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| | 12 minute read

Unlocking Barbie's Success | A Marketing Strategy Spanning Generations

Explore Barbie's marketing journey - from its creation in 1959 to its global impact on brand evolution, generational reach, and inclusive representation.

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A Sneak Peek Inside the (Toy) Box: BarbieBlog_SourceMattelInc

  • Every generation has differing perceptions and preferences when it comes to advertisements. Being aware of your target audience can set you apart from competitors, and increase your desired impact.
  • Nostalgia marketing is especially effective with older generations, and a powerful driver to purchasing.
  • Barbie has expanded their offerings in their dolls to be more inclusive, including dolls with varied body types, and to represent individuals with disabilities, as of 2016 and 2023 respectively.
  • In 2016: Barbie “Sheroes” line included women that have made major impacts on the opportunities for other women, and are viewed as role-models to younger girls.
  • In 2018: “#MoreRoleModels” was rolled out, and included other female role models for young women that have made significant impact on the world at large.
  • 2022: Pink Paint was impossible to find. There was a pink paint shortage after the new "Barbie" film used so much of it to make the dreamy movie sets a reality. 
  • Recent Barbie Sales: In 2022, Barbie generated $1.5 in gross sales, from dolls to pretty pink accessories. Barbie is well-stocked and still sought after, decades after the brand debut. (Source: Statista, 2023)

Barbie History Herstory, Legacy & Milestones

  • Debut: On March 9th, 1959 the Barbie doll first goes on display at the American Toy Fair in New York City.
  • Barbie’s full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts, an 11-inch- (29-cm-) tall plastic doll with the figure of an adult woman
  • She was created by Ruth Handler, co-founder of the toy manufacturing company Mattel with her husband in 1945. The Handler’s were inspired after seeing their young daughter ignore baby dolls for those representing more adult women.
  • Mothers in a 1958 Mattel-sponsored market study before the doll’s release criticized Barbie for having “too much of a figure.” Mattel circumvented this problem, by advertising Barbie directly to children via television.
  • Mattel, in fact, upon sponsoring Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club program in 1955, became the first toy company to broadcast commercials to children.
  • In response to consumer demand, in 1961 Mattel brought out Barbie’s ultimate “accessory”—her boyfriend, Ken. (The Handlers’ children were named Barbara and Ken.)
  • In 1963 Mattel added Barbie’s best friend, Midge, and in 1964 Barbie’s little sister, Skipper.
  • By 1968 Barbie had been issued “friend” dolls of color, but not until 1980 was the Barbie doll itself released in an African American incarnation.
  • Mattel registered Barbie as a work of art, but the doll has also inspired works of art, including a 1986 Andy Warhol portrait and photographs by William Wegman and David Levinthal.
  • Novelists, including A.M. Homes and Barbara Kingsolver, have used the doll in fiction.
  • Unlike baby dolls, Barbie did not teach nurturing. Outfitted with job-related paraphernalia, the doll was a model for financial self-sufficiency that redefined womens' career aspirations.

The Impact of Barbie on the World: Her Evolution as a Symbol for Women

Barbie is a toy, yes, but she is much more than that. A symbol of what occupations a woman could have, airline pilot, astronaut, doctor, Olympic athlete, and United States Presidential candidate, among others. Today Barbie remains an inspiration to young women, and she still has room to evolve in her representation of femininity, but she has come a long way from her origins.

In 2023, Barbie comes in many forms, including the models in 2016 that expanded the lineup to include, petite, tall, and curvy dolls, as well as nine different skin tones. This doll is keeping up with the times, the trends, and the evolving ways of thinking about the impact of toys on children, to this very day.

Lessons for Reaching Baby Boomers: Nostalgia Marketing

Every generation has songs and images that bring them back to their childhood, or younger life, and using this to gain attention of these consumers, is called nostalgia marketing. Nostalgia marketing is incredibly powerful and driven by the intense feeling of sentimentality and longing for the past. The hidden power is nostalgia’s ability to stir joy collectively with a large audience, and if a brand knows what they are doing, they can give the consumer the feeling of connection with the brand, and consistency that ends up being very memorable.

Different generations have unique perceptions of advertisements, and aspects that resonate with them most. The key to impactful advertising is knowing what those components are and understanding the audience for each brand and product.

Barbie and Mattel are no stranger to nostalgia and have employed tactics that keep consumers buying the dolls, clothes, and play sets long after they would be playing with the toys. Mattel sells limited edition and collectible dolls that are aimed at adult fans, and those that never want to take the dolls out of their boxes.

Boomers remember when the dolls were released and remember buying them for their kids. They have nostalgia over getting Barbie dolls when they first hit the market, and seeing their kids play with them. If Boomers are to get a doll for their grandkids, it is most likely driven by their own nostalgia and desire for a time before cell phone games and instant gratification.

Marketing Strategies for Targeting Gen Z

As we know, the world has changed dramatically. Although Barbie still comes with outfits, and has jobs, she has had to keep up with trends. Mattel has faced challenges of marketing the doll to new generations over time. While some marketing tactics remain viable, nostalgia doesn’t work with someone who doesn’t yet have a memory of playing with Barbie.

Gen Z Wants More from Brands

Reaching Gen Z is more nuanced, but there are a few things that this generation finds attractive in relation to brands. Gen Z, right now is between eight and 23 years old. The preferences of this generation include their desire for brands to use their marketing power and reach to make changes for the betterment of all and take accountability for their influence and actions. They are also more likely to gravitate towards brands that have a similar value system. Campaigns surrounding mental health tend to fare well with this audience.

Barbie Marketing Campaigns that Reached Gen Z

Campaigns like 2015's “Barbie Sheroes,” highlighting female heroes who inspire girls by breaking boundaries and expanding the possibilities for women everywhere, resonate well with this generation. In 2018 Barbie rolled out “#MoreRoleModels” which featured the likes of Frida Kahlo, Katherine Johnson, and Amelia Earhart. By making this line of dolls, Barbie makes clear to the public that they stand with powerful women, and through the introduction of new body types for Barbie dolls in 2016, enables this generation to celebrate their genuine selves, especially as they are using social media apps like BeReal, which encourages unfiltered posts between friends.

BREAKING: The first Barbie doll representing a person with Down syndrome, has been released by Mattel in April 2023. This is a great next step for the brand and aligns them with more with a message of inclusivity. The Barbie Fashonistas line also includes a doll with a wheelchair, another with a prosthetic leg, and one with hearing aids.

Going green and being earth-conscious is also paramount to Gen Z, and brands that respond to the call to recycle, reduce waste, and encourage planet friendly behavior, are more likely to appear favorable to this generation. Mattel released a Barbie doll in 2022 modeled after Jane Goodall, and it is made of 90 percent recycled plastic that otherwise would have been bound for the ocean. By aligning their brand with a global issue, the Barbie brand is able to gain the respect and the attention of earth-conscious consumers that may have been concerned about Barbie not being conscious of the environmental issues of today.

Although Barbie was debuted years before the internet, as is true for many established brands, the best way to reach the younger generations of customers is through their social media feeds. According to Morning Consult, 38% of Gen Zers spend over 4 hours each day on social media, compared to 18% of US adults scrolling for the same amount of time. Utilizing new channels of advertising can help expand and diversify your audience, and impact your sales numbers in the process.

Branding Strategies Bridging the Gap Between Generations

As for reaching all generations from any brand’s perspective, there is no easy way. You need to do the research on your target audience and get to know who your current customer base is to inform your efforts. Without putting in the attention to the nuanced preferences of consumers, you are going to miss people, and a lot of them.

As for Barbie, Mattel creates messaging and marketing efforts that target both the generation playing with the dolls as well as the ones that will be making the purchases. They target what makes Barbie appealing to kids, and yet still appeal to the adults, and reinforce the value of their products, and ignite the nostalgia associated with the brand.

One way that Barbie has tackled this is by re-releasing the original Barbie on her 35th anniversary in 1993. This doll was marketed as a collectible, while playing on the nostalgia of parents and grandparents alike. This doll looked exactly like the first one released, and was sold in stores as a plaything and a collectible at the same time.

Barbie also released “Barbie Rewind ‘80’s Edition Dolls” in 2021. This marketing move plays on the nostalgia that older generations have for the styles of their younger years, as well as bringing to market a cool “retro” barbie for the younger generations. The 80’s are back in style, and Barbie was ready for the call.

The Impact of Barbie’s “A Doll Can Help Change The World” Campaign

Barbie launched a campaign in May of 2021 that was called “A Doll Can Help Change The World” which played off of its already successful “You Can Be Anything” platform. This campaign used a peer-reviewed study from October 2020 that used neuroimaging to show that playing with dolls, like Barbie, allows children to develop empathy and social processing skills. The development of those skills are key determinants in kids’ future emotional, academic, and social success. This shows that Mattel not only knows their toys have impact, but is willing to invest in getting accurate data to illustrate that.

"We wanted to bring to life the idea, reinforced with neuroscientific data, that playing with dolls naturally helps kids strengthen these important social processing skills,” said Ned McNeilage, Chief Creative Officer at BBH LA. “With this campaign, we focus on capturing beautiful moments of play and the difference these small moments can make to help shape a child's future"

How Parents View Their Child’s Toys

Parents always have concerns about introducing ideas and toys to young kids, and most parents are trying to make good purchasing decisions on children’s toys. Mattel supporting research in a peer-reviewed study signals to parents that their toys are safe, and further than that, even a beneficial tool to learning about emotional intelligence. This kind of research also grows brand trust, and with that trust, you are presented with innumerable benefits, including consumers choosing your brand over competitors. This is bound to be something shared with fellow parents, and we know how positive the effects of word-of-mouth referrals are.

What has been occupying the conversation around the brand as of late is not the toys themselves, but instead another venue for the brand. While there have been movies about Barbie in the past, these films have been geared towards a younger audience. The titles have included Barbie in the Nutcracker from 2001, and Barbie and the Magic of Pegasus in 2005, and both are animated films. This year, however, Barbie is coming to the big screen with a live action feature. Barbie will be in theaters on July 21st, 2023. The iconic Barbie doll is played by none other than Margot Robbie, with her counterpart, Ken, being played by Ryan Gosling.

Source_MattelIncSource: Mattel, Inc.

Naturally, Mattel created Barbies to accompany the film's release. They are marketed as collectible dolls that have some of the iconic film outfits and accessories. Who wouldn't want their very own Margot Robbie? They even have a special edition of UNO for the movie as well!

The Impact of Casting Popular Actors

When it comes to a brand as iconic as Barbie, with its history and commentary so ever present in our society for over six decades, the names for the 2023 movie had to be widely known. Let’s just say, their casting directors and set/costume designers did not disappoint. The lineup starts with Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling and Will Ferrell, but also includes Emma Mackey, Simu Liu, Michael Cera, Kate McKinnon and Issa Rae. The talented cast will be sporting outfits largely based off of real dolls released over the years—amping up the nostalgia.

Why Popular Actors are Important

Casting popular actors brings in audiences that would otherwise not be interested in a movie about Barbie, or be. It also brings together audiences that are fans of differing actors, and thus introduces them to other actors’ work. Not only the actors, but also the Directors that play a role in bringing in audiences. Greta Gerwig is directing the Barbie movie after massive success with Little Women in 2019, and Lady Bird in 2017. We can’t wait to see the Barbie world she has created.

The impact of casting popular or well-known actors is not entirely understood, some think the impact is minimal, but films continue to spend large amounts of their budget on big-names. The conversations surrounding the release of trailers for upcoming movies often feature the household names we all know. While this is not directly influenced by the film marketers themselves, there is no doubt there is significant impact from it on creating more awareness for the project.

Beyond awareness, the fandom of certain household names pulls people into theatres, and since the Barbie movie cast iconic actors from through the generations, this movie is bound to bring in all generations of movie-goers and attract a diverse audience. Not to mention all fans of the Barbie brand over the years.

For brands that aren’t in the theatre, aligning with a well-known and well-trusted celebrity can bring new customers, help gain brand trust, and help with recall on advertisements. This is the hidden metric that has companies jumping through hoops to be more memorable than competitors. A celebrity is a tried and true tool to use in this arena. Since consumers also idolize celebrities for their lifestyle or their appearance, the number one value of aligning any brand with a celebrity, is also aligning them with the rest of their audience and fans.

Further than the silver screen there is also the impact of aligning the Barbie brand with actors that are praised in society for being beautiful. Margot Robbie has been on the covers of many Magazines, Vogue and Vanity Fair included, and Ryan Gosling has been seen on the covers of GQ, InStyle, and Vanity Fair as well. Playing into the narrative that these people are “perfect” looking, can help with the idealization of the Barbie figure/image, or at least call it out for discussion.

Social Media Campaigns and Experiential Marketing

Who wouldn’t want to be a Barbie girl living in a Barbie world? Experiential marketing for Barbie is all around. In 2022 you could visit one of the ‘Immersive’ Barbie Experience sites while it toured North America during the summer. As of April, 2023 you can go visit the location in Santa Monica, CA.

Pop-ups like these have fans of Barbie standing in her life-size box and in her Dream House, and create social-ready content that users can't help but share. And it keeps growing from there—the awareness spreads organically and creates a need for others to see it for themselves.

A viral trend also emerged after the Barbie movie used “She's everything” and “He’s just Ken” as a movie tagline, and had many brands using the phrases to highlight their products. Meme creators are also using this format to make jokes for a large audience. People used the tagline to call back to iconic female characters like Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, and Warner, her boyfriend, who was nothing compared to Elle’s dazzling presence. Same with the iconic Schitt’s Creek characters Alexis Rose (obviously barbie) and Ted Mullens (just Ken). The trend champions the success of women, both fictional and real, for their impacts and successes. This kind of viral trend is something that will reverberate as time goes on, and different brands find an application to align their brand with that of Barbie in their marketing content, and maybe even get a giggle out of their audience. Only good press here!

HGTV is even hopping on the Barbie train with their new design competition show “Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge” which will air in the summer of 2023 and be hosted by Ashley Graham. This show provides content for an audience that used to play with Barbies, the opportunity to watch a home-improvement show making their childhood dreams a reality.

Mattel has also expanded its subsidiary brands into other domains. They announced in April 2023 they will be collaborating with Gap to release clothing inspired by the iconic Barbie brand. The collection includes skirts, T-shirts, and logo hoodies among others. Don’t forget the furry friends! This line also has pet apparel.

By aligning with other brands and getting into new domains, Barbie is bound to gain more attention and subsequently more fans. Aligning with a well-trusted and established brand offers more opportunities, and has their faithful customers, in the case of Gap, doing free advertising for them by wearing the new line. Other than GAP, the iconic rollerblade company, Impala, partnered with Barbie to make the rollerblades that Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie wore in the new movie. Fans can now wear the bright yellow rollerblades, along with the retro knee and elbow protectors. Impala is a young company, but famous for bringing back retro designs and stirring up nostalgia for the roller rinks. This collaboration makes too much sense!

The 2023 Color of the Year was even named “Viva Magenta” by Pantone, and even mentions that “this isn’t your Barbie pink”. Although the color doesn’t match, the partnership with the color pink is as strong as ever for Barbie. It is obvious through the Barbie brand has secured a place at the household name table, with no expiration in sight.

Take a Lesson from Barbie

There is no doubt that Mattel, and Barbie have known exactly what they were doing all along. This kind of longevity and immorality requires strategic marketing tactics. Of course, with any brand, they needed to pivot and change with the times, and keep up with the trends that emerged. In over 60 years, adjusting their strategies must have happened on a pretty consistent basis. Diversifying the marketing channels and tactics brands use can be the key ingredient in reaching a wider audience.

Knowing your audience is key to marketing success and creating the brand trust that customers are looking for and keep them coming back for more. What’s more than knowing your audience, is the importance of creating a personalized experience for new and loyal customers alike and targeting differing generations on their preferred channels. 

Aligning with established brands and other trends, is a great way for Barbie and your brand to stay relevant and top-of-mind. And hopping on a social media trend is a great way to reach new audiences. In this world, there is no wrong way to go, just get started! 

When running a marketing campaign, you want to make sure to not just look at sales numbers, but also if the end-user is satisfied with the product, or it brings them joy. 

MNI has audience data, proprietary tools, and people dedicated to making your next campaign the best it can be. Check out our solutions and reach out to learn more!


About the Author

Katie Lamontagne is a Marketing Analyst that has been with MNI for several years. Katie got her Bachelors of Arts from UConn in Communications. She is a music lover, and a former member of UConn's Rubyfruit A Capella. She loves all things Barbie, Marvel, and deep dives into audience behaviors.

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