementing it in our clients’ brand positioning, messaging, and visuals to propel them to success. By encompassing a more comprehensive approach that goes beyond a brand’s visual elements like logos and colours, we improve the effectiveness of our clients’ brand building.


The objective of brand building is to establish trust, credibility, and emotional connections with the target audience. Therefore, consistently delivering on promises, values, and customer experiences is vital to foster brand loyalty. A successful brand building effort can lead to increased brand recognition, market differentiation, and a competitive advantage in the marketplace.


What is your target audience?


The most crucial branding consideration that Barbie has nailed down is its target audience. A target audience is a specific group of people that a product, service, or message is intended to reach. By identifying Barbie's target audience, Greta Gerwig could write a more compelling script that resonates with her audience. By narrowing her audience to Millennials and Gen Zs, she could readily tap into their lifestyles, hopes, desires, and struggles. For instance, with 75% of Netflix subscribers aged 18-35 years old, Greta Gerwig should consider that her target audience has more convenient alternatives. Therefore, instead of replicating the success of other Hollywood films, analysing Netflix's best-performing shows may be more appropriate. This is an approach that was embraced by Greta Gerwig and her team, whether intentional or not, as reflected in the casting of notable actors from Netflix's Sex Education like Emma Mackey, Ncuti Gatwa, and Connor Swindells. The topics explored in the movie, such as feminism and motherhood, are themes not common in Hollywood's action-packed summer flicks but more aligned with a limited series on Netflix.


Also, identifying Barbie's target audience is a crucial first step for the marketing team to reach out to relevant brands for partnerships. For instance, the Barbie movie's elaborate set design and iconic outfits worn by Margot Robbie present a natural fit for collaborations with fashion labels. However, it is not practical to engage with all of the 26,541 fashion designer businesses registered in the United States. Hence, by leveraging the lifestyle and habits of our target audience as a filter, we can become more strategic with our partnerships, and this is what the marketing team at Barbie has done. They have approached brands like Zara, Aldo, and Superga, which resonate with Barbie's audience, rather than Adidas, Timberland, or Patagonia, which cater to a different demographic. Furthermore, by limiting the partnership to a select few brands, Barbie can ensure that the collaboration is commercially viable and that the brands share Barbie's values and vision.


Therefore, it is important for businesses and organisations to identify their target audience. This allows them to tailor their marketing and branding strategies effectively to connect with and engage their audience. Understanding the demographics, interests, and behaviours of the target audience can help inform decisions about product design, messaging, and advertising channels. This approach can save time and generate more revenue.


What is your colour palette?


What colour do you associate Tiffany & Co. with?


What about Barbie?


Practically every consumer product brand has launched a collaboration with Mattel's best-selling doll, making it hard for anyone not to associate Barbie with the colour pink. This is not a coincidence. In the process of brand-building, an organisation chooses a colour palette. A colour palette is a collection of colours that are consistently used across all brand touchpoints, from logos and marketing materials to product design and packaging.


For Barbie, the dominant colour palette is pink and pastel colours. Pink has been the iconic and signature colour associated with Barbie since its inception in 1959. The Barbie brand consistently uses various shades of pink in its packaging, marketing materials, and product design to create a memorable brand identity. This identity is inevitably translated into Greta Gerwig's Barbie and subsequent promotional materials. The use of pastel colours like light blue and mint green helps to complement the signature pink and evoke a sense of femininity and playfulness.


By consistently implementing its colour palette over the past few decades, the Barbie brand has built a recognisable visual identity, allowing it to stand out in a competitive market and create a strong emotional connection with its customers. This has made it a household name. Even today, when you pass a store front clad in pink, you immediately assume that the brand is collaborating with Barbie before examining further. The perception of Barbie's brand being present everywhere definitely contributed to the lasting effect of the Barbie movie on its audience.


Although the colour pink may seem like an obvious choice for Barbie, the colours chosen for a palette should take various factors into consideration like the brand's mission, vision, and target audience. For instance, a healthcare brand might choose blue as its primary colour to convey a sense of trust and reliability. Similarly, a technology brand might choose green to represent innovation and growth. That being said, these colours may not be suitable at the end of the day if you are hoping to stand out in a competitive market where your competitors look visually identical.


The “Barbenheimer” effect



Finally, we have the "Barbenheimer" effect, which arguably propelled both Barbie and Oppenheimer on their opening weekend. The “Barbenheimer” effect is best described as an internet phenomenon that spread on social media before the simultaneous theatrical release of two blockbuster films, Barbie and Oppenheimer.


Critics may be quick to dismiss this simultaneous premiere and argue that if both films are great, the audience would naturally purchase tickets for the show. However, we argue that Barbie would not have achieved its success if it was not released alongside Oppenheimer — a biographical thriller by Christopher Nolan about physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project. Moreover, this phenomenon would not have existed if either Barbie or Oppenheimer were released simultaneously with other films like Mission Impossible or Disney's Haunted House. The “Barbenheimer” effect only came into existence due to the movies' consistent brand positioning.


This effect was only convincing and worth circulating because these two films represented polar opposites that are inevitably expressed in their messaging and visuals. The viral nature of the “Barbenheimer” effect on social media created intrigue among fans of either film to catch the other, arguably leading to both movies exceeding box-office expectations.


Therefore, the "Barbenheimer" effect is a prime example of how a well-positioned brand, with an ideal target audience and a framework around unique selling points, would generate more revenue regardless of its competitors. A brand that has identified its positioning in relation to the market could consistently execute its messaging and visuals that align with the brand direction.


Concluding thoughts



The Barbie movie has broken box office records, making it a worthwhile case study in brand building. The team's ability to identify their target audience, implement a consistent colour palette, and leverage the "Barbenheimer" effect all contributed to the movie's success.


Brand building involves creating a unique identity and perception in the minds of consumers and stakeholders, establishing trust, credibility, and emotional connections with the target audience. A well-positioned brand with an ideal target audience and a framework around unique selling points can generate more revenue regardless of its competitors. This principle applies not only to Barbie but also to any brand.


If you are launching a new brand, expanding into new markets, or experiencing structural change, contact us to develop your own holistic strategy and visual identity.

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