Getty Images for Warner Bros.
Unless you’re trapped in a plastic toy box, there’s no escaping the Barbie Core movement that’s sweeping the globe — and potentially leading to a nationwide shortage of the color pink.
The Warner Bros. marketing department has been working flat out to get the masses excited about Greta Gerwig’s cotton candy-colored fantasy that has been all but inevitable this summer, Barbie. A key factor was a dizzying array of partnerships, with products ranging from a bright fuchsia Xbox (for STEM Barbie) to this $1,350 cropped hoodie from Balmain (for Disposable Income Barbie).
And that only scratches the surface of the marks that helped establish the film’s status as a cultural touchstone before it hits theaters on July 21. There’s a real Barbie dream house in Malibu that’s bookable through Airbnb. There is also a themed cruise that sets sail in the Boston area.
The efforts of the extensive and expensive marketing campaign, estimated by competing studio executives at $150 million, not counting the $145 million production budget, are already paying off.
Starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as life-size versions of popular Mattel dolls, “Barbie” surpassed expectations at the box office, grossing $165 million in North America and a staggering $337 million worldwide. Aided by “Oppenheimer,” whose debut grossed $80.5 million, this weekend saw it record the largest total box-office take of the pandemic era and the fourth-largest in history. That’s an especially big deal at a time when Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford are fighting to save the box office.
Following his record-breaking debut, Warner Bros. global marketing president Josh Goldstine spoke to Variety about the trending memes, must-have costumes and the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon that led to this summer’s bright pink smash hit.
When did you realize that “Barbie” marketing was taking off?
We’ve had a lot of internal discussions about ‘What is the right first material?’ and ‘When is the right time to do this? How much of the story should we give away?” Every time we released something, the film reached a new level of cultural integration.
The first electrifying moment was at CinemaCon in 2022. We released a single image of Barbie in her Corvette at Barbieland. It was one of those moments that developed a life of its own. About a month later they were shooting in Santa Monica and we knew people could take pictures of Margot and Ryan in their colorful dayglow outfits on the beach on the street. We began to see the material electrifying the culture.
Pink was a big part of the campaign. How did you decide on this color palette?
Barbie Pink is a big part of the brand. There’s a wonderful girl power element to this film and pink became the color of the film. We saw that it caught on in the culture very early in this long process. The concept of bringing the Barbie core to life in fashion endured. It wasn’t at its right moment; it continued and grew and grew with the film.
How much of the marketing was manufactured and how much was organic?
We thought of it as a breadcrumb strategy, showing people little elements of the film to spark curiosity and spark conversation. There are elements of earned media in every campaign [like social media buzz] and paid media [such as a trailer spot]. We believed this brand had an opportunity to generate some exciting earned media. Some of the decisions we made encouraged this. Then it actually took on a life of its own.
A film of this scope and scale typically costs $100 to $150 million to market. Did you go over budget?
I won’t comment on the budget. The reason people think we’ve spent so much is because it’s so ubiquitous. This is a combination of payment media and the number of partners who have played with us. Because it hit the zeitgeist, it gives the impression that we spend so much. In fact, we responsibly spent money on an event film.
Can you tell us how some of the less obvious partnerships, like Crocs or Progressive Insurance’s Flo, came about?
Some of these were licensing deals with Mattel and others are brands that made their own decisions to be part of the film’s color scheme. Honestly, fashion has jumped on the bandwagon. Brands wanted to be part of it because they saw the film finding its way into culture in such a dynamic way. It no longer became a marketing campaign, but took on the quality of a movement.
How rare is it that so many brands have wanted to work with the studio on a non-franchise film?
I’ve been doing this for 35 years. This is one of the most unique experiences I have ever had.
Who came up with the Malibu Barbie Dreamhouse for rent on Airbnb?
This was an action our team did in partnership with Airbnb. We were partnered with a massive Malibu mansion that underwent a major renovation and was transformed into a contemporary Malibu dream home. They had great aerial shots of it. It was a “dream house” in the Barbie sense, but it was also just an incredible Malibu mansion that had this crazy makeover.
Which less prominent aspect of the campaign did you like the most?
We made a very provocative teaser trailer and posted it [before showings of] Avatar: The Way of Water, which might not be your first thought for a Barbie movie. It included music from 2001: A Space Odyssey as a tribute to the Stanley Kubrick film. It was a bold statement that this film will not be exactly what you think it will be.
Were you concerned that the parody of 2001, a 1968 film, would get beyond the heads of people who actually play with Barbies?
Yes, that was absolutely worrying. We wanted to challenge people. We wanted to do something that makes you think. People were prejudiced. We thought that by shaking it, we could arouse tremendous curiosity.
How did you come up with the different slogans, such as “If you love Barbie, if you hate Barbie, this movie is for you”?
It was a collaboration with our director. It was a thought she had and we refined it with her. We wanted to acknowledge that there are legions of Barbie fans, but that Barbie has a long history and there are people who feel that Barbie is not for them. This was a film that understood and acknowledged that. Look, the word “hate” is a tricky marketing word, and we don’t typically use it. But in this case, the tent allowed people to experience this film and realize that they understood the journey Barbie has been on over the last 45 to 50 years.
How important is TikTok as a marketing resource?
We’ve done promotional work with them, but a lot of it is organic. In a really exciting way, this whole “Barbenheimer” phenomenon led to a series of conversations and engagements. It paid off in the sense that both films reach a climax this weekend.
Someone took a picture of a pink sunset and thanked the Warner Bros. marketing department for their work. I found that quite amusing.
What was it like seeing people dressed and costumed all in pink to see the movie in the cinema?
Wearing pink became a way of acknowledging her connection to film. My wife just got back after taking my 86 year old mother in law to the cinema. She sent me pictures of a sea of pink in the theater. It’s a way to be part of this truly wonderful collective experience.
This interview has been edited and abridged for clarity.