Barbie Marketing 101: The Road to Inclusion Doesn’t Happen Overnight

3 Lessons marketers can take from Barbie on how to re-energize a legacy brand to reflect today's world

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Our world has exploded in pink and Barbiemania has officially taken over.

Mattel’s bet that Greta Gerwig’s new film Barbie can help re-energize the 64-year-old brand is paying off: the film sold an estimated $155 million in tickets at U.S. theaters. Barbie also collected an additional $182 million overseas. And the cherry on top: it is the biggest box office opening on record for a woman director.

Barbie has been on a journey to reinvent itself and become more relevant to today’s audience. Here are lessons marketers can take from Barbie on how to re-energize a legacy brand to reflect today’s world while staying true to the brand’s mission and story.

Drive inclusion in the product’s evolution

Today, Barbie is one of the most diverse and inclusive doll lines in the market. Barbies represent over 35-plus skin tones, 94-plus hairstyles and 9-plus body types. Barbie has also strived to inspire girls to pursue careers in fields traditionally represented by men (pilot, astronaut, firefighter, paleontologist and president).

Mattel brought Barbies to the marketplace that reflected permanent disabilities, including a doll with a wheelchair and prosthetic leg, also offering a Barbie dream house with a wheelchair-accessible elevator. Mattel has also pledged that as part of Barbie’s Role Model series, more than 50% of the dolls honored will be Black, indigenous or women of color.

The brand’s vision to become more inclusive has not been without its share of controversy over the years. They launched an Oreo Barbie, who was Black (oreo is a racial slur that can be targeted to Black individuals, as author Petiri Ira describes being called “Black on the outside, white on the inside). They launched Mexican Barbie, which was criticized for perpetuating stereotypes. And finally, Barbie was slammed for promoting its 2020 Summer Olympics collection that didn’t include a doll who appeared to be Asian.

This is an important reminder for marketers: the road to driving inclusion in products doesn’t happen overnight. Mistakes will be made along the way. The U.S. multicultural consumer spending power is now over $5 trillion, and the spending power of the LGBTQ+ community and individuals with disabilities is also too often overlooked. If you want to re-energize your brand, it’s time to look up and realize that the world around us continues to change.

Reimagine the stories to portray today’s world

Mattel’s stock has been struggling. Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz is pivoting the company away from only toys to banking on filmed entertainment as a driver of growth. And the Barbie film was clearly a cultural moment, a summer of pink. It took over our social media feeds, movie theaters and even our grocery store aisles. Goldman Sachs predicts that the movie can drive material upside for the company.

When it came to casting for the Barbie film, Margot Robbie, who plays Barbie, said “I don’t think I would have wanted to attempt to make a [non-diverse] Barbie film. I don’t think you should say, ‘This is the one version of what Barbie is, and that’s what women should aspire to be and look like and act like.'”

The diverse cast includes Kate McKinnon, Hari Nef, Dua Lipa, Issa Rae, Alexandra Shipp, Sharon Rooney, Ana Cruz Kayne, Nicola Coughlan, Rita Arya and Emma Mackey who all appear as Barbies. Ryan Gosling, Kingsley Ben-Adir, John Cena and Simu Liu appear as Kens. Both America Ferrara (who plays a human and a Mattel employee) and Issa Rae (who plays the President) have publicly said they agreed to be part of the film which represented a more inclusive view of Barbie.

And yet there seems to have been a missed opportunity to cast Barbie or Ken with an actor of color in the lead role, versus having just a diverse cast of supporting characters. The casting in new content like The Little Mermaid, The Lord of Rings, Snow White is intentionally shattering stereotypes of who we have been conditioned to believe can play lead roles and won’t back down from the racist backlash online.

This is another important reminder for marketers: creating entertainment for the big screen can help expand your audience and bring back those who are nostalgic for your brand. It’s our responsibility to shatter stereotypes and reimagine how we tell stories and who we choose to center them around.

Give your consumers the spotlight

For decades, Barbie didn’t speak to consumers like me. I didn’t see myself reflected in the brand. And the simple social media Barbie self-generator filter released in advance of the movie allows everyone to participate with the “This Barbie is …” slogan started to change that. We can all see ourselves reflected in Barbie now.

The promo posts for the film showcased “This Barbie is President” for Issa Rae, “This Barbie is a diplomat” for Nicola Coughlan and “This Barbie is a mermaid” for Dua Lipa and many more. User-generated content from the filter soon started reflecting relatable content: This Barbie is “a mother,” “out of your league,” “purposed to be powerful,” “a doctor,” “a hot mess,” “an award-winning journalist” and more. The filter took social media by storm, making everyone feel like they had their own place as Barbie in a Barbie world. It was a moment to feel like we were all in fact Barbie.

For marketers, this is an important reminder to give your consumers the spotlight. Remember that a brand doesn’t belong just to us marketers. It belongs to all of us, including your community who wants to feel they belong and that the brand understands and recognizes them. Particularly, if they haven’t felt included, or have been ignored by the brand over the many years, think about how you can re-introduce and re-engage them with your brand.

Barbie reminds us that re-energizing a 64-year-old brand to be more inclusive doesn’t happen overnight. It takes commitment and not wavering, despite the mistakes we may make along the way. Barbie has certainly evolved into a doll I am proud for my kids to play with and I hope is around for their kids to play with it as well.