How “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” marketed their way into the customer loyalty dreamhouse  

Aug 8, 2023

Get your popcorn ready. The summer’s most anticipated films, Barbie the Movie and Oppenheimer are officially here – and in the words of The Hollywood Reporter, the “box office just went nuclear”.

Hitting the silver screens on the same release day, the most interesting phenomenon to emerge from these highly anticipated movies is the latest craze on the internet dubbed “Barbenheimer”: where movie-goers head to the theatre to watch both films on the same day for a 5-hour movie marathon. With clients in the entertainment industry and a watchful eye on consumer trends, Kobie experts are weighing in on how loyalty is playing a role.

Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is colorful and light-hearted, a stark contrast to Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, a grey-toned film set in the WWII era. The movies’ differences are undeniable, but it’s those differences that have united movie enthusiasts as “Barbenheimers”, creating a sense of community among movie-goers and igniting a significant amount of buzz and engagement.

Stronger together, the polar-opposite films have collectively delivered the fourth biggest opening weekend in box office history, trailing only massive franchise sequels like Avengers and Star Wars. The CEO of AMC Theatres, the world’s largest cinema chain – and  Kobie client – commented in their latest press release:

“The monumental success of BARBIE and OPPENHEIMER has the entire movie and movie theatre industry abuzz, with discussions of new records and new benchmarks being realized seemingly wherever you turn… At AMC, we are thrilled to add our own new all-time records into that conversation. Achieving the most admissions revenue in a single week in AMC’s storied 103-year history is a testament to the moviegoing audience, who has demonstrated once again that they are ready, willing, and eager to come out to movie theatres in huge numbers.”

But movie-goers aren’t just showing up at the theaters to watch the movies, they’re arriving ready to immerse themselves in a movie-going experience. They do so by dressing up in elaborate outfits, which range from pink ensembles and 1940s-inspired attire to our personal favorite, custom “Barbenheimer” t-shirts. These outfit choices serve as a visible declaration of their enthusiasm and unwavering loyalty, raising a crucial question that every marketer should be asking themselves: “What is driving such a strong emotional connection between consumers and these two movies?”

In this interview with Kobie’s Strategic Consultants, Adeline Heymann, and Dr. JR Slubowski, we ask just that. Unveiling the secrets behind the curtain, they provide insights and lessons to be learned in loyalty from what we’re dubbing the “Barbenheimer” effect.

Now, let’s dive into the Q&A, or as one might say, “Come on, Barbie, let’s go party!”

  1. What is driving such a strong emotional connection between consumers and these two movies?

Adeline: Barbie taps into an element of nostalgia while maintaining brand identification – a powerful concept that goes beyond transactional loyalty. In line with the social identity theory, which proposes that our self-concept forms through social interactions with various groups, identification measures the extent to which an individual connects with a product, brand, company, or experience, viewing it as a part of their own identity.

Expanding on the emotional connections, JR adds to Adeline’s points by emphasizing the significance of nostalgia and contrasting elements between the two movies.

JR: To Adeline’s point, I think that nostalgia plays a huge part here… both are films that harken back to our pasts. I’d also add that “Barbenheimer” is all about the contrast and where they diverge. On the surface, Barbie is supposed to be light, fun, nonsensical at times, and easy to digest. Oppenheimer is anything but those things – it’s about the atomic bomb for crying out loud! Just like we love a great rivalry in sports, consumers are seeing these two films diametrically opposed to one another – a rivalry. Showing up in their outfits is tantamount to them declaring their loyalty to one or the other but recognizing that seeing both is them allowing the rivalry to play out.

What’s really interesting though too is that from a values-driven perspective, Barbie has a lot to say about issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. For once in a film, we’re seeing a male lead character (Ken) as the objectified afterthought. Those values can ALSO drive identification, which at its core is all about the overlap between your perceptions of self and the perceptions of a product, brand, company, or experience.

  1. How do you think identity-based connections relate to the outpouring of brand devotion for both Barbie and Oppenheimer individually, and as a collective “Barbenheimer”?

JR: I’d bet that those who are participating in the Barbenheimer trend are those whose affinity aligns with the film industry as a whole more so than either film. Identities are rarely one-and-done. We all have multiple identities that we’ve formed over time. For those in both camps, the identity of “cinephile” supersedes any identity that might be attached to either film property as there’s always a hierarchy. For someone with that identity, “Barbenheimer” created a rallying cry that had film lovers flocking to the theatre.

Shifting from exploring the role of identity-based connections, the focus now turns to Adeline’s insights about how Barbie’s marketing efforts appeal to various motivations.

  1. Barbie and its marketing efforts were able to create intrinsic motivations for self-enhancement and extrinsic motivations within a community. With Kobie’s Emotional Loyalty Scoring tool (ELS), we can score customer motivations including Habit, Status, and Reciprocity. How does Barbie deliver on all three of these motivations through storytelling and partnerships?


Status: I feel more valued than other customers.

  • As a brand, Barbie has maintained a strong and lasting brand perception in the marketplace. Her dolls have embodied aspirational and status-based roles like astronauts and doctors to represent potential.
  • For the launch, Partnerships with Beis provided high-end luggage in signature pink color, while jewelry products with Alex and Ani enabled a physical representation of Barbie status.

Habit: I find comfort and convenience in things that are familiar.

  • As a brand, Barbie became a household name. During launch, the Barbie team sought partnerships associated with high-frequency purchasing like Burger King, Target, and ColdStone.

Reciprocity: It’s about the relationship. I care about your brand and expect you to care about me.

  • Shared values around inclusion and representation-built reciprocity with audiences.
  • Barbie’s launch included participating in pride events and parades, including in New York and Los Angeles, building an emotional connection with audiences outside of the theater, and connecting with the community.
  • Barbie’s director, Greta Gerwig, has been celebrated for her clean vision and storytelling approach, with Margot Robbie producing and also being featured in the movie.

Continuing the discussion on motivations, JR provides his perspective on understanding customers’ behaviors and preferences in relation to changing sentiments.

  1. Staying in tune with the times, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie the Movie challenges traditional gender roles and stereotypes, while still celebrating the essence of Barbie as a cultural icon and brand. What advice do you have for brands who are trying to keep up with changing consumer sentiments and preferences?

JR: It starts with understanding your customer on several levels. Loyalty marketers are usually really good at understanding transactions. And that’s a great place to start but shouldn’t be the place you stop. To fully understand and get a more complete view of your customer you should also work to understand the non-transactional behaviors they are also exhibiting and the why behind them. The why is the trickiest part. In the example above, working to understand where your customer base sits when it comes to gender roles and stereotypes would give you some inclination regarding how that population is about to receive your film. When we know the what and the why – with the why being the nexus of emotional connection – then we can use that information to position brands, products, services, and companies in ways that will increase engagement.

With a large part of Barbie’s marketing success due to an amplified market presence, the Q&A shifts to take a cue from Barbie’s partnership playbook.

  1. How can a brand amplify its market presence through partnerships?

 Adeline: Growing and evolving brand equity can take many forms; Barbie was successful in anchoring its brand in the signature pink color and amplifying the market launch with over one hundred partner bright pink branding partnership deals. The “Barbie-core” aesthetic easily translated into product collaborations. These partnerships ranged from shoes, clothing, and rollerblades home-worthy products for pools and dogs, digital Xbox gear, and food partnerships like ice cream. Partnerships were a market accelerator and expanded a one-time movie event into a broader consumer journey and experience.

Barbie also excelled in delivering immersive real-world experiences that generated buzz and grew brand love. From an Airbnb in Malibu to cruises in Boston, to hotels and pop-ups featuring Barbie-inspired experiences, these experiences tapped into a sense of belonging for customers.

JR: Barbie has plenty of applications in the partnership space – Oppenheimer not so much. Still, Universal could look at ways to tap into some aspects of nostalgia here to try to drive deeper engagement and partnerships where possible. Potentially though, given the genius behind “Barbenheimer”, this may not be necessary, as Oppenheimer is already riding on the pink coattails of Barbie from a ticket sales angle.

Continuing the discussion on partnership strategies, JR offers his insights on potential approaches for brands looking to form successful partnerships.

  1. How do such initiatives contribute to customer loyalty and drive excitement around the brand? What strategic advice do you have for brands that might be looking for partners?

JR: When a brand partners with another brand, first and foremost, the partnership needs to make sense. Typically, there’s a mutual target customer that one or both brands are bringing to the table. But it doesn’t stop there. Kobie’s partnership assessment is a great approach to determining a partner strategy and roadmap. Brands need to be strategic about what they can do with their partnerships. The brand’s values need to align. When partnerships go well, they actually can give new outlets for your most engaged members to broaden how they experience your brand.

Exploring the wider impact of these movies beyond the big screen, the discussion shifts to highlight how AMC Theatres’ strategic initiatives fostered customer loyalty through an array of merchandise and immersive experiences.

  1. The success of Barbie and Oppenheimer is not limited to the films themselves but extends to various merchandise and experiences. AMC Theatres currently has multiple experiences and promotions running to celebrate the release of Barbie and Oppenheimer like Barbie-themed drink floats and Barbie Corvette popcorn vessels + dolls. They also have offers exclusive to AMC Stubs members like Barbie Blowout Early Access Screenings, Barbie is Everything Sweepstakes, and an Oppenheimer Gift of 500 bonus points for those who purchased tickets within a certain date. Why are experiences and promotions like these important in fostering customer loyalty?

JR: In entertainment, to drive longer-lasting loyalty, it’s all about broadening and deepening the consumption experience. By creating opportunities that did just that, both films can create an effect that will achieve a presence of thought long past the actual viewing of either film. Experiences like this also do two other things: 1) they can actually foster a sense of community that drives a deeper and more emotional connection to the brands. Gathering at theaters to share these distinctive experiences showcases physical community manifestations. However, even engaging to any extent fosters a sense of community that, merely through the perception of group existence, will build loyalty on an emotional level. 2) It makes memories. Whenever we have a fantastic experience, particularly in dining, travel, or entertainment, we work to protect that memory which amplifies the frequency of thoughts I talked about earlier. The more time we spend “protecting” that memory, the more real estate it occupies in our brains. By creating novel, fun experiences around the moviegoing experience relative to these films, theatres have set themselves up to occupy the headspace of their members for a while.

Building on the conversation around experiences, JR delves into strategies for effectively launching loyalty programs, drawing valuable insights from the movie launches we’ve discussed.

  1. For movies, building the hype leading into opening weekend matters, similar to launching a loyalty program. Chances are, before the theatrical release of Barbie and Oppenheimer, you came across a number of advertisements for the two films whether you logged into your social media accounts, watched the news, or simply stepped out of your house. With ads plastered throughout every channel in an explosion of pink (or just literal explosions), these ads were (and still are) hard to miss. Drawing lessons from the launch of these movies, how can brands apply similar strategies to ensure a successful launch of their loyalty program?

JR: Successful loyalty program launches should be experiential, so finding ways to build some of the same kinds of elements into a program launch will help to set it up for success. Now, depending on the industry, it’s not always possible to go full out with events like Barbie and Oppenheimer were able to do. But look for ways to build buzz and anticipation of what’s to come and then make sure to deliver on it in the end. This doesn’t just apply to new program launches, but to any improvements you make to an existing program that is substantial enough to warrant messaging around them.

To conclude the Q&A, we asked JR about the hottest debate as of late:

  1. Which movie are you going to see in theatres first, Barbie or Oppenheimer?

JR: Probably Barbie. I generally shy away from the “humans on the brink of destruction” films. Plus, I can certainly appreciate the inclusivity angle the film takes. So, it will be Barbie