Twenty-six years after Barbie creator Mattel tried to sue Aqua for singing about the ‘Barbie world’, a new Barbie universe is taking shape. Barbie – the movie, which came out on Friday – has been described by Mattel as ‘one of the biggest cultural moments of her nearly 65-year history’.
It could certainly be the most lucrative.
Want more Barbie in your life? You can now buy Barbie the Movie x Impala in-line skates (£162.99), Barbie x Superga pink trainers (£95), a Barbie x Tangle Teezer Brush (£14) or Barbie x Kipling backpack (£107). Primark has launched a Barbie collection across womenswear, accessories and menswear, which includes ‘the iconic Barbie swimwear and Ken shorts from the viral Venice Beach scene’.
Other Barbie collaborations this year include Forever 21 and Gap clothing, Moon toothbrushes, Funboy pool floats, Kitsch hair accessories and Pinkberry frozen yogurt.
Mattel is ‘celebrating’ the film’s release with more than 100 licensing deals, in addition to nine new dolls, from a gold jumpsuit-clad Barbie to Ken in double denim.
Barbie – the movie, which came out on Friday – has been described by Mattel as ‘one of the biggest cultural moments of her nearly 65-year history’
It’s a considerable financial turnaround for Mattel, which in 2014 was struggling, with sales of Barbie at a 25-year low. In contrast to other toy companies such as Hasbro and Lego, the company had largely failed to monetise its brands with theatrical-release movies.
It helps explain why in 2018 the new CEO Ynon Kreiz created the Mattel Films division, which currently has 14 other feature films in development. Experts predict that the movie, which is made in collaboration with Warner Bros, could pull in $75 million (£60 million) at the box office this opening weekend alone, and up to $1 billion (£780 million) by the end of its worldwide run.
However, ticket sales are just one source of revenue. The company, which also owns Hot Wheels, American Girl Doll and Fisher-Price, sees the growth opportunity in franchise deals as ‘exponential’.
‘The bigger opportunity for us is going to be outside the toy aisle,’ chief operating officer Richard Dickson told The Wall Street Journal. ‘That is the drive for where we see the monetisation of the brand going forward.’
And money is now rolling in from brands clamouring to be part of the action. They either sign flat licensing deals or commit to give Mattel a five to 15 per cent cut of sales, with a minimum guarantee agreed when the contracts are signed.
‘It’s not all about the revenue though,’ says Ben Roberts, a content director at License Global. ‘Licensing used to be about slapping a logo on something, but now it’s about taking the emotional engagement people have with a brand and bringing it to life. You have dedicated teams working out what feels authentic to the brand, and whether fans will want it – the licensers are extremely careful about who they work with and vet them heavily.’
Clearly, Mattel looks set to do well from Barbie the Movie, but what’s in it for its collaborators? Everyone seems to want a piece of the hype; even brands that don’t have official tie-ins with the new film are releasing pink collections and sending out press releases about their ‘Barbie-inspired’ make-up, furniture or tanning products. Holly Brunskill, managing partner at B The Agency, which specialises in branding and creative communications, says that from previous experience ‘alignment with the Barbie brand is great for fashion and beauty companies’.
It’s a considerable financial turnaround for Mattel, which in 2014 was struggling, with sales of Barbie at a 25-year low
Valentino championed bright pink in its autumn/winter 2022 show, and countless celebrities have appeared in the colour, notably Anne Hathaway, Kim Kardashian, Lizzo, Florence Pugh and Justin Bieber
The values embodied by Barbie have themselves had a rebrand in recent years. First up, there’s the body image issue.
After research in 2013 showed that if Barbie were a real woman, she would be so disproportioned she wouldn’t be able to walk, Mattel released new body types in 2016, including ‘curvy, petite and tall’ Barbie dolls.
After the release of the trailer, there was a 78 per cent rise in searches for pink fashion
The company also issued dolls with more skin tones in response to lack-of-diversity criticisms.
To boost Barbie’s fashion credentials, Mattel teamed up with a slew of design houses; in recent years these have included Moschino, Vera Wang, Karl Lagerfeld, Tommy Hilfiger and Balmain.
The official Barbie style account on Instagram (@barbiestyle) has 2.4 million followers, with content including outfit posts and beauty tutorials not dissimilar from those of a human social media influencer.
My, Barbie, how you’ve grown! The 64-year evolution of our favourite doll
1959 The co-founders of toy company Mattel, Ruth and Elliot Handler, unveil the first Barbie. Ponytail Barbie is 11½in tall, blonde and clad in a black and white striped swimming costume. She’s an instant hit. According to Mattel, since 1959 the company has sold three Barbies every second – more than a billion dolls in total.
Ponytail Barbie is 11½in tall, blonde and clad in a black and white striped swimming costume
1961 Ken is born. Barbie’s boyfriend is 12in tall, also dressed in swimwear, and comes in blonde and brunette styles. The dolls were named after the real-life children of Ruth and Elliot Handler.
1962 Barbie’s eight-room Dreamhouse is built. This was radical given that in 1962 British women couldn’t open a bank account. Today, one is sold every two minutes.
1968 Barbie’s best friend Christie arrives: the first black doll in the range produced by Mattel. The original had a pull cord that would play sound bites such as, ‘I love to try on clothes’, ‘Should I change my hairstyle?’ and ‘I’d like to be a fashion model’.
1986 Andy Warhol paints Barbie. In 2014, the 40in x 40in portrait sold at auction in London for £722,500.
The dolls were named after the real-life children of Ruth and Elliot Handler (pictured)
1992 Totally Hair Barbie, the bestselling version of all time, makes her debut, with hair down to her ankles. According to the Guinness World Records website, more than ten million have been sold worldwide.
2004 Mattel breaks the news that, after 43 years of dating, Barbie and Ken have broken up. Thankfully, the pair will be reunited seven years later on – sure enough – Valentine’s Day.
2013 Graphs from US mental health charity rehabs.com reveal what Barbie would be like if her proportions existed on a real human. The doll wouldn’t be able to lift her head, she’d only have organ space for half a liver and her ankles would be so tiny she’d have to walk on all fours.
Barbie’s eight-room Dreamhouse was radical given that in 1962 British women couldn’t open a bank account. Today, one is sold every two minutes
Barbie’s best friend Christie arrives: the first black doll in the range produced by Mattel
Totally Hair Barbie, the bestselling version of all time, makes her debut, with hair down to her ankles
Mattel introduces new Barbie body types and skin tones. The story runs on the front cover of Time with a picture of curvy Barbie and the headline: ‘Now can we stop talking about my body?’
Professor Sarah Gilbert is turned into a Barbie. The 61-yearold British scientist, who helped create the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine, was also made a dame the same year
2016 Mattel introduces new Barbie body types and skin tones. The story runs on the front cover of Time with a picture of curvy Barbie and the headline: ‘Now can we stop talking about my body?’
2021 Professor Sarah Gilbert is turned into a Barbie. The 61-yearold British scientist, who helped create the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine, was also made a dame the same year.
2023 Barbie hits cinema screens. It had a budget of $100 million (£79 million) and it’s estimated that it will make $75 million (£60 million) at the box office in its first weekend alone.
Then last year Barbiecore (the trend for dressing in the hot pink hue) kicked in, in anticipation of the movie release. Valentino championed bright pink in its autumn/winter 2022 show, and countless celebrities have appeared in the colour, notably Anne Hathaway, Kim Kardashian, Lizzo, Florence Pugh and Justin Bieber.
Perhaps most important in brands’ eagerness to work with Barbie, though, is her new status as a feminist icon. A recent Evening Standard headline declared that ‘The new Barbie movie is the feminist epic we deserve’, which may seem unlikely given that in 1959 the original doll was partly inspired by Bild Lilli, a sexy German doll originally marketed at men.
In the 1990s, a group of activists called The Barbie Liberation Organization caused havoc in toy stores by switching the voice boxes between Barbies and GI Joes, leaving her to say, ‘vengeance is mine’ while he declared ‘the beach is the place for summer’.
In recent years, however, Barbie has increasingly been held up as an example of modern feminism. On her YouTube channel, which has 11.4 million subscribers, Barbie vlogged about micro-aggressions and police brutality following the killing of George Floyd in 2020 and received 739k views for a video about the ‘dream gap’ between the genders, explaining the age at which young girls start to doubt themselves.
Meanwhile, Barbie’s recent jobs include marine biologist, campaign manager, boxer, paramedic, renewable energy engineer and – yes – vaccinologist, based on AstraZeneca scientist Professor Sarah Gilbert (see opposite below).
Barbie has even become a figurehead for the ironically named ‘bimbo movement’ on TikTok, which challenges the idea that you cannot possibly be intellectual and care about your appearance at the same time.
Modern Barbie (as depicted in the movie) has also developed a keen sense of comedy timing. Her horror at the prospect of swapping heels for Birkenstocks as she enters the ‘real world’ provides one of the laugh-out-loud moments.
Having Oscar-nominated Greta Gerwig as director, with a dazzling cast including Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Dua Lipa, Will Ferrell and America Ferrera, has helped cement hype around the film, as well as boosting its cool credentials – who doesn’t want to be more Margot? And as the actress travels the globe to promote the film wearing a ‘tourdrobe’ that can only be described as 50 shades of pink, she is helping to boost sales.
In the first month following the release of the viral movie trailer, online retail platform Lyst recorded a 78 per cent rise in searches for pink fashion, while John Lewis reported a 70 per cent lift in pink handbag sales.
Branding experts are unanimous in their praise for the marketing machine around the movie. This has ranged from social media campaigns – with a Barbie selfie generator on Instagram proving wildly popular – to a collaboration with Airbnb promoting the real-life Barbie Malibu Dreamhouse, which garnered press coverage across the globe despite just two one-night stays being up for grabs.
Ben Roberts believes the core of the movie’s pulling power is its appeal to more than one demographic. ‘We’re seeing a huge renaissance of the Barbie brand because
the kids who used to play with them are grown-ups now and want to share it with their own children.’ He adds that in troubling times, Barbie’s realm represents safety. ‘There’s a psychological sense where people think, ‘I’ve always leaned on and loved this brand,’ he says. ‘It provides a lovely, happy, bubbly world to escape to.’
The viewing figures for the movie trailer back him up – 38 million to date. We are, it seems, extremely keen to leap on to a hot pink juggernaut of fun this summer. And to buy a mood-matching handbag while we’re at it.