Barbie at the Movies: Mattel’s Playbook for CPG Media, Reinventing CPG Brands for the Digital Era
Mattel's big bet on media is a gamble that just might pay off.
Barbie’s Off the Shelf, and Onto the Big Screen
All opinions are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer.
Stepping off of the shelf and onto the silver screen, Mattel’s highly anticipated Barbie movie is more than just the biggest blockbuster of 2023. It signals a strategic shift: iconic brands like Mattel are reinventing themselves for the digital age, where media scalability is the key to unlocking new growth and capturing the hearts of new consumers.
Now, these CPG giants are transforming into dynamic media companies, blending the charm of their beloved brands with the power of AI, animation, and the budding metaverse. They are reinvigorating their brand equity and positioning themselves to reach today’s tech-native consumers – a crucial move in an era where digital experiences are not just delightful, but expected.
Yet, this transformation isn’t without risks. As Mattel ventures further into media territory, a misstep could harm their core business and the reputation of their most prized intellectual property. Despite the fanfare Barbie is stirring, giants like Mattel are playing outside of their traditional sandbox, which may be a gamble that results in a significant loss, or a groundbreaking success.
In this article, we will explore this strategic shift for iconic brands like Mattel, and take a closer look at how this classic brand has evolved, its ventures into media and entertainment, and what the future holds for a world where brands and tech converge.
Manufacturers are Sitting on a Media Goldmine
Mattel isn’t new to media production. In fact, 2023’s live-action Barbie movie is actually well above their 40th installment in the wider Barbie-verse. Barbie in the Nutcracker, Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses, and Barbie Fairytopia: Mermaidia – all hit animated features that pad Mattel’s media development resume, albeit none live-action. (And I would be lying if I said I didn’t watch Mermaidia more than a handful of times with my younger sister when we were kids. I remember spending hours in the pool playing “Mermaids & Mer-man.”)
But Barbie (2023) is a special move on Mattel’s part. For all the experience they have already gained since their very first animated Barbie movie in 2001, Barbie (2023) is their first true blockbuster – with all the pomp and circumstance of a real Hollywood film. This leap from a long history of direct-to-DVD animated productions, and public access TV cartoons represents their high-stakes gamble on cinema. The implications of this go far beyond the fate of just the Barbie franchise, though; I think this move is emblematic of a broader, industry-wide shift for CPG manufacturers as a whole. Iconic manufacturers like Mattel are starting to realize that their intellectual property can be a launching pad for new growth in media production, and digital engagement.
Barbie on the Big Screen: A Case Study in Brand Reinvention
The live-action Barbie movie is a calculated move to re-assert Mattel’s relevance in a rapidly evolving digital world. They are poised to capture the attention of tech-native consumers; positioning Barbie as not just a physical toy, but a transmedia franchise, spanning not only toys and film, but also games, apps, and even metaverse experiences. Mattel has consistently iterated on the Barbie brand, to varying degrees of success.
In the early 2010s, Barbie toy sales were floundering, and reflected declining consumer sentiment towards the brand. After surveying US shoppers in 2014, Mattel confirmed that shoppers generally viewed Barbie as outdated, unrealistic, and out of touch; a symbol of negative beauty standards for young girls. This decline in sales plummeted until 2015, as recorded by Statista, spurring Mattel to take decisive action and reinvent the brand.
Barbie Fashionistas, via X @Mattel
In that same year, Mattel launched the “Barbie Fashionistas” line which was a diverse collection of dolls each proudly representing more inclusive skin tones, hairstyles, and eye colors. A year later, the company took things a step further by introducing additional body types, including “Curvy,” “Tall,” and “Petite” Barbies. Lastly, by 2018, Mattel also expanded their digital playset by launching the “Barbie: Dreamhouse Adventures” app for iOS and Google Play – which remains their most popular Barbie mobile game.
These product revamps and innovations were fundamental steps to realigning Barbie’s image with the more diverse, inclusive, and digitally immersive expectations of today’s shoppers. As a result, by 2021, Mattel’s Barbie brand made a significant recovery, reporting its highest sales in the past decade, according to Statista.
Film and content development have always been at the forefront of this reinvention – and not just for Barbie. Mattel saw decent success with other intellectual property in media, like Monster High and Hot Wheels. However, the real game-changer wasn’t until 2018, when current CEO Ynon Kreiz took over and announced his vision to transform Mattel into a content and media production powerhouse rivaling Hasbro.
In September 2018, what was previously Mattel’s Playground Productions film studio, was reformed into Mattel Films – one of the studios spearheading this year’s live-action Barbie movie. This was an early goal that Kreiz set as part of his long-term plan to transform Mattel. But Mattel’s goal with film isn’t just to sell more toys – something they have already managed to do – instead, as Kreiz told Variety on the “Strictly Business” podcast, “We don’t make movies to sell more toys. We try to make movies that people want to watch and television content that will be engaging and entertaining.” And this is clearly the essence of Barbie’s Hollywood debut.
Barbie Syndrome: More than Just a Doll, it’s a Lifestyle
For manufacturers like Mattel, success is no longer just about selling dolls anymore; it’s about captivating consumers with immersive experiences, lifestyle content, and digital experiments. Mattel’s viral marketing is focused on inviting shoppers into Barbie’s world through activations that leverage today’s technology and trends. As CEO Ynon Kreiz put it, above all else, it’s about creating an experience that is engaging and entertaining.
This has certainly been the ethos behind Barbie’s movie marketing, reflected in the unique and even unpredictable promotional tactics they’ve turned to for the movie. One standout tactic is Barbie’s AI-powered selfie-generator which has taken over Twitter. As part of the viral campaign to promote the movie, users were invited to upload a headshot to the Barbie Selfie Generator website (http://barbieselfie.ai) and which is then automatically cropped and edited to look like one of the film’s promotional headshots. Almost like you’re a Barbie, too! Now everyone can become a part of Barbie’s world. Here’s me:
Generated using barbieselfie.ai
And if “Barbie x AI” wasn’t on your bingo card for this movie’s promo, then you won’t guess what else the marketing team has up their sleeve. Mattel didn’t stop at promoting the film online – no, they transformed a real-life Malibu beach house into Barbie’s iconic Dreamhouse, which you can now rent on Airbnb. Now fans can experience the Barbie lifestyle for themselves. This Airbnb listing will remain live for at least a year, and is central to a long-term commercialization strategy that’s promoting more than just the Barbie movie; it’s promoting Barbie lifestyle.
Malibu Barbie Dreamhouse, via Airbnb
Lastly, and perhaps my favorite activation so far, has been Barbie The Album. More than just a film score, Barbie The Album is a pop masterpiece featuring musical heavyweights like Dua Lipa, Nicki Minaj, and Charli XCX. Not only has Mattel curated a canonical sound for Barbie, but they’ve also ensured long-term commercial relevance for Barbie IP with original earworms like “Speed Drive” (my personal favorite from the album, and now a fixture in my own personal hyperpop playlist for posterity.)
While each of these activations are a success in their own right, providing Mattel with valuable insight into things like: how to use AI to promote a launch, how to leverage real-life experiential marketing, and how to produce an original music album – none of these will guarantee a successful film. As innovative and exciting as these tactics may be, the world of Hollywood entertainment is fast-moving and new to Mattel, and a flop can mean broader implications for their core business. As we celebrate their audacious marketing efforts, let’s consider what might be at risk for Mattel.
Mattel is Risking More than Just a Box Office Flop
Unlike traditional media companies, Mattel has more than just a red carpet and film critics to worry about. If Barbie (2023) fails to deliver, Mattel stands to lose more than just their production and marketing investment (which, at this rate, might actually be quite big.) Rather, Mattel is also risking damage to their overall Barbie brand.
Barbie has been pivotal to Mattel’s bottom line since 1959, and to this day remains an integral part of their overall revenue. According to Statista, in 2022, Barbie sales comprised nearly 28% total revenue for Mattel, even as overall revenue softened slightly vs 2021.
Mattel revenue breakdown, Barbie vs Other, via Statista
If audiences reject Barbie on the big screen it could result in a bad look for the brand overall, triggering a knock-on effect for Barbie merchandise and other brand extensions that Mattel can’t afford to take lightly. After all, Mattel only just turned around a significant sales decline in 2021. Losing this bet on the Barbie movie could put them back at square one – only now with a lot unsold movie merchandise.
What’s more is that Mattel is releasing this film in the midst of a major upset in Hollywood. Union writers and actors have been protesting the Hollywood machine for nearly six months now, demanding that studio executives sit down to negotiate and secure livable wages, healthcare benefits, and assurances against being replaced by artificial intelligence.
As tensions escalate, films like Barbie (2023) may be caught in the crossfire, with shoppers and entertainment professionals alike potentially boycotting the theater this summer in solidarity with writers and actors in protest. While it would be unfortunate to see Mattel’s media playbook become collateral damage here, it may just be necessary to ensure the rights of entertainment workers.
Not only that, but Barbie’s premiere will be going head-to-head against some serious competition, as Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer is opening the same day. Despite the enthusiasm on social media about a “Barbenheimmer” double-feature, the two films are, at the end of the day, still competing for the title of this year’s biggest summer blockbuster.
While the Barbie film project encapsulates Mattel’s innovative and audacious approach to reinventing their brand, it also reflects the inherent risks involved. The Hollywood media machine may require a level of agility and rapid innovation that Mattel may not be ready for. After all, their experience to date has been in the slower, product-focused environment of traditional toy manufacturing. Whether or not Mattel will be able to keep up with the changing tastes of their newfound audience, and adapt to the shifting technology of AI-powered media, remains to be seen.
Staying Relevant in the Digital Era
Mattel’s transformation from a traditional toymaker into a dynamic media powerhouse is an incredible case study unfolding in real-time. While this journey won’t be without challenges, it reflects an enticing promise of unparalleled growth and brand expansion for other CPG manufacturers that are also stepping into their digital era.
Whether Barbie sinks or swims at the box office, one thing is certain: Mattel’s bold new strategy underscores the changing landscape of the toy industry – and CPG overall. As the line between physical and digital experiences continues to blur, it will be important to see how legacy brands like Barbie continue to reinvent themselves to stay relevant.
With all eyes on Mattel and Barbie, we’re left wondering: Will Barbie (2023) be a box office hit, leading the way for other manufacturers to step off of the shelf and onto the big screen? Or will it serve as a cautionary tale of what happens to brands that venture too far from their traditional sandbox? Time will tell, but regardless of the outcome, it’s clear that Mattel’s reinvention story is far from over.