How Barbie got creative with culture to build brand resilience
Anticipation is growing for Greta Gerwig’s film, Barbie. Ahead of the July release, Andi Davids, global strategic business director at Bulletproof says the message is clear: Barbie is back.
Barbie 2022 trailer / Warner Bros. Pictures
From high street to high fashion, lemonade to loungewear, soft pile rugs to secret menus, you’d be hard-pressed these days to find a category not hit by the ‘pink wave’.
This is exactly why the 64-year-old fashion doll turns out to be an unlikely – yet compelling – source of inspiration for business leaders increasingly grappling to boost resilience. A lesson in how to balance brand-led business strategy with culture-led evolution.
Imagination, life is your creation
Barbie’s trajectory perfectly illustrates the core tenet of bulletproof brands: root them in a fundamental human experience and find new ways to help people live it. Built on the universal truth that all kids dream about who they’ll be when they grow up, what Barbie’s done so well over the past few years is to reposition that act in line with technological, social, and cultural developments. Mattel recognized not only a shift in the role of play – from entertainment to education – but also in culture. One in which dreaming about the future moved from a quest for perfection to the fulfillment of potential.
But Barbie hasn’t always managed to keep in step with cultural shifts. Hot off the (not so high) heels of third-wave feminism, noughties moms no longer felt Barbie reflected their values, and weren’t buying the doll for their daughters. With sales falling for eight consecutive quarters, Mattel was faced with the possibility of the first generation since 1959 being raised without Barbie.
You don’t need a miniature pair of plastic glasses to see where they went wrong. From Kate Moss’s waif to Pamela Anderson’s pin-up, beauty in the 90s and early 2000s had never been so unattainable, and Barbie, with her famously dysmorphic figure, had become the poster child for superficiality and unrealistic standards. Set amidst a cultural backdrop of ‘Girl Power’ and a surge in women’s rights acts, this was only exacerbated by controversial product innovations and one-dimensional brand collaborations. It was an era of empowerment and shifting ideals around femininity and equality, something Barbie could have easily leaned into, yet the brand’s meaning was slipping out of the hands of the business and into that of culture, becoming one of parody and satire instead.
This is what makes the brand’s recent developments so impressive. Today’s culture is evolving faster than ever, and Barbie’s story shows how, in this fast-moving world, brands must play two seemingly contradictory roles. As a business tool, a brand needs to be a consistent icon, an immediately recognizable beacon of a commercial offer. As a cultural object, however, it needs to be a sign of the times – an immediately resonant reflection of consumer desires and cultural trends.
Successful brands need to evolve with culture, but remain distinctly themselves; to be both timely and timeless. The key is to build them on ideas so fundamental, so impenetrable, so prolific, a brand can grow even if the category changes or disappears. How? By creating a brand platform that’s product and category agnostic. Not only does this unlock new revenue streams through innovation and licensing, but it also enables a brand to adapt and evolve as new practices and beliefs emerge, ensuring sustained market relevance.
Barbie is a masterclass in owning an idea. By becoming a platform for possibility, the brand opened up an infinite number of growth opportunities, from product innovations like Barbie Stem Kits to Malibu Barbie cafes to feature films. Mattel recognizes that the real power lies not in the doll, but in the brand. The doll is simply the brand’s best marketing tool.
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Alongside this, a brand needs an identity so unmistakable, it can be recognized across any channel, even those that have yet to exist. This requires both distinctive brand assets that are fixed to build equity and memory structures, and more expressive assets that can flex across different touchpoints and cultural moments. Last year’s collaboration with Balmain, for example, saw the launch of an exclusive fashion collection alongside three NFTs featuring Barbie and Ken avatars. The brand’s signature color and font were used both in the clothes and Balmain’s wordmark drove standout – undeniably Barbie, but activated to capture a moment in culture across a new channel.
The final step in building resilience is to foster communities so loyal, they’ll support a brand through criticism or controversy. Consumers are increasingly demanding brands take a stance on societal issues. As a result, it’s difficult to exist without occasionally causing affront, so having people that buy into your narrative is the key to ongoing success. Just think of Nike and its decision to continue supporting Colin Kaepernick – it only made the brand stronger. Such fandom is well within Barbie’s reach. From Barbiecore fashion to the teased movie narrative that plays back Barbie’s evolving role in culture in a knowing, self-referential way, the brand has its perfectly manicured figure on the pulse of its fanbase, and crafts multiple ways across their passion points to engage with them.
Life in plastic, it’s fantastic
The balance between timely and timeless is a tough one to strike, and we all know what happens when we get it wrong. Lean too far into consistency and you’ll be left wondering where all your customers went. Lean too far into a culture that doesn’t align with your brand’s history and you’ll come across as inauthentic or jumping on a bandwagon.
Barbie, however, is currently rocking it like a Givenchy dress. Now that she’s fully embraced and activated this new positioning, we’d love to see where she goes next. What will she do when the next wave of feminism arises? When do technologies like artificial intelligence mature? As she moves into new spaces beyond fashion and beauty? That remains to be seen, but one thing’s for certain: it’s a Barbie brand world; we’re just living in it.
Andi Davids is global strategic business director at agency Bulletproof.