In And Out Of Barbieland: 5 Leadership Lessons From The Barbie Phenomenon

The Barbie movie is a runaway success, and everyone is jumping on the shiny pink wagon that Mattel, Warner Bros. Discovery, Greta Gerwig, and company have constructed. Even business pundits are getting in on the act, with every writer and columnist looking for an angle to tie in with the Margot Robbie-led juggernaut.

So what does Barbie have to say, if anything, to today’s thought-leaders?

As it turns out, there are several lessons to be learned, not just from the movie but in the making and marketing of it, in the story of Barbie and her creator and parent company, and in the movie itself. Here are a few of them.

1. Real thought leaders take risks (but have the data to back it up).

Barbie’s creator Ruth Handler was an entrepreneur from the start, turning her husband Elliot’s furniture-making into a business and co-founding Mattel. When World War II broke out the company switched to manufacturing toy furniture. Inspired by a German doll called Bild Lilli, Handler redesigned the doll with an inventor-designer and unveiled the newfangled Barbie at the 1959 American International Toy Fair. An instant hint, the doll sold 351,000 units in the first year. Handler, who served as Mattel’s president from 1945-1975, not only embraced risk, but was data-driven and understood who the true consumers of her product were—children, not adults. Her innovation, tenacity and far-sightedness created a doll, a brand, and a company that have lasted six decades. (Note: in 1978 she was charged by the SEC with a variety of white-collar crimes, including fraud and false reporting. She was fined and served community service.)

2. Audiences respond to creativity, not corporate talking points.

Mattel and Warner Bros. Discovery, the studio behind the movie, backed an unusual choice for director. Prior to landing the $128m-budget blockbuster, Greta Gerwig was known for low-key character dramas like Lady Bird ($10m) and Little Women ($40m). Gerwig wrote the screenplay with her partner Noah Baumbach, whose most recent movie was a challenging take on Don DeLillo’s postmodern novel White Noise. The companies’ willingness to take a chance on creatives with critical acclaim but little blockbuster experience has paid off big-time, with a smart, self-aware and gently subversive product that has propelled Barbie to the top of the box-office—and the cultural conversation.

3. A ‘warts-and-all approach’ boosts legitimacy and credibility.

The movie doesn’t shy away from mentioning Mattel’s failed products, outdated thinking and even the founder’s tax issues. And, of course, the doll itself has faced criticisms, such as its anatomically impossible body, which are also addressed in the movie. By allowing a warts-and-all portrait, Mattel increases its brand authenticity.

4. Personal branding is ubiquitous and inescapable — so be intentional about it.

Barbie (the movie) is about nothing if it’s not branding, both by its very existence and through some of the issues the main doll, er, character, faces when she leaves Barbieland for the real world. Who is Barbie if she’s not a smiling, carefree plaything? The movie seeks to answer these questions, forcing the character to face change and decide who she is and what she represents outside of her candy-pink, hermetically sealed world. Business leaders too need to ask who and what they represent, especially in a changing world.

5. Tap into broader cultural conversations.

What could have been a huge misfire and pop-culture joke (remember Mac and Me, the 1988 McDonald’s commercial masquerading as an ET rip-off?) is instead a phenomenon that is being embraced by a broad demographic, from Baby Boomers to Gen-Zers. The reasons for this are numerous, but include the film’s appeal to nostalgia, its clever social media marketing campaign, and its nods to diversity and inclusion through, among other things, a thoughtfully crafted ensemble cast. Business leaders to can learn from the movie’s cross-generational appeal, multi-tiered marketing campaign, and cultural knowingness.

Sign up for The Helm Newsletter!

Latest Posts