Barbie: The Doll, the Movie, the Stuff…Your Life

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The intersection of movies and merchandising is a long, tortured road with more than its fair share of boffo success stories and bombs…both at the box office and on retail racks.

Merch tie-ins with movies – and movie stars – go way back. One of the first real licensing deals involving Hollywood and retail was with Shirley Temple way back in the 1930s with a long-gone glassware company called Hazel Atlas. Ever since the temptation to connect merchandise with entertainment properties has been irresistible.

Certainly, action and superhero movies like Transformers, Star Wars, and the endless Marvel Universe – as well as Disney’s Toy Story and female role models (think: Elsa, Ariel, and Moana) — have landed on the plus side of the ledger. But it hasn’t just been toys, action figures, and cosplay. Harry Potter has his own retail store.

Films like Annie Hall, Bonnie & Clyde, the James Bond franchise, and The Great Gatsby (the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version) have all had an enormous impact on the fashion business even if they didn’t start out as licensing deals. And then there are the streamers, “Emily in Paris,” along with “And Just Like That,” which are more fashion influencers than credible storytelling.

But Barbie, which Warner Bros. reportedly spent $100 million to make with Greta Girwig and stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling (as an over-the-top Ken), is looking to be one of the licensing winners. As the trailers to film shout out loud, “Love her or hate her, this Barbie is for you,” Barbie may outdo anything we’ve seen so far. Its marketing efforts began over a year ago, and while Barbie fatigue was always a possibility, it appears the fever pitch for Barbie will be spot on for the July 21 opening.

Shop Flops

For every one of these movie merchandise licensing successes, there have been countless flops, most of which are long forgotten. And with good reason: retailer markdowns were fast and furious, and we suspect there’s still some Pluto Nash, Hudson Hawk and Ghostbusters (the remake) merchandise sitting around retail backrooms even today.

This is why the new Barbie movie is an absolutely fascinating case study in movie and hot pink merchandising mashups. We haven’t seen a marketing and promotional push for a movie like this in a long time – even the New Yorker devoted seven pages to the phenomenon this month — and both Warner Bros. and all kinds of retailers have a lot riding on this. If the movie is a success these product and program tie-ins could also have nice runs…but if the film bombs, chances are the affiliated products will be relegated to spots right next to that lonely Hudson Hawk baseball cap.

My Robin Report colleague Jasmine Glasheen recently wrote about Barbie– and the Barbiecore surge – from a different perspective, calling it “a nostalgic lark, even with its subtext of body bias and beauty memes,” suggesting that the wildly unrealistic body proportions of the Barbie doll may not have been the most constructive role model for little girls growing up in America. Having never been a prepubescent girl – and in fact, I was never much into the male counterpart action figure dolls either– I can only agree with her take on all of this.

All-Barbie, All-The-Time

From my viewpoint, I’m fascinated by the sheer quantity of merchandising tie-ins now flooding the market, which according to the Wall Street Journal, numbers well into the hundreds. They call it the “Summer of Barbie.” Richard Dickson, president of Mattel, which owns Barbie and gets a significant amount of the $5.4 billion worth of its revenue (a reported $1.billion) and profits from the pink princess, said in an interview with the Journal that the company wants “everyone playing with Barbie and that doesn’t necessarily mean playing with the doll. The bigger opportunity for us is going to be outside of the toy aisle. That is the drive for where we see the monetization for the brand moving forward.” For starters, go to Bergdorf Goodman, way off the beaten toy path, to pick up a pair of $1045 hot pink Manolo stilettos.

In case anyone misses the point, the Journal wrote, “Mattel isn’t letting anyone forget that the movie is on the way.” And it can be a huge payday for Barbie’s parent: According to the WSL, in some partnership agreements, a brand pays Mattel a flat licensing fee, while others give Mattel a 5-15 percent cut of sales. And the Barbie campaign is just the beginning of Mattel’s foray into the Hollywood connection with 13 toy-centric film projects for Barney, Hot Wheels and Polly Pocket (with Lena Dunham directing) and 45 concepts in development.

So, here is our curated list of the hundreds of product and promotional tie-ins (and please note, Barbie has her own authorized pink, Pantone 218C):

  • The well-reported Malibu Barbie pop-up café in New York, with its flagrant Insta Barbie moments.
  • Airbnb is renting out “Barbie’s Malibu Dreamhouse” for two, one-night stays in July “Free of charge.” The beachfront property was first listed on the 60th anniversary of Barbie in 2019 but has been renovated and given a Ken-inspired makeover including “cowboy hats and a roller rink.” Why free? “Ken’s thing is beach, not math,” so Airbnb tells us.
  • There’s another Barbie Dreamhouse, courtesy of HGTV which has done a remodel for a broadcast this month.
  • Bloomingdale’s held an online “best ever event” the launch of “Barbie the Movie x Aqua,” an exclusive collection in a themed pop-up which it is confidentially – if perhaps prematurely – saying is “inspired by the summer blockbuster.”
  • Elsewhere, apparel specialty chains, including Gap, Aldo, Forever 21, Primark, Hot Topic and even Spirit Halloween have all launched collections influenced – if not exactly officially licensed – by the movie.
  • Pymnts.com, the online news source, reports that startups are also getting into Barbiecore, including DTC brands Beis and MeUndies and beverage company Swoon. It does ask the million-dollar question in its report: “But is it translating into $$$?”
  • The WSJ added to the list of tie-ins, including Neiman Marcus, Ulta Beauty, Target, Amazon and even Microsoft, which has launched a Barbie Xbox.
  • Online fashion site Boohoo has created a list of Barbie outfit choices, noting that #barbieoutfits had more than 56 million views on TikTok in advance of the movie opening.
  • Whole Foods is promoting Barbie Penne Rigate from the Italian brand Di Martino. It’s about $4 and is part of an extensive line of food tie-ins that also features a “gift tin” including more pasta and a doll, all for just $119.45 at Yummybazaar.com. This tie-in needs a minute to digest … literally.
  • Candles also seem to be a popular Barbie tie-in category, signaling that apparently, no brand has exclusives on anything, somewhat unusual in the property licensing business. We counted products from Glasshouse of Australia and Homesick and retailers including Urban Outfitters and Barnes & Noble sensing sense opportunities.
  • But wait, there’s more: TV commercials with both Chevy and Progressive Insurance that aren’t licensing deals but apparently connect back in some way to Barbie, a new Pinkberry frozen yogurt (who else?), OPI nail color, and a boat cruise in Boston. Fast Company calls the entire effort “pink wizardry.”

Will Everyone Drink the Pink?

The big question is will all of this hype result in business for everyone involved? And does it matter if the movie is actually any good? Lots of really bad movies have paid off in lots of good ways for product and promotional tie-ins. The two things are not always connected.

If Barbie is a success these product and program tie-ins could also have nice runs…but if the film bombs, chances are the affiliated products will be relegated to spots right next to that lonely Hudson Hawk baseball cap.

It’s the scale of Barbie that seems to break new ground in movies and merchandising mashups. In a promo commercial, Barbie gleefully proclaims, “It’s the best day ever. And so was yesterday…and so is tomorrow.” You can be sure a lot of companies are hoping that’s true.

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