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Why you don’t need big Barbie-size PR budgets to get big Barbie-like results

You may be one of the few people who didn’t watch the Barbie movie this summer, but there is no way you can have missed its massive marketing campaign. We ask PRs whether it was just spending big bucks that helped Barbie to stand out and what other brands can learn about achieving maximum exposure even in present times, when money is tight.

Take a channel-specific approach

Renate van der Wal, director at PR firm TEAM LEWIS UK: “It’s a comms professional’s dream to work with budgets that allow for wild activations and big stunts. But delivering value for any client needs to be central to what we do. Thinking about the ROI of activations to ensure every pound of spend translates to business impact should be every agency’s priority.

“A tailored channel-specific approach that speaks to your audience personas can be equally effective. What the Barbie campaign has done well is letting both consumers and brands create their own content. In turn, boosting brand awareness organically. One thing that Barbie-mania has shown, is that targeting your audience with relevant storytelling is the key to success. Plus a dust of pink magic of course.”

Tactics, execution and creativity are key

Dani Andres, associate director at agency AMBITIOUS PR: "Obviously, money plays a part, and you need some level of budget to put where your mouth is, but no, multi-million-pound purse strings are not necessary. Ultimately, it’s the tactics, execution and creativity that unlock the real gain.

“The success of the Barbie marketing monolith comes down to three things - strategic partnerships that spill the brand into multiple touchpoints across various audience groups, creating collective opportunities that fuel organic, user-generated buzz, and finally, insanely strong visuals.

“And nothing has been done just for face value. Almost everything has allowed interactivity with the brand. From one-of-a-kind experiences, like a stay in the Malibu dream house to the Barbie Selfie Generator, everyone has been able to jump on the bandwagon so the campaign could organically take off on its own.

“Ultimately creating a series of shared, collective experiences that perfectly capture the zeitgeist - allowing people to feel seen, feel proud and embrace their individuality."

You must tap into unique experiences of audiences

Bekki Bushnell, associate director at PR firm Whiteoaks International: “Warner Bros worked out what its audience wanted with strategic planning and centred its Barbie marketing campaign on the emotion of nostalgia. Suffice to say it worked. Barbie landed the biggest debut of the year with takings of $155 million. Of course, the deep pockets of a Hollywood heavyweight helped to bring the campaign to fruition, but there are a few lessons that other businesses (both the B2B and B2C) can take from its success.

“The key is to smartly allocate spend on creative and strategic campaigns that tap into the multi-dimensional human experience. The most effective PR endeavours across B2B and B2C are integrated across digital, creative, content and media and aligned to goals, but they also tap into the unique experiences of their target audience. For example, fintech companies targeting finance managers might identify that these key individuals know they must manage budgets more effectively and need a 360-degree view of corporate spend to be able to do so. But what really sits behind that? Perhaps it’s a want to close the laptop earlier in the evenings and spend more time with their family; maybe it’s a desire to position the finance department as more of a strategic hub and gain a seat on the board or maybe they’re simply bored of staring at disparate spreadsheets and want to focus on the more mentally stimulating parts of their role. The campaigns that most resonate with them will tap into these emotional, logical and moral drivers, positioning the company as one they can identify with - a company that understands the challenges and feelings of a finance manager as a whole person rather than a job title.”

Invest time early on

Chloe Walden, associate director of PR agency spider: “The old adage is ‘money cannot buy happiness’ and likewise, money cannot buy success. Throwing money at any communications campaign will get you exposure in the sense you might be on every bus in the city, or billboards around the world, but it doesn’t necessarily mean people will pay attention to what you’re saying. PR is - and always has been - about working smart and working hard to communicate with a target audience, no matter how big or small, and creating a connection.

“It’s undeniable the spend behind the recent Barbie film was astronomical and the success has followed. But when you dig beyond the millions of dollars invested, there have been some truly clever and hardworking elements which have created connections across the ages - from strategic collaborations to reach a new audience, to effective messaging which has tapped into the nostalgia of grown-up Barbie fans.

“What the Babie movie also had on its side was time. Time to build a campaign, create word-of-mouth excitement and generate organic buzz. Too often, PR and comms isn’t considered in the early planning stages and instead is an add on or afterthought. The Barbie movie success is real-life proof that allowing for time to build a multifaceted approach will have the most impact. This can be achieved no matter how big or small a budget and across all industries and disciplines, whether it’s Mattel/Barbie wanting to drive people to see the new movie and ultimately spend on the merchandise and at the box office, or a business wanting to position itself as the leading software provider in its field. PR success doesn’t happen overnight, we need time to create layers of clever messaging and hard-working content, drive word of mouth, and ultimately make people sit up and pay attention.”

You need to focus on influencers

Rida Oyebade, influencer marketing and social media consultant, at agency ROC Digital: “Thanks to social and digital platforms, reaching mass audiences is now more accessible. Brands no longer require hundreds of millions of dollars to be seen by their target demographic. Investing in a comprehensive, 360-degree campaign is an effective way to touch on multiple touchpoints. This can be amplified through partnerships with influencers or advocates, who can extend your message through various mediums. For instance, when you collaborate with influential creators for your campaign, incorporating them into your press release can broaden your reach and take your collabs further than just a grid post. Engaging several influencers within specific community clusters simultaneously can also generate a significant impact, driving substantial buzz. According to a 2020 study by MediaKix, 89% of marketers found the ROI from influencer marketing comparable to or better than other marketing channels. So it's not always about spending more, but rather spending wisely.”

Find a message that brings everyone together

Sara McCorquodale, CEO and founder of digital agency CORQ: "Barbie has brought together Gen Alpha, Gen Z, their millennial and Gen X parents, and their Boomer grandparents by giving them an experience rooted in a cultural icon they all have a personal story about. The fact it’s a cross-generational brand has been reflected in the marketing and communications. For example, getting in the Barbie box at cinemas is a shared and shareable experience. It's a laugh - a moment of joy - which allows consumers to capture content for social or just send a picture to friends on WhatsApp. So many campaigns want consumers to engage with the world's issues, Barbie just wants everyone to have fun and makes it easy to get involved. Obviously, a huge budget helps, but this campaign has been so robust because pretty much everyone understood that message. I really think that's the learning when it comes to Barbie."

Integrated campaigns can work wonders

Shalon Kerr, founder of healthcare PR firm, PR-it: “In the marketing realm, most brands can't match Scrooge McDuck's vault of cash like Barbie did - 100+ partnerships? A $100 million+ budget? Is she running her own country now? It's like Mattel is competing with the GDP of some small nations.

“But budget isn't all. It's creative magic and flawless execution that brought Barbie success. Whilst most brands lack her bank account (sigh), integrated campaigns can still work wonders. The more creative, the higher the potential for earned media coverage, visibility, and a high return on investment (ROI).

“Instead of waiting years to cultivate a hundred partnerships like Barbie, brands can leverage influencers and creators in integrated campaigns (regardless of sector). They boost brands quickly and cost-effectively, outperforming paid placements. For instance, a recent PR-it influencer campaign delivered 764% ROI, due to the novel creative strategy.

“Soon, Google will prioritise influencer and creator content (alongside earned media) in searches, making this PR tactic even more critical for marketing success.”

Money helps, but you must to go viral

Leah Archibald, digital PR lead at performance marketing and development agency, Herd: “To put it plainly, having a big budget around PR and marketing undoubtedly helps campaigns thrive. From preparation to execution, it’s no surprise the Barbie marketing team successfully created ‘Barbie mania’. But I don’t think it’s fair to give all the kudos to their marketing efforts.

“We don’t need to run over why the Barbie doll may have captured the hearts of millions over 60 years, (and thanks to Greta Gerwig, not even Gen Z is safe from the Barbie bonanza) but I think 2023’s movie triumph was greatly inspired by trend. The whole ploy was great, using CGI, AI and social media to paint the web pink, is a cost-effective way of executing ideas on a budget. But I can’t help but think that it was the ‘band wagon’ of societal influence that really made it take off.

“The puppet masters behind it were clever in knowing what tactics or materials would go viral, and it wasn’t just a single PR team behind it. Right down to Margot Robbie’s outfit choices through the screenings, it isn’t a coincidence that people all over the world were rummaging through their wardrobes to find their pinkest, most Barbie-fied clobber to wear to the movie. That doesn’t cost a penny for the protagonist.

However, the great investment into dozens of brands (some questionably unrelated to Barbie’s audience or Mattel’s brand) couldn’t have been done without paying the price. From XBOX consoles to collabs with clothing and cosmeceutical brands like Gap and NYX, the iconic logo is everywhere. Even if you don’t like Barbie or have a desire to watch the film, there’s no escaping that and that’s good marketing. They say you have to see a brand six times before you remember it, well, does this mean that the Barbie brand is permanently burned into our brains for generations to come?

“Again, how many brands jumped onto the bandwagon when they saw the shiny success of their competitors having their name in glitter alongside Barbie’s?

“Overall, I think money helps, a lot. But it can easily be eaten up by poorly planned marketing campaigns that don’t know their audiences and the general landscape of the media. In this day and age, the bottom line is: No matter how big, bold, expensive or meticulously strategic any campaign or PR tactic is - if it doesn’t create a domino effect of followers/copy-cats on the internet, it won’t work. You essentially have to rely on your brand going ‘viral’, for it to work.”

Times may be hard but you should still invest in PR

Mike Maynard, managing director of integrated agency Napier: “Of course brands could miss out if they don’t invest much in PR. But most brands are not the Barbie movie, especially the deep tech B2B brands that represent our clients.

“Big companies can't spend money just because it will drive short-term profits. Investors - read people who can fire the CEO - see the tough times as an opportunity to increase efficiencies, which could result in greater benefits in the long term. Of course, this isn’t ideal as it leads to inefficient cycles of relatively free and highly restricted spending, but nobody is perfect.

“And Barbie? Well she’s all about fashion. There is a short window to make money at the box office, which means that decisions about her PR are completely different. Even so, brands should consider taking the opportunity to grab massive increases in share of voice as competitors cut back. So, let’s go party!”

Third-party endorsement really helps in B2B

Richard Cook, managing director of agency Champion Comms: “This is one of those times when investing in PR is essential for B2B brands.

“B2B buyers are faced with unique challenges. Post pandemic problems ranging from economic turbulence, political instability and supply chain challenges have made decision making for B2B buyers incredibly complex. The sales model has changed from meetings, pitches and presentations to email and online conversations.

“B2B businesses are facing challenges, naturally cautious and do not know where to turn or who to trust.

“Third party endorsement from analysts, journalists and peer groups is particularly powerful in terms of generating validation, credibility and trust. Advertising, events and SEO/PPC may still be useful, but in a paranoid, panicking, risk averse world, the power of good PR, used properly as a sales enablement tool, cannot be overstated.”

Summer may be drawing to a close now (what summer I hear you ask?), but the impact of the Barbie movie is hard to forget. Let’s hope the autumn brings some more campaigns that capture everyone’s imagination and fingers crossed that these are campaigns YOU have worked on!

Read Andy Barr’s take on Barbie in this Good and Bad PR column.

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