‘Barbie’ Marketing Leader on How Warner Bros. Got All Eyes on the Doll

Unless you’ve been trapped in a plastic toy box, there’s no escaping the Barbie-core movement that’s sweeping the globe — and potentially contributing a nationwide shortage of the color pink.

The marketing department at Warner Bros. has been working in overdrive to entice the masses for Greta Gerwig’s cotton candy-colored fantasy “Barbie,” which has been all but inescapable this summer. A key factor has been a dizzying array of partnerships with products that range from a bright fuchsia Xbox (for STEM Barbie) to this $1,350 Balmain cropped hoodie (for Disposable Income Barbie).

And that’s only scratching the surface of the brands that helped propel the movie to cultural touchstone status before arriving in theaters on July 21. In Malibu, there’s a real-life Barbie Dreamhouse that’s bookable through Airbnb. There’s also a themed boat cruise that’s setting sail in the Boston area.

The efforts of the extensive and expensive marketing campaign — which rival studio executives estimate to cost $150 million, not including the $145 million production budget — are already paying off.

“Barbie,” starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as life-size versions of the popular Mattel dolls, crushed box office expectations with $165 million in North America and a stunning $337 million globally. With the help of “Oppenheimer,” which debuted to $80.5 million, this weekend boasted the biggest collective box office turnout of the pandemic era, as well as the fourth-biggest in history. It’s an especially big deal at a time when Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford have struggled to save the box office.

In wake of its record-breaking debut, Warner Bros. president of global marketing Josh Goldstine spoke to Variety about the buzzy memes, must-have costumes and “Barbenheimer” phenomenon that led to this summer’s very pink smash hit.

When did you start to notice the “Barbie” marketing was resonating in a big way?

We had a lot of internal discussions about “What’s the right first piece of material?” and “When is the timing of it? How much of the story should we give away?” Each time we released something, the movie was getting to a new level of engagement in the culture.

The first electric moment was at CinemaCon in 2022. We put out a single image of Barbie in her Corvette in Barbieland. It was one of those moments that took on a life of its own. About a month later, they were shooting in Santa Monica and we knew people were going to be able to take pictures on the street of Margot and Ryan in their multi-color Dayglow outfits on the beach. We started to see the material electrify the culture.

Pink was a big part of the campaign. How did you decide to lean into that color palette?

Barbie Pink has been such a part of the brand. This movie has a wonderful girl-power element, and pink became the color of the movie. We saw it start to resonate in the culture very early in the long process. The concept of Barbie-core coming to life in fashion kept going. It didn’t have its moment; it sustained and kept growing and growing with the movie.

How much of the marketing was manufactured and how much took off organically?

We saw it as a breadcrumb strategy, where we gave people little elements of the movie to stimulate curiosity and that created conversation. In every campaign, there are elements of earned media [like social media buzz] and paid media [such as a trailer spot]. We believed this brand had the opportunity to generate some exciting earned media. Some of the choices we made stimulated that. Then it did totally take on a life of its own.

A movie of this scope and scale usually costs $100 million to $150 million to market. Did you go over budget?

I won’t comment on the budget. The reason people think we spent so much is that it’s so ubiquitous. That’s a combination of paid media and how many partners came to play with us. Because it pierced the zeitgeist, it has the impression that we spend so much. In fact, we spent responsibly for an event movie.

Can you talk about how some of the less-obvious partnerships, like Crocs or Flo from Progressive Insurance, came together?

Some of those were licensing deals with Mattel and some are brands that made their own decisions to be part of the color schema of the movie. Fashion, frankly, jumped onto the bandwagon. Brands wanted to become part of this because they saw the film was finding its way into culture in such a dynamic way. It stopped becoming a marketing campaign and took on the quality of a movement.

How rare is it that so many brands wanted to partner with the studio on a non-franchise movie?

I’ve been doing this for 35 years. This is one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had.

Who came up with the Malibu Barbie Dreamhouse for rent on Airbnb?

That was a promotion our team did working with Airbnb. We had a partnership with a giant mansion in Malibu that was given a massive makeover and turned into a modern-day Malibu Dreamhouse. They had great aerial photography of it. It was a “Dreamhouse” in the Barbie sense of the word, but it was also just an incredible Malibu mansion that got this crazy makeover.

What was your favorite less-flashy aspect of the campaign?

We did a very provocative teaser trailer and put it [before showings of] “Avatar: The Way of Water” which is maybe not your first thought for a “Barbie” movie. It had music from “2001: A Space Odyssey” in an homage to the Stanley Kubrick film. It made a bold statement that this movie isn’t going to be exactly what you think it is.

Were you concerned that parodying “2001,” which is a film that was released in 1968, would go over the heads of people who actually play with Barbies?

Yes, that was absolutely a concern. We wanted to challenge people. We wanted to make something thought-provoking. People had preconceptions. We thought that, by shaking them, we could create a tremendous amount of curiosity.

How did you come up with the various taglines, like “If you love Barbie, if you hate Barbie, this movie is for you”?

That was a collaboration with our director. It was a thought that she had and we refined it with her. We wanted to recognize there were legions of Barbie fans, but that Barbie had quite a history and there are people who felt like Barbie wasn’t for them. This was a movie that understood that and was acknowledging it. Listen, the word “hate” is a tricky word for marketing and we don’t usually use it. But in this case, it allowed the tent of people to experience this movie and to realize that it understood the journey that Barbie has been on for the last 45 to 50 years.

How important is TikTok as a marketing resource?

We did promotional work with them, but a tremendous amount is organic. In a really exciting way, this whole “Barbenheimer” phenomenon created a series of conversations and engagements. It’s paid off in the sense that both movies are hitting the high side this weekend.

Have you seen the memes and jokes about the relentlessness of the “Barbie” marketing team?

Someone took a picture of a pink sunset and thanked the work of the Warner Bros. marketing department. I thought that was pretty amusing.

What has it been like to see people decked out in pink and dressed up in costumes to watch the movie in theaters?

Wearing pink became a way of acknowledging their connection to the movie. My wife just came back from taking my 86-year-old mother-in-law to the movie. She was sending me pictures of a sea of pink in the theater. It’s a way of being part of this really wonderful collective experience.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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