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Brand Strategy Barbie Media

2023 was the year of Barbie (and the fan zone it created)

By Beki Winchel, Spiro



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November 1, 2023 | 8 min read

Ready for one more bite of Barbie mania? Beki Winchel of agency Spiro looks back on the year's biggest cultural phenomenon and how the multiverse of Barbie activations created an unparalleled fan experience.

A Barbie doll in a pink shirt

Barbie was the marketing phenomenon of 2023 - how did Mattel build a new fandom around its iconic toy? / Elena Mishlanova via Unsplash

It took 12 weeks for the Barbie movie to end its multi-record-breaking streak at the box office, amassing more than $1.43bn in ticket sales. It’s now the highest-grossing movie of the year and Warner Bros’ highest-grossing movie of all time.

Barbie’s brilliant marketing campaign, featuring a multitude of brand partnerships and a slew of brand experiences, was key to its success. From the Barbie Malibu Café to a real-life Dreamhouse via Airbnb, consumers lined up and excitedly posted across social media.

Some might argue that the Barbie brand was set for this success. Mattel racks up $1bn in global sales annually and 92% of US girls ages 3 to 12 own a Barbie. Ownership comes with emotional attachments: as people play with their dolls, they also imagine a future where they (like Barbie) can do anything.

Barbie’s marketing team had a huge, emotionally invested customer base to work with, because Mattel spent years fostering Barbie’s brand community. The real genius of the film’s marketing campaign was understanding this community and crafting experiences to further strengthen the bonds between Barbie and its fans.

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‘Brand gravity’: The power of bonding brand and customer

With the huge amount of content and messages bombarding consumers, marketing campaigns must stand out to capture attention. But that won’t keep consumers engaged for the long haul. To create long-term brand loyalty and advocacy, marketing campaigns and experiences must nurture the brand/consumer bond. Bonds that pull customers into your brand’s orbit, so you remain top-of-mind and top-of-heart. That’s what we call brand gravity.

Dana Nussbaum, Warner Bros' executive VP of worldwide marketing, told Variety: “I think [our marketing campaign] took off in such an interesting way because people were able to tap into their own identity of Barbie and engage with it in a way that was really personal.”

Experiences designed for deeper and more personal audience interaction are integral to theatrical releases. Last year’s domestic box office brought in $7.5bn, roughly one-third less than 2019. With more streaming content than ever before and consumers prioritizing expenditures, filling theater seats is a growing challenge.

Kevin Goetz, founder and chief executive of Screen Engine/ASI, said an “elevated” experience is necessary to compel audiences to commit their time & money to seeing a film on the big screen.

“[‘Barbie’] promised an experience,” Goetz said. “If you don’t have an experience, you won’t be able to make it in a movie theater.”

Meanwhile, Josh Goldstine, president of worldwide marketing for Warner Bros, said: "The shared experience of a theatrical space, with so many people wearing pink to the theater for a film that appealed to the very young and also adults with a sense of nostalgia shows how Barbie engaged people on so many levels".

Far from a happy accident, each Barbie brand activation led to this sea of pink taking over theaters. The brand did this through the power of a fan zone, by inviting consumers to celebrate Barbie and their relationship with the brand.

Creating a fan zone outside of stadiums

Barbie’s marketing team didn’t need a line of sports-themed dolls to create its own fan zones. Instead, it took interactivity, fun, and emotional elements and used them to drive fervor for its film.

Fans got close and personal with the iconic doll through interactive activations at the film’s Los Angeles premiere and through the World of Barbie. Others dove into the history of the iconic doll in The Barbie Museum, while 2 million people used the Barbie selfie generator within 24 hours of its launch.

Consumers are craving experiences that help them feel, connect, and find belonging. Most (95%) of our purchasing decisions are driven by subconscious urges, the largest of which is emotion. Most consumers (61%) want brands to help them feel intense emotions. A fan who secured tickets weeks in advance of Barbie’s release told The Guardian: “I just want to feel unadulterated joy.”

The power of play

Each of Barbie’s experiences invited customers to engage in deeply personal ways. The campaigns also encouraged fans to celebrate their brand love. You could get silly, embrace nostalgia, cheer empowerment, and lean into the power of play, which further reinforces the brand/customer bond.

Play provides long-term benefits. Kristin Flora, professor of psychology at Indiana’s Franklin College, told CNN that there’s growing scientific evidence that the power of play provides well-being benefits. These include staving off depression and helping create a sense of optimism, even in the face of uncertainty.

Integrating play might seem more altruistic than strategic, but your brand’s ability to thrive in today’s competitive marketplace is directly impacted by your audience’s level of experience deficit and their overall well-being. Using your brand experiences to help your customers connect and celebrate helps them and your brand.

The emotion and belonging that comes from fan zones further strengthen the brand/customer bond, increasing positive brand sentiment, word of mouth and additional sales. And brands across industry verticals and audiences can harness this power.

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