Matthew Keegan
Aug 9, 2023

How Barbie has sustained as one of the most successful toy brands of all time

From her German fashion doll-inspired beginnings in the 1950s to breaking box office records in 2023, Campaign explores how Barbie has remained popular for the past six decades. Clever marketing or something else?

How Barbie has sustained as one of the most successful toy brands of all time

This is Barbie’s world and we’re all just living in it. It’s certainly felt like that over the past few weeks as we’ve witnessed a full culture takeover in pink. It's been inescapable. 

As brand strategist Moshe Isaacian commented in a viral Twitter thread listing Barbie’s 165 brand collaborations leading up to the release of the movie, “The devil works hard, but Barbie’s marketing team is insane.”

The movie and its ‘insane’ marketing aside, Barbie turns 65 in 2024, and it’s no small feat how she’s been able to sustain as one of the most successful toy brands of all time. 

While the brand has survived six decades, until recently, Barbie’s sales were dwindling. Sales were falling by 12% for three months straight until the movie premiered. The marketing team repopularised not just the doll but refreshed the Barbie brand by expanding the ways people could connect with the brand.

“They engaged a universe of audiences with 165 brand collaborations that permeated all demographics and psychographics—Xbox controllers for gamers, Balmain clothes for fashionistas, Canada Pooch accessories for dog owners, etc., says Shir Lee Akazawa, social media manager at Virtue APAC. “These strategic partnerships repositioned Barbie inside culture, enabling the brand to find fresh and meaningful ways to create relevance with new audiences beyond young kids.”

Estimates state that the marketing for the Barbie movie was in the region of US$150 million, while the film cost US$145 million to make. They spent more on marketing than the product itself.

Barbie double-decker bus promoting the new Barbie movie. Photo: Shutterstock

"It's been one of the loudest movie launches we’ve ever seen, hard to avoid and the result of careful and long-term planning," says James Walker-Smith, Leo Burnett Sydney's general manager. "It has exemplified the importance of longer-term thinking and planning, carefully orchestrating a seemingly endless teaser campaign that was planned and executed beautifully."

But before the movie marketing machine even got to work, there was of course the inherent product appeal built up over generations.

"Barbie has been integral in the lives of millions of young girls and boys around the globe for decades, so it’s not surprising that it piqued an interest," says Luke Simkins, group creative director, MBCS. "Combine that with an insane marketing budget and two actors in the prime of their popularity and you’ve got a recipe for success. It’s the definition of a triple threat, culturally significant, massive marketing dollars, and stars."

Barbie has evolved and seemingly moved with the times
While Mattel has made efforts to update Barbie over the years, it was not until 2016 that a concerted effort was made to embrace diversity. This pivot effected a significant revenue recovery over the next several years to the point where its revenue today is over 50% greater than its 2016 low.
"In 2019, the bestselling Barbie was Black with a short afro," says Dipanjan Chatterjee, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. "They haven't always got it right the first time (Barbie's wheelchair didn't fit into her house) but have continued to learn and adapt (autistic Barbie was developed in collaboration with the US National Down Syndrome Society). Ultimately, the once blue-eyed blonde Barbie has successfully come to be defined by the multitudes she contains."
In fact, beyond performative activism, Barbie has diversified its products to include 35 skin tones, 97 hairstyles, and nine body types. 
"They have recognised the need for young girls to see themselves in the brand and not subscribe to age-old ideals about beauty," says Ed Cheong, R/GA Singapore's executive creative director. "The role models range inspired by amazing women in all fields is also a great way for parents to inspire through play."
Embracing diversity, such as by coming up with racially diverse and body-positive Barbie dolls, has been one of the ways the brand has been able to stay relevant with their target consumers’ evolving ideals.
But Barbie has also had over 250 career options, and represented a world of possibilities for what girls could aspire to become. For example, there was an Astronaut Barbie before NASA officially admitted women into the corps. 
This 1965 version of Barbie went to the Moon before any Nasa astronauts. Photo: Getty Images)
"This was hugely powerful during the earlier part of Barbie’s run when more immersive options of escape like video games and the internet were not available, and when gender roles were still very restrictive," says Acacia Leroy, head of trends & insights, Culture Group.
Tapping into the nostalgia economy and the growth of ‘kidult’ consumers
Besides embracing diversity and being a career role model for young girls, Leroy of Culture Group says that tapping into the recent nostalgia movement has also worked wonders in helping Barbie to endure.
"In the face of macro uncertainties, younger consumers, in particular, are looking back to the past in search of simpler times. And thanks to the internet and pop culture, they can escape into any period, not necessarily just the ones they have lived through," says Leroy. "Stranger Things invoked the 1980s, while Barbie brings with it the 1950s—the bright bubblegum colours and somewhat kitschy paraphernalia. As a result, brands are resurrecting older IPs to appeal to this preference for nostalgia."
Shir Lee Akazawa, social media manager at Virtue APAC, says that for brands this is a great time to evoke such emotional appeal because, in a world that’s constantly in flux, everyone is looking to the past as a form of comfort or escape. 
Barbie Toys for sale in the supermarket stand. Photo: Shutterstock
"Nostalgia can be a tool for marketers who want a shortcut to being relevant and Mattel may be looking for just that with their impending expansion of the Mattel universe."
In addition, Leroy says that the rise of ‘kidult’ consumers has also played a hand in cementing Barbie's reign as one of the most successful toy brands. 
According to data from the NPD Group, "kidults" (an adult who likes doing or buying things that are intended for children) are responsible for one-fourth of all toy sales annually, around US$9 billion worth, and are the biggest driver of growth throughout the industry.
"People with buying power today are increasingly spending on things from their growing up years, which perhaps they couldn’t access or afford back then," says Leroy. "Brands are catering to this demand – we see this not just with Barbie, but also with other pop culture IPs like anime."
A dearth of new ideas?

While Barbie is having her moment in the sun in 2023, let's not forget that she first appeared back in the 1950s, and it's clear that Mattel is leveraging years of brand equity to achieve the current level of Barbie mania that is upon us.

But Mattel isn't alone in resurrecting established IPs to help foster a higher chance of success, as opposed to taking more of a risk by creating something completely new and fresh. David Born, CEO of Born Licensing, says this is because pre-awareness is a safer bet than something new.

"The Hollywood studios are banking more and more on developing blockbuster films with IP that already has equity," says Born. "Mattel isn’t the only toy company doing this. Hasbro has been doing it for years with their Transformers franchise, and more recently Dungeons and Dragons. Disney will continue to bring back live-action versions of their Disney classic films, following in the footsteps of The Lion King and The Little Mermaid. If a film studio is going to invest big in a film, it needs to be a success and the best way to ensure success is to go for something that is tried and tested."

However, brands looking backward will find limited runway for sustainable growth says Leo Burnett's James Walker-Smith. "Many businesses lack the appetite for risk in developing new ideas but they do so at the expense of growing new audiences. Successful brands, like Barbie, find ways to develop fresh thinking and new audiences, while also maintaining key elements of the brand that keep existing customers loyal."

Walker-Smith adds that "Barbie's enduring success has been more attributable to what has remained the same. Her commitment to hot pink, her aspirational lifestyle, and her appeal directly to kids, rather than their parents."

Is the recent success of Barbie / Mario Bros etc., a broader sign that having a brand character can be a winning strategy? 
Both the Barbie movie and the Super Mario Bros movie have been huge blockbuster smashes in recent times, both cashing in on pre-existing characters that are instantly recognisable and bring with them huge existing fanbases. But for brands eyeing the success of characters like Barbie and Mario, while thinking about creating their own, is it better to create an original character or license an existing fictional one?
"For every brand character that has gone on to be a successful mascot, there are hundreds that didn’t survive," says Born. "I would argue that licensing an existing fictional character for a brand is a quick win with less risk. An existing fictional character can be instantly recognisable, capturing attention and bringing with it an existing fanbase. It will immediately elevate the creative and tap into undeniable strong brand equity."
Born cites the example of UK retailer ASDA’s award-winning Christmas advert from last year which starred the fictional character Buddy the Elf from the 2003 film Elf, played by Will Ferrell. It was named the most effective UK advert of 2022 from a pool of almost 25,000 tested ads by ITV and System1, and sits in the top 3% of all UK ads ever tested by Kantar for making people smile. ASDA simply would not have had a fraction of this success with a generic elf. The success that ASDA experienced was instant. 
"Working with an existing character is perfect for any brand who doesn’t have years and millions to invest in their own brand character in the hope that it will become the next Meerkat," adds Born. 
Lessons on how to build a brand that endures for generations
It's clear that underpinning Barbie's success and longevity is Mattel's focuss on building Barbie as a brand, rather than just a product. 
"In doing so it has widened its relevance and reached new audiences," says Walker-Smith. "It has successfully built collaborations and partnerships, extending its reach and influence."
Going forward, in a recent interview with Wall Street Journal, Richard Dickson, Mattel's president and chief operating officer, said that "The bigger opportunity for us is going to be outside of the toy aisle. That is the drive for where we see the monetisation for the brand moving forward."
Indeed, adapting and diversifying have been key to Barbie's continued success and relevancy. 
"Brands will have to grow up and mature together with their target consumers—keeping pace with their evolving aspirations and ideas, and adapting accordingly," says Leroy. 
RGA Singapore's executive creative director, Ed Cheong, says that Barbie has managed to not just remain relevant but also iconic by using a sign of the times to reframe age-old notions about beauty and femininity, while retaining the joyful spirit and colourful textures of the brand. "You know it’s successful when Barbie is no longer just a toy but a cultural grammar or code. In the same way that ‘Kenergy’ has become a thing."
And Luke Simkins, group creative director, MBCS, says that while every brand intends to have longevity, some just don’t adapt fast enough. "Think Kodak or Blockbuster... but if you’re consistent and you stay well in touch with your audience and how its changing and evolving you have a good shot at longevity, like Barbie."
Campaign Asia

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