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When Barbie® Needs a Paid Media Specialist...

Behind Barbie®’s $1.44 B blockbuster

How Barbie® hit a 488x ROI

When the Barbie® Movie trailer dropped in 2023, analysts were aghast at the film’s $150M USD marketing budget. On top of its $145M production budget. But a paid media specialist would argue that price is what you pay, value is what you get1. Anyone alive in the year 2023 would defend Mattel’s $240M all-in investment in the Barbie® Movie- with a 488x ROI based on box office revenues of $1.44B and counting. 

But it was a long road to opening night for Mattel and Barbie. Early licensing efforts in the late 80’s and ‘90s – such as a Barbie®TV special or her cameo in Toy Story 2 in 1999 were a hint at this longterm goal, but by 2010, Mattel stock was trading -37% below it’s 90’s peak. 

Barbie® needed to re-build brand preference and equity. To do so, we built a framework for building brand equity targeted to 3 key audiences: investors and licensors, parents as well as girls. And so, with Criterion Global as paid media specialist, the Barbie® Movie’s strategic framework was developed for Mattel by years before its release. 

Across paid, earned and owned, this framework for building brand equity brought Mattel and its IP back to a powerful position as brand licensee and cultural driver.

This case study shows how paid media specialist Criterion Global helped Mattel defend and grow Barbie® brand equity, using tools such as OOH media planning to reinvigorate this iconic brand.

How to Build Brand Equity? The Pilot Case

The Barbie® Movie is a testament to long term investment in brand equity. And optimism. Initially conceived in 2009, the project stumbled through multiple script, cast changes between 2014 and 2019 when Greta Gerwig finally joined the project. During that time, Criterion Global’s media planning and buying for for Barbie®’s “I Can Be”™ campaign served as a pilot for a model of brand equity investment that would ignite Barbie® brand fever. 

The “I Can Be…™” campaign was conceived as a celebration of the 250+ professional careers Barbie®has had since her creation in 1959. No other doll embraced professional identity like Barbie® – before or since. 

This case study illustrates how media planning to grow brand equity – with tactics such as OOH media planning – can yield benefits for brands over time, in contrast to the short-term immediate direct response tactics like digital.

“I Can Be...™” + Iconic American Brands

It’s true that Barbie® is unique as a toy, franchise and icon. But our paid media specialist framework offers manifold lessons to IP-driven licensors and “challenger brands” alike. This is partly because iconic brands can be tricky. They have many stakeholders and brand “protectors”. Additionally, iconic American brands often have many different loyal audience followings.

Unsurprisingly, historic brands carry special meaning to these audiences. Barbie® brand leadership had three constituencies:

  1. Parents, with their own childhood memories of the brand,
  2. Investors and licensees with financial interests in sustaining brand value, and
  3. Kids – who crave constant content, equating consumer brands with media brands like YouTube Kids, Snapchat, and Netflix.

Additionally, Iconic American Brands like Barbie® must contend with two key media trends impacting brand investment: 

  1. The revival of brand media, which has revitalized paid media specialties like OOH media planning, and, simultaneously, 
  2. The digitization of media, including OOH, which increases supply and often dilutes the brand equity effectiveness of media channels [note: digital media is, of course, a vital aspect of performance media buying].

For CMOs managing brand investment, these two trends, which have opposing effects on paid media strategy, call for clever OOH media planning more than ever.

A Framework for Brand Equity Investment

Here’s how we used a framework developed for  “Iconic American Brands” in collaboration with creative strategy to build a 4-tier campaign to ignite Barbie®’s relevance:

Strategy“I Can Be” TMThe Barbie® Movie
1. Viral HookMattel's sought to empower young women by letting fans vote for Barbie®'s next career! The film’s announcement and trailer created buzz, but the Barbie®Selfie Generator served as viral hook - with more than 13MM users.
2. Earned Media “Plot Twist” An excess of voting (and lobbying from advocacy groups) gets media coverage; Mattel “forced” to issue two dolls.The simultaneous theatrical release of Barbie® and Oppenheimer spawned "Barbenheimer," which Variety called "the movie event of the year". Cue the memes and merch!
3. Media FrequencyOOH media planning strategy that blanketed key markets nationally, with CG-engineered override.Collaborations with a staggering 100 brands, creating a pervasive presence across various sectors
4. Commercial EndgameActivities were timed to the NY Toy Show - a legendary global toy showcase dating back to 1903, hosted in the Javits Center in NY - the same show where Barbie® debuted in 1959 for maximum wholesale impact.Pre-release marketing served its purpose: The Barbie® Movie opening weekend won 52% of all tickets sold - with 79% of all tickets sold specifically for the double-feature - drawing a total of 18.5M people. Within a month (August), the film made history, surpassing $1B in sales.
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Measuring Return on Brand Value

Brands that strategically invest in paid media not only expand their presence in the marketplace but often reap outsized rewards. This is underscored by compelling evidence of the power of deliberate and innovative advertising strategies in growing brand equity and brand value.

Take, for instance, the impressive trajectory of the world’s top merchandise licensors. In 2017, the leading 20 licensors exceeded $177 billion in retail sales. Fast forward to 2023, this elite group, despite being a small fraction of the 84 brands analyzed, generated a staggering $230 billion, marking an approximately 30% increase.3 Significantly, 82% of this value was attributed to the top 10 brands—those that had made substantial, long-term investments in brand media. This leap underscores the tangible benefits of prioritizing paid media strategies, particularly for brands aiming to stand out in a saturated market.

Building Brand Preference + Equity

Barbie’s “I Can Be”™ campaign exemplifies how targeted paid media efforts can translate brand visibility and engagement into longterm brand equity. By securing an overwhelming presence – roughly 45% of all NYC public busses –  in New York City, along with strategic OOH media planning around the Javit’s Center during the NYC Toy Show, Barbie® captured the attention of a vast audience. Complex OOH executions, such as extensions over bus windows made Barbie®, and her message, impossible to ignore. This wasn’t merely about painting NYC pink: I Can Be created an immersive brand experience that resonated with consumers, setting the stage for future endeavors.

Side view of a bus with an advertisement featuring illustrated characters and a promotion for Barbie, curated by a paid media specialist.

Why Barbie® has a Paid media specialist

  1. The “I Can Be”™ campaign for “Barbie®’s Next Career” sparked a viral chain reaction receiving over 600,000 votes in just a four week period,
  2. The attention led to press: “Barbie®’s Next Career” was featured on the front page of national newspapers including the WSJ.
  3. Plot twist! Women’s computer engineering organizations lobbied their favorite, whilst young women voted TV anchorwoman. Result: Mattel had to issue 2 dolls. 

Building on the success of the “I Can Be”™ campaign, the launch of the Barbie® movie employed a similar marketing blueprint, leading to historic achievements. As we all know by now, Barbie® was the 4th largest film opening of all time. The biggest opening ever for a female director. In its first week alone, the Barbie® movie earned drove $162M USD, created a cultural phenomenon that brought nearly 30 million people to the movies, and would become the highest-grossing film of 2023 and the 14th highest-grossing film of all time2.

People walking past an advertisement for Barbie created by a paid media specialist on a city street.

Importance of Brand Equity: The Takeaway

Our work as paid media strategist shows the extraordinary outcomes that can be achieved when brands commit to paid media investment. Such strategies not only enhance visibility and consumer engagement but also set the groundwork for sustained success and profitability. The journey of the top merchandise licensors and the monumental success of the Barbie® movie are compelling entertainment marketing case studies for the power of paid media, affirming its role as a critical component in the arsenal of contemporary brand strategy.

1 Quotation 100% misappropriated from Warren Buffet. 

2 Sources: Deadline, Box Office Mojo, Comscore PostTrack as of 7/24/23.

3 License Global 2023

4 Other: Barbie® Selfie Generator