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Value of the Dolls: Unpacking Barbie's Commercial Success

Published August 6, 2023
Published August 6, 2023
Troy Ayala

As Andi Zeisler, author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, said: “As a symbol, Barbie is so complicated as to be useless. But as a vessel, she’s proved remarkably durable.” That vessel has taken on many forms.

Nineties' pop band Aqua sang about being “a Barbie girl in a Barbie world.” Patients on Botched aspire to become human Ken dolls. A certain subset of bimbofication is dedicated to having doll-like, exaggerated features like extremely full lashes, silicone plumped lips and breasts, and tiny cinched waists for an almost surrealist take on beauty. The Barbie aesthetics say the more artificial the better and indulges in this mantra with unapologetic abandon. “Years of corporate feminism, girl bosses and girl power had defanged the second-wave critique; now feminists could look like anything, and some chose to look like Barbie,” writes journalist Willa Paskin.

Drag queen Trixie Mattel not only borrows the brand name for her persona but is an avid collector of the toy and sculpts her face into doll-like features through makeup. “For me, Barbie is super inspiring from a business perspective, but also because—at least, if you’re a collector like me—she is a snapshot of American history. Every single doll was made according to the fashion trends of the time and also served as reflections of the eras,” Mattel says. “When I am coming up with new costumes, I always send pictures of dolls to the designer instead of runway images. Mostly, my style is driven by the Mod Barbies, the Twiggy-inspired dolls in the Pucci minidresses. I grew up poor and went to school for theater and didn’t know anything about fashion, and she was the one who really taught me what head-to-toe dressing was all about.”

Whether it’s beauty aesthetics or movie costume inspirations, the influence of Barbie reaches far and wide. But what exactly makes the doll such an enduring icon of commercial success?

The Power of Pink

Pink, traditionally denotifying femininity, has gained more complexity over the decades. In the beauty realm it has been the driver of brand identities and best-selling product ranges. Millennial pink was part of the Glossier mystique. Schiaparelli pink is a fuchshia as bold as the designer’s surrealist creations, also inspiring the longstanding NARS lipstick shade of the same hue, Schiap. Charlotte Tillbury’s Pillow Talk franchise mutes the shade to a nude pink for the ultimate in soft seduction. No matter the undertone, pink is the ultimate chromatic pick-me-up.

“First came millennial pink, that comforting dusty rose pink that reflected a generational and dual gender nostalgia for the swaddling innocence of childhood. Then the bright pink of the pussy hat pink, a rebellious, in-your-face-pink of feminine protest. And now, Barbie pink, the most artificial, commercialized, almost tacky, unmistakable pink of all,” writes Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic at The New York Times. For as bold as Barbie pink is, it is also polarizing. Diehard pink pursuers will drench themselves in the shade from head-to-toe while naysayers will recoil at the thought. Italian designer Pierpaolo Piccioli has pushed a singular shade of fuchshia know colloquially known as Valentino pink, a haute couture version of Barbie pink, since the Italian fashion house’s Fall/Winter 2022 collection. The legions of outfit pictures across Instagram featuring looks from the collection, including patent platform heels that are as bold in height as they are shades, are hard to ignore.

Pink will catch one’s eye, whether for better or for worse. But the allure of pink feels especially strong in today’s current climate.  "Everywhere you look, Barbie pink is the new black. The retail world is covered in that iconic pink, and I'm here for it. Brightening our world during this permacrisis, Barbie’s shade of magenta pink brings with it a spirit of lightness and levity,” adds Dave Bruno Director of Retail Industry Insights at Aptos Retail. “Tapping into our nostalgia-obsessed society with integrated product collaborations, store experiences, and social media activations—pulled directly from timeless pop culture franchises—makes for a wildly successful output of retail marketing and merchandising strategies at play (pun intended)."

Box Office Gold

Beyond the hues, Barbie’s footing also stands in the cinematic universe. To date there are over 40 animated Barbie movies, but none has garnered as much as the real-life 2023 flick. The movie wasn’t an easy endeavor—it was announced 14 years before its release and took nine years of development. Mattel spent $145 million on the movie’s production and $100 million on marketing. Barbie was directed by Greta Gerwig, whose depictions of female-led storytelling has feminist roots.

“What Mattel, Warner Brothers, and the film’s director Greta Gerwig, have mastered in their marketing of Barbie is a reimagining of a character and a brand we thought we knew and introducing us to a new side, a different side, a side that maybe feels entirely more of what we want to see in this character,” writes Jen Kling, General Brand and Marketing Strategist. Kling highlights the Barbie boom as the sign of a successful rebranding of Barbie from an outdated, superficial, and disempowering figure to one more in line with today’s social constructs and ideals.

The flick has made over $775 million globally in ticket sales to date and had the highest-grossing weekend opening for a female-directed film. Ynon Kreiz, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Mattel, announced plans to turn Barbie from a doll product into a media franchise. Mattel currently has 13 films in the works as part of that media expansion, including a Hot Wheels movie and Lena Dunham-directed Polly Pocket live-action comedy. While worldwide gross earnings from Barbie sales were still down by 6% (at $283 million), Mattel shares rose by 17%. Perhaps the Barbie outside of the box, the brand marketed in cosmetic and fashion collaborations, will outpace the actual product.

“Tapping into our nostalgia-obsessed society with integrated product collaborations, store experiences, and social media activations—pulled directly from timeless pop culture franchises—makes for a wildly successful output of retail marketing and merchandising strategies at play (pun intended)."
By Dave Bruno, Director of Retail Industry Insights, Aptos Retail

Collaborations Galore

One need only look at the releases of recent months to see a huge uptick in Barbie-themed products. The beauty of Barbie collaborations is its cross-category potential, some of which has been streamlined to tinting products in pink; others which have gone all-out with campy over-the-top creations.

Luggage brand Béis released a collection of travel accessories in Barbie pink. Burger King locations in Brazil offered a Barbie bacon cheeseburger with pink sauce. Canada Pooch created branded dog hoodies. FUNBOY released a Pool Float collection. Truly launched Barbie-fied versions of its best-selling body butters and face serums, colored in the doll’s signature shade. Kitsch made rhinestone decorated satin scrunchies. Aldo created holographic, pink strappy sandals with a plastic heart heel. Joybird released a Barbie Dreamhouse-themed furniture collection. Homesick released a Barbie Dreamhouse candle scented with jasmine and pink peony.

NYX created a collection with lip products and cheek as well as pigment palettes in shades of bright pink and pastel blues, not to mention a  Barbie mirror flip phone. As part of its promotion—which garnered the brand 912,000 engagements and 7.86 million video views across over 280 posts from 179 beauty influencers—NYX also did an in-person launch event and Barbie-themed end caps in Ulta. Across the board, influencer marketing platform Traackr spotlighted an uptick in Barbie-themed content, posted by over 680 beauty influencers between July 3 and July 9, which gathered more than 79 million video views and 10.5 million engagements.

Emily Alders, Director of Education at Sola Salons, is seeing a huge surge in demand for Barbie-inspired looks on the professional services front. "Anytime a trend influenced by Hollywood hits social media we feel it in the beauty industry. Nail technicians across the industry have seen all shades of pink in high demand with Barbiecore sweeping social media, especially hot and pale pinks," she explains, "Our hairstylists always see an increase in blonding services during the summer months, the trend has increased that demand. Our blonde clients are no longer asking for the icy look but leaning into the more neutral, slightly golden hues to give their hair that iconic Barbie shine." Alders sees these aesthetic trends to continue into fall, long after the Barbie movie hype has died down.

“An element of nostalgia—something shoppers always crave— is surrounding the Barbie movie, as it touches most people’s childhoods in one way or another. Mattel has modernized that nostalgia in a wealth of wise collaborations across many different categories and brands, bringing Barbie back to a range of different demographics and age ranges,” Wizz Selvey, founder and CEO of strategy agency WIZZ&CO, tells BeautyMatter. “This partnership with Barbie is gold dust; bringing a far wider reach for many brands and retailer’s products, as well as new customers onto their website and mailing lists in order to gather data and capture their attention for the future. That customer acquisition opportunity is the really big point. From a marketing strategy point of view, Barbie will help elevate brands towards this ‘cultural moment,' giving them a temporary higher status.” Selvey notes that most brands will have done a limited production run to tie into the short-term buzz around the movie. Alders adds: "There is a playfulness and carefree attitude that comes with the Barbie brand. Consumers love the beauty piece of any trend, changing your nail color or styling your hair a certain way is an easy, noncommittal, and affordable way to feel connected to the masses through a trend. It creates inclusion." 

Others are more critical of the hype and point out the contradiction of Barbie’s new image with the ideologies being peddled by a flawless female archetype. “If the Barbie production ‘speaks directly to women … about the impossibility of perfection,’ as the New York Times Magazine insists, its products speak directly to women about the importance of attempting it anyway,” journalist Jessica Defino writes. “The only ironic thing about Barbie beauty is the amount of planet- and people-poisoning plastic being produced to promote a project that de-plasticizes its main character in order to emphasize the preciousness of human life.”

Barbie 2.0 is full of contradictions no doubt. Even in the realm of the make-believe, beauty standards prevail. But for some consumers, despite the legacy of artificial aesthetics the doll represents, the simple fun factor reigns supreme. In a world increasingly marked by political upheaval and social discontent, escapism is still a powerful panacea.


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