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What marketers need to learn from breakthrough brand IP like Barbie, Nike, Super Mario Bros. for 2024

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This editorial series examines industry trends across the media, media buying and marketing sectors as 2023 closes and the new year begins. More from the series →

Barbie was an undeniable global sensation this year — not only did the movie rake in an impressive $1.4 billion during its theatrical run but its seemingly endless brand licensing deals made the brand ubiquitous. It’s no surprise, of course, that following its success this past summer, marketers have been asking agency executives, “Where’s our Barbie moment?”

It wasn’t just Barbie. Movies about or inspired by brands like Nike, Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Beanie Babies, Tetris, Blackberry and more rolled out this year, making it clear that the use of brands’ intellectual property (IP) to create entertainment was certainly a major trend throughout 2023. While that will continue next year as marketers and agency execs continue to push for ways their brands can break through and become part of culture, the zeitgeist moment of Barbie is likely the exception rather than a soon-to-be norm.

“There will be no successful copy and paste of Barbie next year,” said Matt Kissane, global executive director at brand consultancy Landor. “I don’t think that the next so-called ‘Barbie Moment,’ the great transformational moment that we’re going to see, is going to be because a brand simply rinses and repeats the formula. Realistically, what we’re going to see are different kinds of approaches that learn from different parts of the Barbie strategy.”

As marketers dissect the success of Barbie to figure out how the strategy — or at least some parts of it — can be applied to their brands, there will need to be a recognition that Mattel stuck with its plan for a movie based on its Barbie brand despite many false starts. Over the last decade, stars like Amy Schumer and Anne Hathaway were at one point attached to the project before those versions fizzled out. It took years of investment to pull together the right script and creative team that led to Barbie’s massive cultural moment. Brands’ short-term focus will likely hinder the potential for a brand to replicate what Barbie has done. 

“Creative development sometimes takes years for big projects like this,” said Winston Binch, chief brand and experience officer at creative shop Gale. “Most businesses are evaluated on a quarter-to-quarter basis, and no matter the category, there’s typically pressure to drive sales today. That often comes at the expense of longer-term brand-building activities. Unless it can be done with minimal marketing investment, initiatives like this are difficult to get across the line.” 

That’s not to say that marketers won’t try to use brand IP — the myriad brand movies this year make clear the variety and potential for brand stories to capture audiences’ attention — but that few will invest in the way that’s needed to truly become part of culture. Marketers who are able to get the long-term investment necessary to have a brand IP moment may find success.

Investment, be that in time or budget, wasn’t the only reason Barbie made waves. The broad appeal of the brand’s history allowed it to “leverage nostalgia to appeal to multi-generational consumers,” noted Abbey Klaassen, CEO of Dentsu Creative in the U.S. “Barbie is longstanding IP and has been a cultural phenomenon for decades, yet it has extremely strong brand and cultural penetration,” Klaassen added.

As marketers consider using brand IP, it will be necessary to recognize that “IP that has multi-generational appeal is powerful because your marketing is just working so much harder,” explained Klaassen. “It’s easier for that IP to break into the broader zeitgeist — going beyond niche.”

The broad appeal and longevity of the Barbie brand as well as the continued investment in the strategy certainly helped the brand understand what it needed to say and how it wanted to go about saying it. Marketers clamoring for their own Barbie moment need to understand their brands and what they want to say using brand IP rather than simply looking to use it and say something simply for the sake of doing so.

“When it’s successful, we think of this as brand-inspired content and that’s why I think Barbie was,” said Ross Martin, president of indie shop Known, who added that, of the shop’s roughly 75 clients, some 40 or so called asking about a Barbie moment this year. Marketers need to know, “‘What does this brand stand for? And what kind of stories does that inspire?’ That is a real lesson from 2023,” Martin said.

Laura Jones, chief strategy officer at BAV Group, echoed that sentiment: “A brand needs to know where it sits, what its relative strength is, and really get firmly rooted in its values in what it wants to bring [to be able to do brand IP well],” Jones said.

There’s no one way to use brand IP, either, according to marketers and agency execs, who said that it won’t always be a movie or series. 

“When we think about how to partner with IP-holders, we need to bring those partnerships to life in interesting ways and not be afraid to push the limits of what ‘we would normally do,’” said Marc Simons, co-founder of creative shop Giant Spoon. “A willingness to break the mold (even in a certain budget range) is how all of these conversations should start.”

Breaking out of that mold will vary by brand. It won’t always be as massive as Barbie, but marketers who are willing to put in the investment and get outside of their comfort zones are likely to find success.

“The thing about brand IP is it shouldn’t be done in any one way,” said Jesse Unger, head of strategy at Mother in Los Angeles. “The approach to it should be, I believe in the power of collaborations, the power of fandoms. ‘We think there’s an interesting connection between this brand and our brand.’ That should be enough for you to step in the door and then know that the idea needs to be built in collaboration. Or even letting fandom itself take part in it because the minute you do, the minute they do, they’re far more bought into whatever it is that your brand is saying or selling.”

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