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Brand Strategy Film Barbie

Stepping into Barbie’s heels: is a branded content renaissance coming?

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By Sam Anderson, Network Editor

August 21, 2023 | 11 min read

After a summer of movies based on brand properties (not least Mattel’s Barbie and Nike’s Air), can we expect to see more outsize branded content plays? We asked eight leaders from The Drum Network.

Barbie in the 2023 moovie

Will Barbie usher in a new era of branded content? / Credit: Warner Bros

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie was a lot of things: blockbuster, cultural phenomenon, opinion divider. It was also the centerpiece of perhaps the biggest branded content play of all time.

It’s not the first of course: it’s following in the footsteps of branded content juggernauts like Michelin and Red Bull, not to mention The Lego Movie. It was also joined this year by other branded motion pictures: Air for Nike; Flamin' Hot for Pepsi, and Tetris for... Tetris.

Barbie’s staggering success can only mean one thing: more where that came from. Some commentators are already starting to clench in anticipation of a hellscape dominated by scores of toy-based movies.

As the boundaries between brands and culture blur, perhaps so will the border that marks the edge of what is and isn’t branded content. So: will the branded movies trend continue? And what's next? Over to our panel of marketing experts.

Matthew Waksman, head of strategy, advertising, Ogilvy UK: “What’s next for branded content? It’s ever so easy to be a naysayer, to claim Barbie is the exception. You can already hear boring sods whine, ‘But Barbie was already an entertainment asset, it’s different for our brand’.

“It’s worth remembering, as we look to the future, that the first great example of branded entertainment came from the dullest of utilities, tyres, in the form of the Michelin Guide. The more boring your product the more urgent your quest for entertainment should be. I hope what’s next is that, beyond the movies, from the big screen to the small screen, we see a rush for brands to entertain, entertain, entertain. Whether that happens or not, is up to us.”

Mike Lewinsky, senior vice president, 160/90: “Branded content is still an emerging (but growing) marketing strategy, but this new wave proves it can work in larger, pop-culture-driven scripted content.

“I predict we’ll see more brands invest like a studio and put their trust in the right creators to develop original content.

“And for brands without iconic IP or backstory, align your storytelling to your brand values and a creator who knows how to speak to your audience. Enabling creators to do what they do best will allow brands to powerfully reach a mass audience in a less direct way and create content that audiences want to consume.”

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Beth Noonan, director, M&C Saatchi Fabric: “Hot on the pink heels of Barbie, the movie set a whole new benchmark for cinematic branded content, and it’s only going to rise. With a number of toy franchise movies on the horizon, it’s clear that the success of Barbie is the start of a new era of branded cinema content.

“Barbie changed the game; what its marketing team managed to achieve went far beyond a branded movie. Instead, Barbie became a lifestyle brand for the summer of 23; built from partnership after partnership with brands as far-ranging as beauty, jewelry, fashion and food. The result was that Barbie didn’t just live on our screens, it lived on our streets, our feeds, our shops, and the sides of our buses. It made itself known in every office, conversation and WhatsApp group for weeks.

“So, will the branded movie trend continue? Absolutely. Barbie set the bar high, but brands will keep jumping and we’re excited for the content to come.”

Martyn Clarkson, executive vice-president, global head of strategy, Jack Morton: “Mattel has transformed itself into "an IP driven company", with a raft of movies announced and 5 far into development with major talent attached, including American Girl, Barney, Major Matt Mason, UNO and Hot Wheels, which has J.J. Abrams attached as producer. It doesn’t stop at movies; Mattel is building out experiences, opening an Arizona-based adventure park in 2024 with Hot Wheels roller coasters, a full Barbie Beach and a massive Masters of the Universe laser tag arena.

“Meanwhile, the humble sports docudrama is a trojan horse of branded content for sports brands. Series like All or Nothing added momentum to major sporting brands like Manchester United and The All Blacks. A Gatorade football movie would somehow work.

“As for the future, artist brands like Taylor Swift can’t sustain themselves as music-only entities and movies of her songs would be cinematic nirvana for almost half the US population.”

Rebecca Edwards, senior digital strategist, Impression: “I certainly don’t think the Barbie campaign will be the last of its kind.

“Since Warner Bros first started to drip-feed promotional content for the film, the movie has continued to reach a new level of engagement in the culture. This was supercharged by the huge variety of products and brand partnerships that helped create this cultural phenomenon and engage with such a variety of audiences. They’ve shown both movie studios and consumer brands the power of partnerships and how they can really strengthen and play into your brand storytelling efforts, building demand on a huge scale.

“Looking beyond movies, expect to see brands from all different sectors getting creative and investing more in brand storytelling, for three simple reasons. In today’s busy world there’s a need to be unforgettable; modern consumers will forever have tribal instincts to relate and belong to a community; and authenticity will remain key to the hearts of consumers.”

Benjamin Potter, chief executive officer, North America & global creative director, ClickOn: “As brands and culture intertwine, the line distinguishing branded content becomes less clear.

“Red Bull stands at the forefront of blending brand and narrative, and lesser-known examples like Coca-Cola’s strategy ‘Content 2020’ and Marriott's ‘Two Bellmen’ series deserve marketers' attention for their innovative approaches. Looking ahead, virtual reality and augmented reality offer immersive experiences, while personalization, sustainability, and AI-generated content hold promise. The evolving landscape prompts brands to embrace creative storytelling to resonate with audiences and navigate the shifting boundaries between marketing and culture.

“Branded content will continue, and the way to think of it is the same as a film. Brand marketing will include long-form pieces with meaning and story, and hundreds of social assets all pointing in the direction of the core piece.”

Johnson Lee, vice president, integrated strategy, Team Lewis: “Branded movies are key examples of how brand narratives can intertwine with popular culture. This alignment allows brands to engage audiences on a deeper level, leveraging existing cultural touchpoints to amplify their messaging.

“The branded movie trend is merely one chapter in an evolving narrative. Looking ahead, the trajectory of branded content is likely to transcend traditional boundaries. Brands that possess a level of self-awareness, those attuned to shifting societal norms and audience preferences, will be at the forefront of innovation. With consumers becoming increasingly discerning and savvy, authenticity and relatability will dictate which brands succeed at pushing the envelope. Those brands that succeed will be those that can seamlessly weave their narratives into the cultural and topical fabric of what matters to consumers, while respecting the nuances and opinions of evolving conversation.”

Charli Edwards, creative director, Cavendish Consulting: “Branded content is a powerful tool that can help brands connect with consumers on an emotional level. The branded movies trend is just the beginning.

“Branded movies allow brands to tell their stories more immersively and engagingly than traditional advertising. When people watch a movie, they are transported to another world and experience the brand’s story through the eyes of the characters. This can be a very powerful way to connect with consumers on an emotional level. Plus, movies are a mass medium that people of all ages and demographics can enjoy. This makes them a great way for brands to reach potential customers. Plus, movies can obtain ‘cult’ status; they can help brands build brand awareness and loyalty. When people see a brand’s name attached to a movie, they are more likely to remember the brand and consider buying from it in the future.

“The next branded content frontiers will be virtual and augmented reality. These technologies allow brands to create even more immersive and engaging consumer experiences. Brands can create VR experiences that allow users to explore their products or services realistically, or AR experiences that allows users to interact with them in the real world.”

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