From Barbie to Pop Tarts, how brands became the new Hollywood stars

Chief executives are turning to the power of film to extract more value from their businesses’ intellectual property, but will it work?
Brands In Film. Cinema showing Barbie, Mattel, Pop Tarts Unfrosted, Tetris

It is almost impossible to escape the bright pink posters signalling the imminent release of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie. The film represents the Mattel doll’s first live-action film appearance and has successfully captured the cultural zeitgeist as millennials flock to post their best Barbie-inspired outfits on TikTok (videos featuring the Barbiecore hashtag have more than 570 million views).

The buzz that the film has generated is no coincidence – Mattel’s Barbie division has spent $100m on marketing this year, according to Media Radar. It also marks the first major step in the company’s business transformation from toy maker to an intellectual property-driven outfit.

This new vision for the business was set out by Ynon Kreiz, who became Mattel’s CEO in 2018. The year prior, the company had made an operating loss of more than $339m and the bankruptcy of Toys ‘R’ Us was cited in Mattel’s financial results as having had a “significant impact” on its revenue. In response, Kreiz’s long-term strategy shifted away from retail and towards capturing the “full value of Mattel’s IP through franchise management”. 

In essence, Mattel set out to breathe new life into its popular roster of brands, which alongside Barbie includes Hot Wheels, Thomas & Friends and Uno. And it wants to do this by translating them to the big screen and in the process capturing a new audience.

This Barbie is a marketing machine

The idea is not revolutionary, as Sharon Price John, the current CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop and director of Mattel’s Barbie division from 1994 to 1999, notes: “The intersection of entertainment and the toy industry has been happening for years.” However, a cursory glance down the list of upcoming box-office releases suggests this strategy is undergoing a resurgence.

Mattel alone has 45 films based on its IP in development. These include a horror-themed Magic 8 Ball movie, a “surrealistic” project based on the purple dinosaur Barney, a heist flick based on the game Uno and a JJ Abrams-produced Hot Wheels film. Lego is working on a third Lego movie and, following the box office success of Dungeons and Dragons, Hasbro has films based on its GI Joe, Beyblade, Monopoly, Action Man, Furby and Cluedo brands in development. 

Brands are realising that if they can get people to spend 90 minutes with their IP while watching a movie, it could have a really positive effect on sales

“The intertwining of storytelling and toys is pretty fundamental,” says John, who also worked at Hasbro in the 2000s when the business first went through a similar pivot with the release of the robot-battling blockbuster Transformers. “But one of the things that has created this recent resurgence is the decline of traditional advertising methods for toys.”

Where once toy companies could reach a guaranteed audience through TV adverts during Saturday morning cartoons, younger audiences’ attention is now split between video games, social media, YouTube and other video-on-demand services. “The industry seeks to create that one-to-one relationship with children and one of the few ways to continue to do that is through the creation of its own content,” she adds.

Another factor influencing this trend is the growing adult market for toys. “By opening up its IP to Hollywood, Mattel is playing heavily into the strength of nostalgia among a generation of adults that used to buy its products,” says Zoe Scaman, founder of brand strategy studio Bodacious, which works with businesses to open up their IP to new audiences and revenue opportunities. 

“These brands are realising that if they can get people to spend 90 minutes with their IP while watching a movie, it could have a really positive effect on sales.”

Funding a shift to films

That is not to say the shift is easy. The cost of producing a feature film with a full line-up of Hollywood A-listers, akin to Barbie, is prohibitively expensive for most companies. But there are ways to structure deals or arrange payments that can help mitigate this. 

Barbie Mattel Products
Mattel has launched a number of new products to coincide with the release of Barbie

“The approach that different companies may take is determinant of its success as an ad tool to drive sales,” John adds. “This can allow you to recoup the upfront cost on the increased margin of product sales you make as a result.” 

Build-A-Bear Workshop released Honey Girls, a film based on its popular range of girl band-themed stuffed animals, alongside Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions in 2021. And the positive impact it’s had at the checkout has been noticeable. 

The average transaction value at one of its retail stores is around $50, whereas for purchases that include a Honey Girls-themed product, this can rise to $100, John claims. “I can only say it’s a high correlation, but it would be odd if the movie release hadn’t had anything to do with the fact that our dollar-per-transaction nearly doubled,” she says.

Nintendo has also noticed an uptick in interest in its products following the release of the The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which released in April this year. Answering questions at a recent investor call, its president Shuntaro Furukawa said: “the movie inspires interest in Mario games and has a positive effect on sales of Nintendo Switch hardware and software over the medium-to long-term.”

Entertainment as a marketing opportunity

It’s not just toy companies that are looking to capitalise on the benefits of movie tie-ins. Earlier this year, people flocked to watch Air, which charted the rise of Nike’s Air Jordan brand, and before 2023 is over, cinemagoers will be able to watch the story behind the development of Kellogg’s best-selling breakfast pastry in Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story, as well as Eva Longoria’s retelling of the creation of the ‘Flamin’ Hot’ Cheetos flavour.

“It’s a proven model but it’s still evolving. People are now seeing entertainment as a marketing opportunity, rather than just another path to revenue,” John says. “This means we’re going to see more brands use this strategy to bring their characters and stories to life.”

The push for more brand-based movies is also coming from Hollywood studios. Although interesting corporate stories have been given the big-screen treatment before, from The Founder to Steve Jobs and The Social Network, there has been a glut of them this year, with Tetris, BlackBerry and Flamin’ Hot all released in 2023.

Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice Pro, comments: “Nostalgia and brand familiarity have been major selling points throughout media and entertainment for some time. That represents a perfect crossroad when it comes to the business of Hollywood, where studios are typically risk averse. Any property with built-in awareness will be of automatic interest to them.”

Films based on existing IP carry another perk for Hollywood studios, which are increasingly having to work on tight budgets. “The brands are often willing to push the film and market the shit out of it, as we’ve seen with Barbie and Mattel,” Scaman says. “This makes it a lower risk option with a potentially much higher reward.”

Can any IP be turned into a film?

With a projected $110m US opening, it’s likely that many brands will be looking to dust off their dormant IP in the hope of replicating the success of Barbie. But this does not make it a suitable marketing opportunity for every business. “Any IP can be turned into a film, but not any IP can be turned into a good film,” John notes. 

So, what should companies consider in order to make the strategy a success. John advises business leaders to ask whether their brand is truly beloved, whether it has a following and whether there is a pre-existing story arch. “That doesn’t mean you can’t weave a story around a product that’s beloved,” she adds. “I think Lego did a great job of that.”

Any IP can be turned into a film, but not any IP can be turned into a good film

She also advises companies to keep in mind their intentions: does creating a critically acclaimed film actually matter or is it more important to improve awareness and unit sales of any associated products? “I believe in it as a strategy because storytelling and intellectual property have tremendous value. It should be seen as another facet of any brand that has a high emotional connection with its customers.” 

For Robbins, the lessons are the same for an IP-based film as with any other. “Treat the audience with respect. Moviegoers will not rush out to continuously support something just because of the brand… There has to be a human connection with the characters and the story, or any initial box office success might be short-lived,” he adds. “It’s a tightrope walk.”

Although Mattel appears to have struck gold by reimagining its Barbie brand for a millennial audience, not all CEOs should see the movie tie-in as the route to their own Malibu Dreamhouse. “You’ve only got one chance to do this,” Scaman says. “If it doesn’t go well, it can be a disaster.”