The Barbie movie playing on a television screen
The new Barbie movie, which has made more than $1 billion at the box office, is a triumph of brand positioning, says Bryant Professor of Marketing Sukki Yoon, Ph.D.
From villain to superhero: What big brands can learn from Barbie’s billion-dollar comeback
Aug 08, 2023, by Stephen Kostrzewa

There’s revolution afoot in the new Barbie movie, both onscreen and behind the scenes. The blockbuster hit, which recently crossed the $1 billion mark worldwide and sits at nearly 90 percent at Rotten Tomatoes, chronicles an iconic children’s toy in crisis. 

Produced in partnership between Universal Pictures and Barbie’s parent company Mattel, the film sees the titular character forced to deal with the patriarchy, an army of Kens relishing their first taste of toxic masculinity, and even questions surrounding her very existence. But Barbie also must reckon with charges that have dogged her brand since its inception: accusations of antifeminism, promoting an unhealthy body image, and serving as a gross tool of unchecked consumerism. 

It’s a tough gauntlet to face for a single doll. In the film, when a precocious little girl calls Barbie a “fascist” to her face and informs her, “You’ve been making women feel bad about themselves since you were invented,” you can’t help but empathize with the cultural icon. And that, says Sukki Yoon, Ph.D., professor of Marketing at Bryant University and editor in chief of the Journal of Current Issues and Research in Advertising, is a slam dunk for the brand in ways that go beyond the box office.

Product placement, notes Yoon, dates almost as far back as the history of film and has been a powerful driver of brand awareness and marketing efforts. He points to how a brief but meaningful appearance in 1982’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial drew eyes to Reese’s Pieces at the expense of M&Ms, its leading competitor, as a famous example.

The Barbie movie, however, is attempting something more difficult, Yoon argues: a complete readjustment of the brand to make it more favorable in the eyes of consumers while still keeping its identity intact. “Barbie is the first piece of branded entertainment that has used its movie as a vehicle for repositioning,” he says.

“Barbie is the first piece of branded entertainment that has used its movie as a vehicle for repositioning.”

While much of Barbie serves as a celebration of the 64 year-old brand — reminiscing about the toyline’s storied history, drawing heavily upon nostalgia, and reveling in the sheer fun of the property’s brand of always-fabulous pink make-believe — it also comes in for some criticism.

Though Barbie has embarked on, and excelled in, more than 200 careers since her creation in 1959 — from photojournalist to astronaut to Chief Sustainability Officer — her standing as a fashion doll with unachievable proportions and oh so many expensive accessories has been hard for her to shake. “Barbie has been demonized for a long time,” says Yoon. “For many people, Barbie had become an icon that symbolizes every bad thing when it comes to women's rights; it actually became an icon of antifeminism. 

“The Barbie movie had to embrace this perception,” he argues. “They didn’t have any other option.” 

The film addresses that disconnect between perception and desired brand identity with a decidedly metafictional approach: It provides an education in feminism to an oblivious Barbie herself. In addition to light-hearted escapism, the movie offers a survey course-level look at the trials and travails of everyday women; the pressure to conform to exacting beauty and behavioral standards that the Barbie has, arguably, helped to instill and enforce; and the dangers of rampant patriarchy. At the end of the day, Barbie and her female allies, both doll and human alike, succeed through solidarity.

Professor Sukki Yoon
Bryant University Professor of Marketing Sukki Yoon, Ph.D.

Yoon says the movie, and by extension the Barbie brand, lets the audience know that they take them, and their criticisms, seriously. By positioning Barbie alongside a staunchly feminist message, he suggests, Mattel is engaging in brand activism by tying itself to a social cause that resonates with their consumer audience. “They're selling the movie, and Barbie, like it is part of an ideology,” says Yoon. 

He likens the effort to Nike’s partnership with civil rights activist and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and notes that even the controversy the movie’s messaging has ignited, including ire from conservative commentators who rail against a “woke” Barbie, has value for the Barbie brand as it draws even more eyes.

Making its mix of self-criticism, social activism, and unabashed brand celebration more palatable, says Yoon, is the film’s lighthearted tone and sense of humor. Every barb is softened with a punchline. When Barbie frets about not being “stereotypically Barbie pretty” enough, for instance, the film’s narrator swoops in to note the line is faintly ridiculous coming from its star, Margot Robbie. 

"The difference they made, and it is a very clever choice, is that they said, ‘We’re going to embrace all of this and disarm it by making self-deprecating jokes," says Yoon. The movie even heads off criticism of itself with a joke, having a fictional Mattel executive acknowledge that a socially responsible gesture is especially welcome if it makes the company money. 

“They’ve succeeded in turning Barbie the villain into Barbie the superhero.”

“When a brand was in crisis in the past, they would try to cover it up, or paint it over,” says Yoon. “I think the lesson other brands can adopt from the Barbie movie is to acknowledge the criticism as opposed to spinning or denying. Ironically, in this case, acknowledging the criticism is the best way to spin it.” 

The willingness to acknowledge criticism, Yoon says, also speaks to another of the movie’s strengths as a brand tool: a sense of purpose. By allowing filmmaker Greta Gerwig to craft a story around the brand and its fictional world, she created an engaging product that didn’t set off alarm bells as advertising — especially for a younger audience increasingly savvy of suggestive selling. 

“If somebody comes to you and tries to sell you something in your face, your natural reaction is to recoil and it tends to backfire,” says Yoon.

A vehicle too slavishly devoted to selling the brand can come off as inauthentic and mercenary. He points to the 2008 Transformers film, based on the robot toyline and developed with Mattel rival Hasbro — who took a heavier hand in its production — as an example. “When I walked out, I was a little bit offended because I felt that I had paid for a 90-minute ad,” says Yoon.

In the end, Yoon gives the Barbie movie a mixed review as a piece of art, feeling the last act was a bit too heavy-handed and upset the film’s delicate balance of humor and message. But as a brand repositioning vehicle, he says, it works wonderfully — especially in light of the enormity of the task. “They got their job done in terms of branding,” he says. “They’ve succeeded in turning Barbie the villain into Barbie the superhero.” 

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