Three Simple Marketing Lessons You Can Learn From Barbie’s Success

By Kevin Susman, VP of Consulting, MATRIXX Software

True confession – I only finally got around to seeing the Barbie movie. I’m an early adopter of many things, but apparently, I’m a laggard when it comes to getting out to a theater.

Now that I’ve seen it, I feel compelled to contribute my own list of things marketers can learn from the movie’s success. I should add, though I work in marketing now, I spent 10 years working in production on some pretty big movies (Hercules, Mulan, Titanic & Stuart Little), which means I probably have a slightly different view than many in the marketing sphere.

1. Great marketing works. Having a fantastic product to market works more.

Barbie did an awesome $155 million opening weekend and has just passed $1 billion at the box office. Everyone involved should be proud of that feat.  While there is a lesson here about great marketing (hello, “Barbenheimer”) it’s important to remember that while opening weekends are heavily fueled by marketing, everything else is driven by the product quality.

Objectively, was the marketing of Barbie that much better than the marketing of Battleship or Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves or any other under-performing franchise based on a toy or game? Or maybe just any other underperforming film?  I’m not trying to throw shade on the marketing teams who got the word out about Barbie – they did a great job with brand partnerships, environmental and experiential, and social and PR.. I’m just not sure that they did a better job than all those other studio marketing teams (including the marketing team at Warner Bros. Discovery that released The Flash) on all those other movies that follow the exact same playbook.

For perspective – if Barbie had sucked, maybe they’d have shown a strong opening weekend (when great marketing can successfully lure people into the theater), only to see receipts tank the following week.  Barbie, however, has made over $850M more since opening weekend thanks to people seeing it again (and maybe again, and again) and telling their friends they should go see it. What’s behind that?  A fantastic product.

2. Taking a risk with your brand can pay off. Having an amazing team pays off more.

There is no doubt that Mattel took a risk with Barbie. A lot of them. They absolutely deserve credit for the risks they took – especially giving the keys for Barbie to Greta Gerwig precisely because she’s not a stereotypical franchise film director. She had a great storytelling track record going into the film and was clearly the perfect choice. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that Barbie wasn’t a shoo-in to succeed, given that most movies don’t.

While Mattel’s risk paid off because Barbie is great, let’s keep the baby separate from the bathwater. All those risks Mattel took in bringing the movie to life only work because Greta Gerwig and her creative team delivered the amazing movie they did, despite all the countless ways it could have gone wrong. Trust me when I say that no marketing gurus would be talking about how brave Mattel was for taking a risk if the movie (aka the product) hadn’t delivered. Instead, they’d be talking about how all those risks were wrong, or how the brand is tired. Why? Because taking the risk with the brand isn’t what made the movie great. What made the movie great is that the movie is actually great.

3. Having a strong purpose drives box office, and so does capturing lightning in a bottle.

A lot has been made of how Barbie updated and refreshed the brand purpose of Barbie (sort of how the awesome Lego Movie did the same for Legos). I will for sure give Mattel credit for showing such a strong brand purpose around inspiring the potential in every girl. That said, I don’t really know much about the Barbie brand or its purpose. In fact, for all I know, girl inspiration and empowerment, the very purpose of the Barbie movie, may have been a defining and/or featured theme in any of the 43 other Barbie movies that I (and probably a large portion of the Barbie movie’s fans and also marketing gurus) have never watched.

This is not to say that purpose isn’t important – it’s very important. Rather, I think it’s a bit much to declare that the strong sense of purpose itself has been central to its box office success simply because strong sense of purpose may have been central to all those other Barbie movies that didn’t become part of the zeitgeist. What is different is that the right creative team delivered the right product at the right time – they caught lightning in a bottle – and gave the marketing teams what they needed to do what they do best.

In the end, it can be tempting to look at the successes in the market and apply one’s own narrative to create a desired outcome. The hard truth is that, despite what some will try and sell you, success is complicated and maddeningly difficult to predict. More importantly, the forces that drive it are way too broad and muddy to distill into a list focused on a single domain.

This doesn’t mean marketers can’t learn from what Mattel and Warner Bros. Discovery did that happened to work in this instance. At the same time, despite how uncomfortable all that uncertainty may be, my advice is to be wary of experts who paint that success with too broad a brush. Why?  To quote the great screenwriter William Goldman from one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling you something.”