The Barbie transformation

Editor’s note: Arun C Kumar is the former chief data and marketing technology officer for IPG.

I entered the hotel elevator, which was brimming with people. It’s always awkward to be the only one entering an elevator with 10 pairs of eyes tracking your movements and passing judgment. Usually, I keep my eyes on the floor, but a pair of pink track pants caught my attention. They had Barbie emblazoned on the side and were worn by a young woman talking loudly about how her kids had gone to the pool. As she slowly walked out into the lobby, I recognized that I had been hit by Barbie fever in yet another country.

I have been on the road for the last month – Sydney, Canberra, Singapore and Bengaluru – and the fever is the same. Pink worn with pride. So, how did Barbie achieve this marketing miracle? After all, many other brands have attempted disruption and reinventing themselves and failed. Cue Bud Light and the Dylan Mulvaney fiasco. Often the question posed is around how the $140 million or $150 million rumored marketing budget has been spent by the Barbie marketing team to achieve success. But that’s the wrong question.

Barbie has adhered to some simple principles of marketing that most brands have either disregarded or turned away from in the pursuit of cost efficiency and immediate gains. In an era of retail media, a sharp focus on optimizing audiences and getting instant sales gratification, Barbie won by not doing any of that. 

To begin with, the movie is the exclamation point. The brand has been steadily reinvigorated over the last 10-15 years. Themes like feminism were not added to the brand overnight through stunts or one-off social media activations. The product today reflects enough virtues that allows the brand, powered by the movie, to make a leap unlike in the case of Bud Light, where there was a poor understanding of the brand’s current territory, its DNA and the equity that it could aspire to have. This understanding and effort allowed the famed Barbie marketing team to do brand tie-ins, spread memes and become inclusive.  

If Barbie dolls didn’t sport diverse body types and colors, if it hadn’t transformed itself into a variety of shapes and sizes that reflect kids' real lives, it would not have become the brand that Greta Gerwig could launch into orbit. In the end, Barbie was accepted into today’s culture because it accepted people over a long period of time. 

And thankfully, the Barbie marketing folks didn’t rely on optimizing towards better Rotten Tomatoes scores or precision marketing approaches that every other movie focuses on. Proof is in how the audience was allowed to own the brand. I’m sure there were focus groups and audience-based buys but the really big bucks were spent behind ideas that drove visibility across broad groups. 

It's a great example of how sustaining a brand and making it evolve over years can lead to the opportunity to tactfully optimize for the present moment and milk the brand. You cannot milk a brand if you haven’t built one. And you don’t build brands through short-term stunts or a focus on what’s cheap, which is what most procurement departments focus on.  

Barbie is a phenomenon with cultural velocity, only because it made the hard choices and the brand pivots over years with discipline. It’s easy to look at the marketing budget and presume that it drove success but let’s not forget the marketing teams and brand managers who nurtured the brand in the past to get Barbie to the inflection point today, where brands are given permission to become a part of culture.