The new Barbie film has become a true marketing “moment”, and provides the iconic toy brand with the opportunity to achieve new-found relevance, argues Elly Strang, content and communications lead at Tracksuit.

It’s hard to miss Barbie colouring the world pink recently.

The iconic doll was first introduced to the world in 1959 – and, 64 years on, a movie adaptation starring Margot Robbie and co-written/directed by Greta Gerwig is coming to cinemas on July 20.

In the build up to the much-anticipated film, Barbie’s distinctive pink branding has been smattered across out-of-home billboards, social media channels and endless product partnerships, from Xbox consoles and scented candles to roller skates (apparently, Barbie is working with 100+ brands on collaborations. We believe it – she’s everywhere).

In Los Angeles, Barbie’s Malibu DreamHouse was listed and made available to stay in on Airbnb. Meanwhile, Margot Robbie cleverly accelerated the cultural conversation by taking viewers on a tour of this destination in an Architectural Digest video on YouTube.

In Sydney, Australia, Bondi’s iconic Icebergs pool was adorned with Barbie’s branding for a day, while Australian burger chain Grill’d partnered with Barbie to deck out its store in the same city’s Central Business District as a Barbie "dreamworld", and launched a “Barbie Dreamburger Bundle” featuring a pink hamburger and sauce. Meanwhile, in Bondi Junction, an out-of-home bus stop was given a total makeover to promote the movie, complete with pink velvet seats.

Reinventing a legacy brand

The movie’s marketing efforts are truly massive. According to industry reports, the budget for the film is estimated to be an eye-watering US$100 million, with a similar amount rumoured to have been spent on marketing (the marketing budget of our dreams, right?).

But beyond the wash of pink, and all of the partnerships and promotions, is a legacy brand’s quest to evolve and stay culturally relevant. If Barbie can win over a wider audience, a far bigger opportunity awaits for its parent company Mattel outside of the toy aisle.

My colleague Mikayla Hopkins, Tracksuit’s head of marketing, summarised the opportunity when speaking to The Australian: “Barbie tried to open up conversations around diversity and inclusion, and they have brought out new ranges of dolls that paint a different picture of what it means to be a woman. And I think that‘s been really important,” she said.

“But I also feel like they’ve almost skirted around the fringe of what that could be. But now, with this [film], I think it’s at scale. That changing narrative is coming into mainstream conversation.”

By regaining cultural relevance, Barbie can join the likes of Disney, LEGO and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in scaling toy lines into much wider brand experience empires.

Perceptions of Barbie prior to the film launch

Tracksuit has been tracking Barbie’s brand across the United States and Australia from May to July. Our initial data shows that Barbie’s legacy – and past controversies that linger alongside it – still influence consumers’ views in the run up to the new film’s launch.

In Australia, Barbie currently lags behind other well-known toy brands such as LEGO and Hot Wheels in terms of relatability. In fact, just 49% of respondents agreed Barbie is a brand that they relate to, versus 75% of respondents for LEGO and 66% for Hot Wheels.

As for brand love, 52% of respondents agreed Barbie is a brand that they love, versus 82% of respondents for LEGO and 67% for Hot Wheels.

In the United States, Barbie’s brand has a stronger foothold, as 60% of respondents agreed that it’s a brand that they relate to, and 65% considered it a brand that they love.

But demographic disparities also show the challenges the Barbie brand is up against: Brand awareness in Australia is far stronger among people aged 55 and over (91%) than for 18–34-year-olds (72%), likely due to the brand’s legacy having less resonance with the younger audience.

A similar result can be seen in the United States, where awareness stood at 93% for people aged 55 years old and above, compared with 75% for 18–34-year-olds.

Tackling stereotypes

The brand also resonates more strongly with women than men, with 88% of women in Australia aware of Barbie and 52% considering using the brand – totals standing at 90% and 64% respectively for women in the United States.

Barbie, however, is also still seen as a very gendered toy, and is most commonly associated with being a “doll for girls” in Australia. Other raw responses from people surveyed in the country include “gender stereotypes”, “sexist and demeaning” and “old-fashioned”, the latter of which was the top brand association, with 90 people’s answers to this open-ended question referencing this point of view.

In the United States, where the brand was founded, consumer sentiment is more positive: Raw responses include “increasingly for boys and girls”, “icon” and “traditional”. The most common brand associations, though, remain “doll”, “girls” and “fashion”.

Brands and gender diversity

Ahead of the Barbie movie, we also surveyed consumers across the US, UK, New Zealand and Australia on what issues they think brands have a responsibility to promote.

Surprisingly, gender diversity was at the bottom of the list for all four markets. New Zealand had the lowest number of people who agreed that brands should promote this objective (39%), followed by the UK (45%), the US (47%) and Australia (49%).

The top attributes that consumers think brands should promote across all four markets are sustainability, a strong commitment to the community and inclusivity of differently-abled people.

Elevating Barbie to become a pop culture sensation

Despite the legacy associations that linger for Barbie, we believe a brand reinvention is playing out in real time, and this will transform consumer sentiment in the coming months, once all the film-related marketing activity has had time to resonate.

Richard Dickson, Mattel’s president/COO, seems to hold a similar belief, having stated that the toy manufacturer sees the new film as a first step to “elevate the Barbie narrative into a pop culture sensation … The evolution of Barbie can be seen as a case study of how brands with legacy reinvent themselves.”

Rather than distance itself from past controversy, Barbie's movie-related marketing has embraced its legacy in a progressive, camp, tongue-in-cheek way. We see this messaging come through in the movie trailer, which states, “If you love Barbie, this movie is for you. If you hate Barbie, this movie is for you.”

Though Tracksuit’s research shows that Barbie has gaps in relatability and lovability due to past associations with a limited construction of what a woman can aspire to be, this view is being reshaped by making the brand relevant to a much wider audience.

Barbie is targeting more broadly than ever before, and showing up in channels that bring people of different genders, sexualities and ages into the conversation.

This expands its audience beyond those who play with dolls, as anyone can engage with the brand through its diverse range of product partnerships, including a luggage collaboration with BÉIS Travel, Barbie pink glassware by Dragon Glassware, Pinkberry’s Barbie frozen yoghurt, and the chance to select the Barbie’s car in the Forza Horizon 5 video game.

This strategy builds future demand with people who aren’t interested in purchasing from the brand yet, but may be in the future – particularly as its product range expands beyond the toy aisle.

In the coming years, we expect to see brand experiences expand into theme parks, TV series and other product lines that will continue to snowball on the back of the success of the Barbie brand.

Tracksuit is continuing to survey consumers about Barbie in our key markets to track this progress. We’re excited to watch the impact of a brand reinventing itself to respond to modern-day culture, as well as the commercial success that can be gained from such a move.

Other legacy businesses, take note. Imagination: Brand is your creation!