Arts and Humanities Business

Multifaceted marketing gives ‘Barbenheimer’ top billing

Claudia Townsend, associate professor of marketing in the Miami Herbert Business School weighs in on the blockbuster roll out of the “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” movies that scored massive success at the box office.
From left, Gabrielle Roitman, Kayla Seffing, Maddy Hiller and Casey Myer take a selfie in front of an "Oppenheimer" movie poster before they attended an advance screening of "Barbie," Thursday, July 20, 2023, at AMC The Grove 14 theaters in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Moviegoers take a selfie in front of an "Oppenheimer" movie poster before they attended a screening of "Barbie" at AMC The Grove 14 theaters in Los Angeles. Photo: The Associated Press

In a dazzling showcase of movie marketing mastery, the much-anticipated summer movie releases of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” shattered expectations for the film industry, transforming an opening weekend into an unprecedented blockbuster phenomenon. 

Combining the charm of a beloved doll with the captivating story of a visionary physicist, the two films broke records worldwide. Their rise to box office record-breaking numbers—“Barbie” pulling in $155 million and “Oppenheimer” making $82.4 million in their opening weekends—can be attributed to innovative and multifaceted marketing strategies. 

Claudia Townsend, associate professor of marketing in the University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School, weighed in on the perfect storm that touted massive success in the theater by addressing some queries about the movies and their marketing strategies.

The release of Barbie and Oppenheimer, or “Barbenheimer,” as social media dubs the films, has had tremendous success. Why such a phenomenon?

It’s pretty interesting; usually, big movies do not try to release on the same day. Universal was coming out with “Oppenheimer” and Warner Brothers was coming out with “Barbie.” At first it was a question of which movie studio was going to change the date of release. Neither of them backed down. However, from a marketing point of view, that made sense. This is an example of counter-programming. One of the essential ideas of marketing is that a product, in this case a movie, has a target audience. And other products that may be in the same category but not going after the same target audience are not really competing with you. “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” are a great example of this as they have very different target audiences. And so, that meant that these movies really aren’t competing. Barbie’s audience is mostly female, and mostly younger, with 75 percent being younger than age 29. Oppenheimer’s audience is mostly male, and skews to an older clientele. The movies aren’t competing because they really aren’t going after the same people. Given this, it’s OK for them to release on the same day. But then, because they’re both such big movies with huge marketing budgets behind them, it actually created a moment and created a phenomenon, where the two movies together are bigger than the sum of their parts. So, by creating this Barbenheimer phenomenon, people are now talking about going to see both movies. You’re getting people who might have just seen “Barbie” also going to “Oppenheimer,” and people who might have only seen “Oppenheimer” also going to “Barbie.”

And then there’s this additional effect, which is to say, since COVID-19, the movie theaters have been desperate to get people back inside. There was this first moment around “Top Gun” that was kind of the first big movie after COVID-19, where consumers were going to the movie theaters in large numbers. And again, that was because there was this cultural moment around it. And now Barbenheimer is doing that again. People want to be a part of the conversation. Not only are people watching the movies, but they’re not waiting to see them at home. So, really, it’s kind of this perfect storm.

A nostalgia factor may have driven audiences to see “Top Gun.” What kind of factors are driving the fan craze behavior for these two films?

“Barbie” is the bigger movie for two reasons. First is that the marketing budget behind it was much bigger. “Oppenheimer,” while it is a big blockbuster movie and it’s got a lot of marketing behind it, is potentially benefiting more from being associated with “Barbie.”

Second, like “Top Gun,” the success of “Barbie” will be in part due to nostalgia. “Barbie” is a good example of where much of the film industry is focusing its attention right now. Movies are expensive and studios are investing in movies that have a preexisting built-in audience. That’s why you see the Marvel movies or other movies using characters that already have a built-in fan base. Barbie is a global brand. Everyone knows Barbie. But what’s interesting about “Barbie” is that, while people have strong feelings about Barbie, not everyone loves Barbie.

There has been generations of people saying, “I don't know if I want my daughter playing with Barbie.” The movie has done a really good job of addressing that. The movie couldn’t be about how great Barbie is. It also couldn’t just be bashing Barbie. It manages to thread the needle. The movie is really kind of upholding Barbie and what she stands for, but also addressing why people may not like her. Particularly for females, everyone knows about her and has some relationship with her. More often than not these days, we see movies being made where the studios can count on an audience going because there’s some history there. It’s very similar to the reason movie studios want to put a big-name star in their film. The star draws an audience. Barbie is a really big celebrity.

What kind of tactics did they use, especially on social media, that drove this craziness that movie marketers will probably look to emulate moving forward?

You wouldn’t be crazy to think that Barbie is a lifestyle brand. Meaning that right now, Barbie is in fashion, Barbie is in makeup, Barbie is in décor, Barbie is in travel. Right now, Barbie owns the color pink.

I think the marketing lesson is probably less about the movie but more about what you can do with a product and a moment. Along with the huge marketing budget behind this movie there was already this built-in base of understanding who Barbie is and what she stands for. There’s so much more to it than the movie when we see brands coming out with pink clothing or Barbie makeup. They’re referencing the movie because of the moment but they’re also referencing the bigger brand and the doll.

Is there anything else you want to add about the roll out of these movies and the significant impact that it has had on the movie industry? 

We should consider Mattel’s role. The “Barbie” movie comes out of the toy company’s new film division. By creating this movie, the Barbie IP is now so much more valuable. What they have done has been enormously effective. Barbie is having a cultural moment and the meaning of Barbie is currently bigger than the actual product. This is marketing gold.

I think from the marketing perspective what’s interesting here is that Mattel has done something really difficult. We talked about brand positioning and what a brand stands for. Repositioning a brand is very difficult. Right now, Mattel is revamping and repositioning Barbie, without losing her original identity. She had this original identity of being pretty and pink but also kind of unattainable and potentially making people feel bad about themselves. I think what happened here was that Mattel really listened to the consumer, who for years had been kind of unhappy with Barbie. And Mattel tried to address the shortcomings of the product with the movie. In doing so, Mattel repositioned the brand. Barbie now has been repositioned to be a kind of feminist icon, and that's difficult to do. Reinventing a brand is incredibly difficult. That’s something that requires not just money, but great strategy. And it seems like they’ve been able to do that.